I write a lot less about the day-to-day of politics than I used to, mostly because I can't keep up with it (while maintaining other responsibilities) anymore but also because it's so self-evident the way in which most of what happens is bad that I don't feel like I have a lot to add. At some point there's only so many times you can say "Well, this is stupid!" or "They sure did fuck that up!" before you feel like the local news weather reporter in San Diego saying "78 and sunny" every single day until death takes you.
The billion ways in which the response to the COVID pandemic have been cataloged ably by many others, and in fact you probably figured them all out on your own without a real need to have what is bad about "Let's just reopen everything, masks are for pussies" explained to you. I used to have the energy for that; I no longer do. I salute anyone out there who has managed to continue doing that all day, every day. What it must be doing to your psyche, I can only imagine.
To me, the COVID response in the US will play out for History Books as not only the best example of everything wrong with us, but as the perfect representation / culmination of our last forty years of politics. The best way to summarize the response of the people in charge of managing this public health crisis is: Look, just do whatever is best for you. Handle it however you want to handle it. Go out or don't go out. Wear a mask or don't wear a mask. Stay home or don't stay home. Take quack drug treatments or don't. There's nothing the government or anyone else can tell you to do, and if they tried it wouldn't work, and they'd probably tell you the wrong thing, so I mean really what can we say other than "You make the choice" because ultimately you know what's best for you.
We've been pushing that line of thinking – nobody can tell anyone what to do, only you know what's best for you – in a million different policy areas and as an answer to every social, political, and economic question for a long time now. It has been pushed so hard and so effectively that not only is it the default solution to every problem but we can conceive of no other. Make everyone stay home? The government can't even do that!
On the first day of class in introductory American Politics, and in the first few pages of nearly every textbook on the subject, there is a discussion of the very basic concept of collective action problems. Government exists because there are some goods neither we as individuals nor "The Free Market" can provide. We cannot provide security for ourselves because we have to sleep sometime, and therefore we organize into groups that make rules and laws. We cannot provide our own roads so we tax everybody and build them as a cooperative effort. Public health is a collective good, too – it has an individual component, of course, because beneath the statistics there are real people getting sick (or not). But this isn't choosing Coke vs Pepsi, public schools vs private schools. We can't have pandemic for some people and no pandemic for others, especially without a vaccine or effective treatment. With a vaccine, a specious but technically accurate argument could be made ("Hey, get the vaccine if you want! I'm not!") that the individual has some control over the outcome. But in this situation you don't. You don't control whether you get it or not. You can protect yourself and reduce the odds, but you can't eliminate the risk.
And here we are, taking a purely individualistic approach – the do as thou wilt rule – to a basic collective action problem. It is idiotic and nonsensical on the most basic level possible, and here we are. We tried some collective action for a couple weeks, people got bored and business owners got mad because they weren't able to force their employees back to work and their customers back to shopping, and then we just decided that the collective action problem no longer required collective action. Not that it went away – that it simply wasn't a thing we needed to plan and execute a collective response to anymore. We didn't solve the problem so much as we simply decided it is not a problem anymore, or that it is, but we are powerless to stop it, but I guess we aren't powerless, but ok I guess what we really mean is we just don't want to.
Read that run-on sentence again and tell me there is a better way to summarize what the idea of governing has become in this country; it's not merely that we can't solve the problems we face, but that we can conceive of the solutions and have decided that we simply can't or won't implement them.
This is how systems collapse, albeit slowly – when everyone can see what is wrong but nothing can be done because the solutions would violate the consensus imposed by The System. And the system and the consensus around it are worth more to decision-makers than any single problem it causes, and so nothing changes, until eventually the problems pile up high enough that the whole edifice collapses.
The pandemic is a signal that we are entering the terminal phase, although there's no telling how long it will last – the phase in which the solutions are there but we can't do them and nobody can quite understand or explain why. It's the lemmings jumping off the cliff asking "Hey why are we doing this?" and then just doing it because everyone else did, without bothering to demand or propose an answer. We are doing what we're doing because this is the way it has to be, silly.
That works as an epitaph for a lot of empires.