As this is being written, 1 in 500 Americans have died of COVID. Some states, especially my adopted state of Florida, are facing a health care crisis as hospital ICUs fill up with COVID patients. The fact that most of these unfortunate people are unvaccinated shows the sad fact that this was an easily avoidable crisis. Getting a safe and effective vaccination would have protected these people and following the health protocols, such as wearing a mask, would also have helped. While these people chose to remain unvaccinated, Republican politicians have been instrumental in enabling COVID to continue to plague America.
Opposing mask and vaccine mandates is the default position in the Republican party. This is exemplified by the governor of Florida, Ron DeSantis. Rather than simply not imposing statewide mask or vaccine mandates, he has actively used the coercive power of the state to prevent local governments and school boards from having their own mandates. To be fair, he has encouraged people to get vaccinated as he has. But he has started courting the anti-vax part of his base.
While DeSantis has spoked of “medical authoritarianism” and he and other Republicans speak about freedom, this seems to be a bad faith “argument.” After all, DeSantis and his fellows have been busing using the coercive power of the state to ban critical race theory from public schools and to impose various “trans bans.” The impositions are aimed at imaginary harms and impose on meaningful freedoms—such as freedom of expression. While I do agree that people do have the basic right of bodily autonomy, this right (like all rights) is limited by the principle of harm. The “freedom” to refuse a safe and effective vaccination during a pandemic is not a legitimate freedom and can be compared to the “freedom” to decline to have operating brakes on your car: you become a danger to yourself and others. DeSantis and the other Republicans do seem to recognize the harm of the pandemic, as noted above they have been encouraging people to get vaccinated. So why are they not supporting mandates or at least allowing local governments to impose them? The answer would seem to be politics.
Trump and his allies spent months presenting the pandemic as a hoax, downplaying it, and pushing snake-oil “cures.” They also either tapped into or caught the attention of the anti-vax folks. After Trump was soundly defeated in a legitimate election, there was a brief attempt by Republicans to give Trump credit for the vaccine. To be fair to the Republicans, it is likely that most of them wanted Americans to get vaccinated and to get the pandemic over with. Trump even attempted to convince his followers to get vaccinated. Their response was shocking: they booed Trump. This sent a clear message to Trump and his Republicans: a loud portion of the base had become anti-vax. Testing things out, they found that using the power of the state to prevent vaccine and mask mandates was also popular with the base—one can hear the cheers from their supporters when such announcements are made. If one listens closely, one can also hear the dry coughs of the ghosts of the future. As such, even if Republican politicians wanted to support the mandates or at least not oppose them, they cannot do so without a high political cost: such a rational and ethical act would open them to a primary attack from a challenger with even less ethics.
To be fair to the Republicans, many of them probably hoped they could cash in on being anti-mandate and appease their base while everyone else got vaccinated and brought the pandemic to an end. After all, for a moment it seemed like we were emerging from the pandemic—so the pandering probably did not seem dangerous at the time. But then the Delta strain arrived and COVID cases surged again. Rather than taking the morally correct action of fighting this surge, the Republicans doubled down and stuck with their base. Making this decision presumably involved a rational death calculation.
As noted in an earlier essay, the Republicans are gambling that their gains will outweigh their losses. On the plus side are the votes Republicans will gain and those they will keep. A voter who votes for a Republican because of this anti-mandate approach who would otherwise vote for the Democrat is a double plus: they get a vote and the Democrat loses one. Gaining or keeping a voter who would not otherwise vote for the Democrat is only a single plus. Each voter who dies who would have voted for the Democrat is also a plus for Republicans. As this is being written, black Americans have had the highest COVID-19 death rate. This is due to a variety of reasons, such as the fact that black Americans generally have less access to health care than white Americans. Black Americans tend to vote for Democrats, so the death of black voters is a plus for Republicans.
On the minus side are the votes Republicans will lose due to individual voters dying from COVID. COVID is hitting Trump territory hard; so, there might be enough deaths to impact elections in the future. Also on the minus side are votes lost because of a negative view of Republican COVID policies; these are voters who would have otherwise voted for a Republican but for these polices and their impact. For example, a voter who loses their husband to COVID and does not vote for a Republican because of this would be a lost vote. A Republican suffers a double loss if the voter who would have voted for them votes for the Democrat instead.
Republicans are, of course, not depending on their COVID stance to win upcoming elections for them, they are also busy gerrymandering, forcing recalls, and engaging in voter suppression. If the pandemic kills enough Republican voters, they will need to increase their efforts in these areas.