At the start of 2021, in the early weeks of the Pfizer and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines, no one in government was talking about vaccine mandates — because the only problem then was millions of folks clamoring to get the jab. Even when Fox News, anti-vax YouTubers and other high-def hucksters went to work and “vaccine refusal” became a thing, many pols’ first instinct was to avoid a messy mandate. There would surely be protests against governmental overreach. Some workers might quit, causing chaos in a fragile economy.
But by late September, with hospitalizations and deaths resurgent from the delta variant, President Joe Biden announced “our patience is wearing thin” with the millions of unvaccinated Americans. His administration mandated vaccines in the health-care field, the federal government, and elsewhere, and told large employers their workers needed to get a jab or get tested weekly. Sure enough, there was major pushback. In Massachusetts, the union head for state troopers said dozens of his people were poised to quit. In New York, officials readied the National Guard in case hospitals went understaffed.
This week, deadlines arrived — but the predicted nightmare scenarios did not. Reporters in Massachusetts learned that so far only one trooper has resigned rather than get the shot. New York State saw a surge of last-minute jabs that brought the vaccination rate of its hospital workers to 92%, and probably higher than that as thousands of others raced to get their first shot and save their job. At United Airlines, a companywide mandate brought its vaccination rate to 98.5% — causing some competitors to follow suit.
The Washington Post’s Aaron Blake noted that “the evidence also increasingly suggests that [a mandate] spurs that vast majority of the resistant ultimately to comply, hard feelings or not.” In other words, the tribal-unity politics and bluster of opposing Big Government and compulsory health measures — especially when they come from the hated opposition party — seem to melt away when the price is losing one’s livelihood.
The verdict is not fully in, but right now Biden’s rallying cry for vaccine mandates looks like the most successful moment of leadership in an 18-month-long crisis that has screamed out for decisive action. While the pace of new vaccinations picks up, officials reported this weekend the number of new U.S. COVID-19 cases is down 27% from two weeks ago.
The vaccine-mandate moment stands out in a United States that seems otherwise paralyzed by political gridlock and indecision. On Capitol Hill, the fate of Biden’s $450 billion-a-year economic agenda that’s the last best hope for the American middle class sits currently in limbo. At the Supreme Count, justices are set to hear arguments aimed at undoing 50 years of reproductive rights for women, as tens of thousands took to the streets in protest. In statehouses across the country, legislation that could suppress voting or even just toss out the results on the whim of partisan officials or lawmakers is advancing at an alarming rate.
It’s easy to look at the success of vaccine mandates as a respite from all the other bad news. I’d argue what’s just happened should instead offer our political leaders a valuable lesson on the path forward. Forced by an emergency of rising death rates and jammed ICU units, the vaccine mandates involved a tough and politically wrenching decision, but — as courts have repeatedly found — they were a legal exercise of governmental (or corporate) authority. The action involved tolerating protests from an angry minority to implement a policy that not only would save lives but is favored by a solid majority of the American people.
It’s time for the Democrats who currently have legitimate control of federal policy making — through Biden and the narrowest of majorities in the House and Senate — to begin showing that same level of courage and decisiveness around the other virus that is running rampant through our political system. That’s the threat to democracy posed by the new authoritarian streak in the Donald Trump-led Republican Party.
Most or all of the Democrats on Capitol Hill support an array of legislation that would reign in the worst voting rights abuses that are currently burning through America’s state capitols. The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act would not only restore but strengthen the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which was gutted by our current right-wing Supreme Court. The For the People Act — which has also passed the House but remains filibustered in the Senate — tackles an array of good-government scandals and would boost voting rights. More recently and perhaps most importantly, there is a push to dramatically reform and update the Electoral Count Act of 1887, to limit the kind of shenanigans by Congress or state lawmakers that nearly led to a coup on Jan. 6.
These bills are gridlocked because of a) modern abuse of the filibuster, which now essentially requires 60 of the 100 votes for any major non-budgetary legislation and b) the shut-it-all-down philosophy of today’s GOP, which was never anticipated by the Founders. Unless Democrats act swiftly to end the filibuster, they will helplessly watch the virus of right-wing authoritarianism overtake the lungs of American democracy — another needless, avoidable death.
Like the vaccine mandates, ending the filibuster is a perfectly legal and legitimate use of authority by Congress. (There’s no evidence the Founders wanted this anti-majority-rule practice, which developed over two centuries largely as a tool to preserve white supremacy.) Like the vaccine mandates, ending the filibuster — either generally or specifically to pass voting rights legislation — will surely generate howls of protest on Fox News or from your local Proud Boys, yet taking bold action to expand voting rights would be strongly supported by a majority of voters. Like the vaccine mandate, it’s a tough-love method — the only way — to get a do-or-die result, saving democracy.
Indeed, this governing philosophy — courage instead of fear, embracing messy but legal ways to get necessary results — could be applied to other crises facing the American Experiment, such as the growing illegitimacy of the Supreme Court. That mess accelerated in 2016 when Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell plowed right through the guardrails of democratic norms to deny even a hearing for Barack Obama’s nominee and steal a seat for the GOP. Now, the Trump court — somehow packed with conservatives even after Democrats won the popular vote in seven of the last eight presidential elections — seems willing to use dubious methods and logic to end abortion rights that, again, are backed by a popular majority.
Like vaccine mandates, it’s both a legal and legitimate use of congressional power to expand the Supreme Court, to reverse the anti-democratic practices that created this legitimacy crisis. (The Constitution doesn’t mandate the size of the high court, which through congressional action has slid from as few as six to as many as 10 justices.) Like vaccine mandates, Democrats would have to weigh their apparent fear over angry rants by Tucker Carlson over the courageousness of defending the rights of millions of women.
The Founders never called for the filibuster, or a fixed-size SCOTUS, or for surrendering the public’s health to anti-vax paranoia. What they wanted was — within a framework of checks and balances — a nation where majority rule would trump tyranny. With vaccine mandates, we’re starting to see how decisive leadership can become contagious, with others like California Gov. Gavin Newsom — now the first governor to mandate vaccines for all eligible K-12 students — following Biden’s example. Now let’s see the contagion of boldness leap to America’s other intractable problems, so we can crush the other pandemic of failing democracy.
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