If there is one certainty in our pandemic hell, it’s that politicians will continue to flout the draconian rules that they impose on the rest of us. Elitist disconnect, certainly, but the ultimate reason it happens is that we American serfs let our political betters get away with it.
This weekend, it was revealed that White House coronavirus task force member Dr. Deborah Birx had traveled out of state to a vacation home with family members from multiple households the day after Thanksgiving. That is, after she admonished Americans to only celebrate Thanksgiving with those in their immediate household and piously noted that she was “making the personal sacrifices not to infect my parents and my pregnant daughter.”
It is a familiar story in the never-ending, lather-rinse-repeat coronavirus news cycle: Public officials solemnly warn the public to wear masks, stay home and avoid family, only for stories to emerge of those same officials disregarding their own advice, to be followed by the most perfunctory of empty apologies.
There is a more troubling element at play in these stories than the high-handed arrogance and entitlement of our political class: that the American public not only accepts such actions but displays an almost servile fetish to be ruled. There is no sustained anger at politicians for each hypocritically broken coronavirus protocol. Nor are there serious demands for resignations. “Don’t tread on me” has simply evolved to “Thank you, sir, may I have another?”
While California Gov. Gavin Newsom slowly ground businesses in his state to dust with increasingly restrictive coronavirus protocols, photos revealed that the political scion was rubbing elbows with health lobbyists at a posh Napa restaurant. In Colorado, Denver Mayor Michael Hancock told residents to “stay home” and “avoid travel” for Thanksgiving, all while sitting in an airport to fly to Houston to celebrate the holiday with family in Mississippi.
Senior congressional leaders violating shutdown orders and masking rules to get haircuts. Mask-less birthday parties for dozens of the politically connected in New York. “Can we not have dinner?” sniff California lawmakers caught in multi-household gatherings. Each passing week shows how our political elite feel no compunction about ignoring the rules inflicted on the broader public.
And for good reason. Apart from a tiny blip on social media or a 15-second hit on the local news, there are no consequences for politicians breaking their own guidelines. So inured or indifferent are Americans that far from demanding accountability or resignations, they greet the hypocritical actions of politicians with a shrug.
It is part of a shift in our national character — toward treating politicians in America as quasi-regal rulers — that long predates the pandemic. While our Constitution proscribes titles of nobility, analogues have inevitably cropped up to flatter the egos of the political elite. Politicians are slavishly referred to by talking heads and others by their former titles long after departing from office.
One might expect a politician to keep a memento or two upon returning to private life, but there is something inappropriately regal about those taking their titles with them. Secretary Clinton, Governor Palin and so on. Often, it is well-intentioned, but nevertheless misplaced, bootlicking by toadies and hangers-on, but also common from those in news media. “Speaker” Gingrich has not held that position in nearly two decades; perhaps it is time for pundits to return the PhD-holding Gingrich to mere “Doctor.”
While patrician Republicans and DC lifers may turn up their noses at President Trump’s “unpresidential” bearing, he has, at least temporarily, pierced the foppish façade of treating the presidency with magisterial reverence and put an almost human face on the office. One consequence of this was a rabidly partisan press all too willing to grill the president over the slightest of trespass: the aura of the presidency nullified with Trump in office.
Most every other politician, however, will skate without a fraction of the pushback from media or the public. Rather than be hounded over his disastrous nursing home policies, Gov. Andrew Cuomo will simply yell at reporters and sit down for goofball CNN interviews with his brother in between accepting a baffling array of awards.
We can blame a supplicant media or the entitlement of an out-of-touch political class, but ultimately, the lion’s share of the blame rests with a public that does not demand more of elected officials or push for greater accountability when politicians refuse to practice what they preach.
Allan Richarz is a Tokyo-based writer.