Let Them Eat Culture Wars: Why Republicans Have Abandoned Governing for Nonsense | Opinion

On March 2, a day known locally as Texas Independence Day, Governor Greg Abbott announced the elimination of the mask mandate and any limits on business occupancy that had been in effect since last summer's COVID-19 surge took off. New cases had fallen from the dizzying winter heights, though they were at a still-high plateau, and the vaccine rollout was 47th in the nation, behind every neighboring state.

But Abbott had learned an important lesson about pandemic-era politics: You can always provide a culture-war victory amid policy failure. His party base hated the mask rule, so regardless of conditions, it was out. The pandemic was far from over, but the big-government nannying of the pandemic was.

It wasn't all about the culture war. Business restrictions pose hard tradeoffs, and keeping normal activities closed or limited imposes real costs; state and local governments have compelling reasons to err on the side of optimism when relaxing them.

But mask mandates are different. Wearing a cheap, simple mask over one's nose and mouth in public is the lowest-cost intervention available; in fact, the knowledge that mask-wearing was officially required may have made it easier for safety-conscious Americans to participate in ordinary tasks. It certainly has for me and many in the religious community I serve.

Moreover, state mandates partially relieve the burden on businesses and other organizations to make and enforce their own rules. Wherever mask rules are lifted, the culture war over masks will be fought at every business.

But regardless of the effect on the course of the pandemic or the lives of business owners and their workers, it was a move that made part of the electorate feel good.

And maybe that's the point: If you can't deliver good government, make sure you deliver good vibes.

Culture-war posturing is not new in American politics. Signaling identification with, and delivering symbolic victories for, some groups of voters rather than others is part of how electoral coalitions are built.

But now, culture war battles are going from the sideshow to the main event. And the pandemic offered opportunities for triumphs of culturally-coded style to overshadow costly failures.

It's not just on the right. Andrew Cuomo's authoritative-sounding and science-y press conferences thrilled his supporters and national audiences—while his administration was hiding nursing home deaths. The San Francisco Board of Education developed a comprehensive list of school names to be removed—before it had a plan for in-person education. Local governments closed outdoor parks, providing little or no safety benefit (and maybe making things worse, if people substituted less-safe indoor activity for the swings and monkey bars) while giving an appearance of an aggressive response to the virus.

But this preference for cultural posturing over real policymaking goes beyond the admittedly brutal problem of the virus and the complications it has forced on our lives. While Congress was supposed to be debating a massive fiscal stimulus package, House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy was reading Green Eggs and Ham to, it seems, make a point about the decision of Dr. Seuss Enterprises to pull some lesser-read titles from publication. It was a major topic on Fox News for days. This was happening as if the COVID-19 relief bill, which would have a major impact on the financial health of a large percentage of American households, simply wasn't happening. And there was not even a proposed remedy for the problem of Dr. Seuss's copyright holders not wishing to publish some of the books whose rights they hold. I'm a heavy consumer of political news and I have lost track of what it is even supposed to mean when Senator Ted Cruz, a member of a powerful legislative body, shares a meme that says "Come and Take It" over a charcoal grill.

Why have so many American politicians decided to say, in effect, "let them eat culture wars"?

Kevin McCarthy
GOP Minority Leader Rep. Kevin McCarthy reads the Dr. Seuss book "Green Eggs and Ham." Instagram

Perhaps our leaders are just highly responsive to media audiences that are affluent enough to be insulated from the worst policy failures over which they preside and ideologically activated enough to care about symbolic gestures. The grocery store greeters getting yelled at by irate customers and nursing home residents dying alone may not be well represented in these audiences.

But it's also possible that cultural grievances are more appealing because good governance has become too hard.

With a few outlying exceptions, every state ended up having both deadly outbreaks and major interruptions of daily life. No governor or mayor invested in the capacity to really stamp out the virus through mass testing and central quarantine for positive cases, allowing life to return to normal. Policy decisions that mattered only on the margins were easy to hype and argue over because the reality was so unforgiving: We were all going to go through a severe pandemic, no one in power was doing enough to stop it, and all that was left for citizens, organizations, and businesses to do was haggle over the implications of the failure.

And more mundane problems like climate change or restoring and improving infrastructure promise to be just as hard and unforgiving to manage as the virus has been.

Of course, real politics does still happen. President Biden signed a very ambitious package of fiscal measures that will have a big effect not just on vaccine distribution and unemployment insurance but on child poverty. And on the right, Senator Mitt Romney (R-Utah) proposed his own version of a universal child benefit that would permanently reduce child poverty while side-stepping a lot of the hot-button cultural debates that have stunted American family policy for decades.

And to be fair to my own governor, Greg Abbott was less wrong than premature. Things really will get better, soon, and we'll have to do the hard work of re-establishing relationships, habits, and institutions that have fallen into disuse over more than a year of public health adaptations that were placed almost entirely on the shoulders of citizens. There was never going to be an easy or conflict-free way to transition out of widespread mask rules.

But it could have happened later, when the angry patron and the harried front-line worker were both likely to be vaccinated and enjoying something like normality beyond those layers of fabric. The best thing about a successful public policy is that even people you don't like get to enjoy it, too.

Benjamin J. Dueholm is pastor of Christ Lutheran Church in Dallas, Texas and author of Sacred Signposts: Words, Water, and Other Acts of Resistance.

The views in this article are the writer's own.