Everett McKinley Dirksen of Illinois was a towering figure on the American political stage in the 1950’s and 60’s, a man who said his overarching principle as Senate minority leader, a position he held for ten years prior to his death in 1969, was “flexibility.”
Dirksen, dubbed among other things “the wizard of Ooze” owing to his florid speaking style – he had hoped to be an actor as a young man, and had a voice that one admirer said reminded him of “honey dripping on metal tiles” – was a marvel at changing a position, something he did repeatedly.
Dirksen embraced the historic Civil Rights Act in 1964 after initially voicing doubts. He flat our rejected a nuclear test ban treaty with the Soviet Union when John Kennedy first proposed an agreement only to later lead the Senate effort to ratify what became the foundation of all subsequent efforts to limit nuclear weapons.
“Life is not a static thing,” the conservative Dirksen said in 1965. “I try to be a realist and appreciative of what you have to do in the world in light of changing conditions.”
One might think that the last year would have provided a level of realism and appreciation for “changing conditions,” and might have prompted some serious rethinking of old assumptions, particularly on the conservative right. But for a significant segment of the American population continuing to defy public health advice is now just one more political hill to die on, literally.
Ignoring the shocking pandemic numbers in her state, South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem, a favorite in Trump world and a would-be presidential contender, boasts that her’s “is the only state in America that never ordered a single business or church to close. We never instituted a shelter in place order. We never mandated that people wear masks.”
All true, but oh the cost.
South Dakota’s spread-out population numbers 885,000 souls, a total, as of earlier this week, diminished by 1,935 victims of COVID in the last year. As a point of comparison, consider Oregon’s population of 4.2 million and the state’s 2,390 virus deaths. Oregon has imposed strict lockdown procedures and mandated masks. And, surprise, the number of Oregon deaths, while tragic, is remarkably lower as a percent of total population than wide open South Dakota.
And there is vaccine hesitancy, or denial.
New polling from the NPR/PBS/Marist survey indicated that 49% of Republican men are, so far at least, refusing COVID-19 vaccines, a vastly higher percentage than any other demographic. Only 6% of men who identify as Democrats said they would forgo the shots.
“We’ve never seen an epidemic that was polarized politically before,” Robert J. Blendon, a health policy scholar at Harvard, told Los Angeles Times columnist Doyle McManus. Politics and partisanship explains a lot about tragedy.
There has been an unrelenting logic to pandemic since it came fully into our lives in March of last year. While there is much we still do not know about the disease there is no mystery to its exponential march. When public and personal efforts to control the spread are ignored in places like South Dakota – and it a large degree in Idaho and many other conservative states – the numbers of infections, hospitalizations and deaths roll from one wave to the next. The fourth wave is upon us.
More than 95 million Americans have had one dose of the vaccine and more than 50 million have been fully vaccinated but getting the last ten percent treated in order to make the country safe for everyone may prove a daunting, even impossible, challenge.
The former guy, tucked up in south Florida, kind of urged his followers to take the vaccine recently, but he didn’t have the moral courage – big surprise – to actually make a production out of getting his own shot. He makes a production of everything, but takes a pass when lives, even the lives of his supporters, are at stake.
In Iowa, another conservative state where politicians have declined to lead, while caving under a deluge of misinformation and conspiracy theorizing, a local GOP official who recovered from COVID said recently, “I’m not a rebel by any means. I know this stuff is real. I’ve lived it, but I also believe strongly in personal choice.” Still she said she would make no effort to communicate with fellow Republicans that the vaccine is a very good thing.
The conservative mantra of “personal choice” has become for many conservatives just another way to be irresponsible.
Now, brace yourselves for the coming fight on the right over “vaccine passports,” some method to allow those who have been vaccinated to show proof of that fact. Journalist Kevin Drum sensibly said the passport issue, which could make it easier to screen airline or cruise line passengers or deem a warehouse crew disease free, should be left to the private sector to figure out. That would, after all, be a conservative value, but oh no.
The U.S. House of Representative’s wackadoodle caucus immediately moved to add proof of vaccine to “cancel culture,” insurrection denial and the vast threat to the Republic from transgender girls playing basketball to the list of its defining issues of our time.
Georgia Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene (Republican – Lalaland), a politician as historically ignorant as she is conspiracy crazed, equated a private business requiring proof of vaccination to “corporate communism,” thereby proving she doesn’t comprehend either word.
It is clear we are headed into another very rough patch where the unrelenting logic of this horrible disease that has claimed 550,000 American lives will again prove to all that you can deny it, but you can’t avoid it. Cases are increasing again everywhere. The inevitable rise in hospitalizations will follow in a couple of weeks and then the death rates will increase. Again.
If the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over, while expecting different results, we’ve moved to an advanced stage. One suspects that the old pragmatic midwestern conservative Ev Dirksen would have been astounded.
“The only people who do not change their minds,” Dirksen said, “are incompetents in asylums, who can’t, and those in cemeteries.” Now, there’s a statement for our times.