Domestic Affairs

Rules for Thee

In September of 2020, only 20% of Americans said they trust the federal government to do the right thing most or all of the time. Prompted by distrust of the government, many Americans have protested mandated shutdowns, restrictions, and mask-wearing over the past few months. Mixed messages from different political leaders during the pandemic have confused Americans and at times created unnecessary chaos. In fact, one of the most divisive parts of the pandemic restrictions has been the hypocrisy from government leaders who have enforced some of the strictest COVID-19 orders in the country. Politicians have advocated for restrictions, yet many of these public officials have ignored their own protocols. While Americans have suffered economic hardship and small business owners have fought to reopen their shops, politicians continued to receive their salaries. This hypocrisy reveals how modern politicians view their authority over their constituents: Rules for thee, but not for me.

Residents of California have experienced some of the most severe COVID-19 regulations in the country, including the closing of indoor dining in 41 out of 58 counties as of mid-November. Especially in California, one of the most hard-hit industries during the pandemic has been beauty salons, which rely on close in-person contact for services. After six months of closures, many California salon owners and hairdressers protested the restrictions and opened their salons despite the mandates in the Open Salons Now protest. Soon after, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited a California hair salon without a mask, leading to understandable criticism from small business owners. Such an interaction was rather hypocritical of the Speaker, who for months has advocated for a federal mask mandate

Another California public official, Governor Gavin Newsom, was also caught ignoring his own COVID-19 protocols while attending a birthday party on November 6th. Despite the California Department of Public Health prohibiting gatherings of more than three households for Thanksgiving, the governor enjoyed his celebration with several households in attendance. The attendees did not consider the safety of their gathering, at least based on Newsom’s protocols. Many in attendance, including the governor, were not wearing masks or social distancing at the indoor event. Even members of the California Medical Association were in attendance at the party. 

Gov. Newsom isn’t the only governor to have been caught violating his own recommendations during the pandemic. In October, Governor Cuomo of New York did not wear a mask when greeting the Mayor of Savannah, Georgia with a hug and failed to quarantine following his trip. Now, nine months into the pandemic, both California and New York are reinstating shutdowns yet again, expecting their constituents to blindly stay home while the governors enjoy their crowded parties and unrestricted travel. 

Other lawmakers have expressed a similar disregard for COVID-19 restrictions. Twenty California, Texas, and Washington state lawmakers and lobbyists recently visited Maui, Hawaii, a vacation hotspot. Ironically, their trip was to discuss reopening the economy. Hiding behind the false sense of security of a three-day-old negative COVID-19 test, the group claimed the meeting was not a risk. However, when it comes to a health crisis, public opinion matters. 

Even local officials have ignored their own public health guidelines. Here in Austin, Mayor Steve Adler drew national criticism for his recent hypocrisy. Despite Austin’s Stage 3 warning at the time, the mayor hosted his daughter’s wedding with twenty attendees (ten more than his guidelines recommended). He then traveled on a private jet to Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, and while on vacation, he recorded a video encouraging Austin residents to stay home and follow the guidelines to “drive the numbers down in advance of Thanksgiving.” Austinites were warned they should stay home or else Adler will “close things down” again and further destroy Austin’s already suffering small businesses. Staying home, slowing the spread, and missing milestone events are inconvenient burdens for common folk. Hosting a wedding and traveling to Cabo on a private jet during a global pandemic is for the political elite, like Mayor Adler. 

When leaders fail to follow their own protocols, it’s a message to their constituencies that the rules don’t matter to them. How can Americans take lawmakers seriously when they go to Maui or Cabo during a global health crisis? Lawmakers advise that you cancel your Thanksgiving plans but dare to visit the white sand beaches of Hawaii without a second thought. This elitist behavior ought to rub every American the wrong way. 

However, the blame for the politicization of the pandemic falls on Republicans too, as wearing a mask to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 quickly became a political controversy in the early days of the pandemic. While the question of whether citizens should be required to wear masks is more of a political question, the efficacy of masks in preventing the spread of COVID-19 is a scientific question. The political question is debatable, but the scientific question is not (masks reduce transmission) unless more evidence surfaces disproving the efficacy of masks. Many Republicans have expressed distrust in the leading health experts’ opinions on whether masks can help prevent the spread of COVID-19 without looking at the data themselves. 

President Trump is not immune to criticism for his hypocritical behavior. The president has sent mixed messages to the public about COVID-19 throughout the pandemic. Whether the government should require citizens to wear masks is a separate question from whether masks work. The Trump Administration was inconsistent about the latter, toggling between supporting and denouncing wearing a mask. Messaging from the White House about whether or not masks are effective in slowing the spread of COVID-19 should be based on science and not used as a political tool. The mixed messages confuse Americans and leave some distrust in whether what the President says is true. Government officials should be held to the same standards as the public, and this includes abiding by health recommendations. The confusion on mask-wearing was understandable in March, but at this point, President Trump should have supported the evidence of the efficacy of masks. The politicization of wearing masks continues to divide Republicans and Democrats when in reality, the animosity should be between Americans and politicians who fail to follow their own protocols.

COVID-related hypocrisy isn’t a partisan issue. It’s a comment on the reason that Americans don’t trust politicians, especially from the opposing political party. Rumors about dangers from a COVID-19 vaccine developed under the Trump administration have left some, including Kamala Harris, skeptical of the vaccine’s safety. Harris even said, “If Donald Trump tells us to take it, I’m not taking it.” While there is a good reason for some hesitation to receive a vaccine that was developed so quickly, the rhetoric of questioning the safety due to the Republican administration is harmful. The average vaccine takes 10 years to get approved, so the rapid production and approval of several vaccines is unprecedented. However, the approval process is independent of the political administration. The COVID-19 vaccine is not designed by the federal government. It is designed by private companies, such as Moderna and Pfizer. Just as the president should not be politicizing masks by speaking falsely and inconsistently about their efficacy, Kamala Harris should not be politicizing the vaccine. Mask efficacy and vaccine efficacy are to be determined by facts and science, not by politicians.

In a political climate where it might seem there is little to unify Republicans and Democrats, the division between Americans and the elite political class is an issue behind which both parties can unite. The actions of politicians that contradict guidelines might seem like a few excusable slip-ups, but during a public health crisis, public officials are leaders. Taxpayers pay these officials to lead by example, and both Republicans and Democrats are guilty of hypocrisy that builds distrust. This doubt festered, contributing to the great disbelief of the 2016 and 2020 election results.

The extremely obvious hypocrisy during COVID-19 has been a testimony to the corruption and untrustworthiness of politicians that have subtly infiltrated and tainted our political system. This distrust is something that many Americans have experienced in its most undemocratic form in both 2016 and 2020. Both elections have focused on skepticism and consequently seeking to invalidate the election results. The Clinton campaign claimed foreign interference in 2016, and now the Trump campaign claims domestic fraud in 2020. However, both investigations reflect a deeper issue of Americans’ bipartisan distrust in the election process itself when the election does not go their way. 

While both elections are worthy of validation, as Americans deserve to be confident in the fairness of every election, the claims of interference are really indicative of a distrust of the political elite class with the power and foreign and domestic connections to “rig” an election. It’s most likely not your neighbor who voted differently from you that is trying to interfere in the election. It’s the elitist politicians that feel they can walk over American voters because it is in their best political interest to pit Republicans and Democrats against each other. By framing elections as party versus party, partisan politicians increase voter turnout. Meanwhile, the elitist politicians manage to keep their power and continue to make rules that they don’t have to obey. If Republicans only trust Republican politicians and Democrats only trust Democratic politicians, Americans are too distracted by the party division to realize that the fundamental distrust should be in the political elite class as a whole.

The lack of trust and transparency between leading politicians and citizens is harmful and leads to fundamental distrust in our elections. Americans should expect all public leaders to pass legislation and protocols that the legislators themselves are willing to obey, justify, and defend. In divided times, instead of focusing on distrust between Democrats and Republicans, we ought to look at distrust as a constituent versus elite politician issue.

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