As regular readers of this site know, I’ve diverted from our normal political and historical content of late to focus most of my time on #COVID19. For many of us, our perspectives have changed during this pandemic. The absence of American global leadership, and the unwillingness of many of our elected and appointed leaders to be pragmatic, has doomed our efforts to beat back this virus. While every other major industrialized nation can see the light at the end of the Coronavirus pandemic tunnel, the US and Florida specifically are heading in the opposite direction like a runaway train.
This week, Florida’s official death toll passed that of the 1918 Influenza pandemic in the state. Of course Florida was a lot smaller place then, but we have unfortunately, a long way to go in this crisis. For much of the last two weeks, the positive text percent has exceeded 15% statewide, an unacceptable number. While the excuse of testing more has been given, the reality is among tests administered the percentage of positive tests are FAR higher than they were in early June when the first ominous signs of a record uptick statewide appeared.
Since the start of the pandemic, I have often thought about President George W. Bush and his leadership in fighting the AIDS pandemic in Africa. For Bush, little to no political upside existed in leading the international efforts, but it was something American Presidents did, and what made this country so revered around the globe. But now we’ve retrenched from global leadership and cannot even get our house in proper working order – instead of being the envy of the world, we’re embarrassing ourselves.
Unfortunately, as many people’s fears about the virus grew, denial about its potency became a political weapon on the right. On the left, playing on those fears has become common as well. In my opinion, equating the two is a false equivalency but that also does not mean Democrats should be exempt from blame for politicizing things. Even if the ratio is 80/20 in favor of MAGA-types being more irresponsible, the tone of many people’s voices and timing of their commentary isn’t helpful to solving what is a national crises unlike any other we’ve faced in our lives.
Both pragmatism and non-partisanship is in short order these days. I’ve always called myself a liberal or progressive, but in the last two years, I’ve been told I am too pragmatic or too willing to give conservatives the benefit of the doubt to be on the left. While that sort of attitude was annoying in the past, the Coronavirus pandemic has made me realize it is flat out dangerous. Our unwillingness to listen to one another has had deadly consequences. Self-sacrifice is in short order and the idea that wearing a mask could somehow become an ideological or partisan issue is the type of thing that typically happens in developing countries or tin-pot dictatorships, not the United States of America.
We’ve previously discussed the cognitive dissonance that MAGA-backers show (again for posterity, I do not consider President Trump a conservative by any traditional definition, and will not use that label to describe him or his supporters) and that they tend to follow his example on just about everything of importance – making the politics of personality as strong as it has ever been in this country.
Governor DeSantis’ incoherent approach
Governor Ron DeSantis, I was convinced until this week has wanted to do the right thing, but kept getting push back internally from MAGA Republicans. DeSantis’ mistakes seemed to me, more related to the drift of his party than personal conviction. Much like his fellow Florida GOPers, Lenny Curry and Carlos Gimenez, early Coronavirus awareness (or vigilance in Curry’s case) gave way by mid-May to a certain degree of public recklessness as rebooting our economy became paramount.
However, this week it became clear to me, the Governor has rejected his own initial data-driven approach and has put the state’s long term public AND economic health in serious jeopardy, potentially leaving us with YEARS of damage. He has now crossed into MAGA territory, using qualifying words and bizarrely inconsistent justifications to minimize the importance of the very types of data he once took far more seriously. DeSantis has become no different than the people I complained about four weeks ago on these pages – those whose cognitive dissonance leads them to constantly move the goalposts when discussing COVID-19.
The Democrats while better than the GOP have also played politics
Meanwhile, Florida’s Democrats are all over the place. Some reengaged in the COVID discussion in recent weeks once it appeared politically advantageous. Many of those who have power at the local levels have been more reactive than proactive, and some even privately reached out to me in early June telling me my desire to constantly discuss Coronavirus was going to lead to people blaming Black Lives Matters protesters for the spread. So yes, the Democrats while less myopic than MAGA-types have been politicking a little too much considering we are in the middle of a Pandemic.
All too many MAGA activists after early May chose to view COVID-19 either as a media hoax or something that was akin to the common cold. Wearing a mask was an invasion of “personal liberty,” and a fascist measure. For many on the left, Black Lives Matter and the need to protest took precedence. I was told privately by more than one prominent activist on the left, that my raising COVID-19 alarms would lead to protesters being blamed. The politics demanded I stop the “hysteria,” during the first two weeks of June. Eventually all these narratives ceased because we were overcome once again by Coronavirus in Florida.
Too often some local Democrats have made combating COVID an issue only when it suits them. Too many Florida Democrats spent February engaged in the party primaries and chasing impeachment, while Coronavirus was rapidly spreading from China to Iran, to Italy, to the United Kingdom and therefore inevitably to the eastern United States (keep in mind that some service and professional elements of the local economy in South Florida are linked heavily to Northern Italy which by February 20th was the emerging global epicenter of the Coronavirus Pandemic). Once COVID-19 began to rage it became very easy for some Democrats to start taking shots at Governor DeSantis and President Trump.
But the attacks by Democrats at many times have seemed all too political and opportunist. As Florida’s cases began to surge in early June, many Florida Democrats were absent in discussing the situation and some with power were even pushing their localities to expedite re-openings.
Schools reopening – let’s have a mature discussion please
Against this backdrop, last week the biggest shoe to drop came down. Florida schools would reopen in the Fall. Quickly, this became a politically partisan issue and Governor DeSantis somehow felt he could compare public schools where children and staff spend 5-7 hours a day, to Home Depot or Walmart. For someone so bright, this was arguably his dimmest moment – a sign that DeSantis had been overcome by events and had lost his ability properly reason and guide Floridians through this crisis without buffoonery.
Schools reopening for the new academic year can be done safely in some areas and in other parts of the state will almost undoubtedly lead to even further community spreads of a deadly virus. The President and his Administration have shown time and again the last several weeks that Coronavirus is now an issue to minimize or ignore, and are now using schools as way of forcing some sense of “normalcy” on a panicky public.
Unfortunately, this week more politicization followed the schools announcement. While no doubt Trump & DeSantis are wrong on this inherently making any opposition morally correct, the Democrats all too often seem incapable of ever discussing education without echoing teacher’s unions talking points or simply deferring to that union to represent their point of view. This was no different. Thankfully we have education professionals and school administrators out there to provide nuance and practicality.
Erin Gaetz, who is the daughter of former Senate President & Okaloosa Schools Superintendent Don Gaetz had the most nuanced and thoughtful suggestions I’ve seen on this topic from someone in our state. These are the sorts of discussions we need to be having, not the hysterical, YES WE MUST OPEN, NO WE CANNOT OPEN, conversations of this past week. I really like this thinking even if we can quibble about one or two of the points (by the way she’s one of the best Twitter follows in the state).
On Gaetz’s suggestions, not only do I like the discussion points, but I like her tone. Our conversations whether on Zoom or behind a keyboard on social media need to be calmer and more civil. We’re in BIG trouble right now and drowning out voices or information you don’t agree with for political reasons or out of fear is not responsible.
Leadership styles need to change
My point in all this is that we need calmer, more thoughtful voices. The majority of Republican elected officials have gone off the deep end during this crisis, but many Democrats have not shown the ability to lead, either being reactive or simply taking the opposite point-of-view of Republicans. We need thoughtful solutions that are pragmatic, flexible and involves one side talking to the other like noted above.
This is a pandemic, not some sort of political football. But all too often people who live in a political bubble (I know this because I was once just bad as anyone with this) too often make critical decisions based on polling, electoral calculations or political retribution.
Leadership isn’t about winning over one constituency or another or pleasing one special interest or another. It is about bringing people together in a crisis, being flexible and pragmatic while keeping some degree of guiding principles. What COVID-19 has exposed is that too many of elected and appointed leaders have fallen short of the mark in being true leaders.