Me First or Us First

The Great Covid Mask Debate of 2020 revives a tension that runs through our nation’s history. It’s the tension between two values: individual freedom versus community responsibility.

From the Roanoke Island voyages to the latest space mission, we’ve celebrated explorers, adventurers, pioneers, cowboys, mavericks, inventors, innovators and entrepreneurs. 

But periodically, especially in times of crisis, we put the greater community’s good ahead of the individual’s wants. Even then, some people insist that their rights and freedoms outweigh all else. Like people today who won’t wear a mask even if it saves lives.

The tension plays out in an ongoing debate about the role of government in our lives, which is a deep undercurrent in this election. There are signs that our attitudes have changed dramatically since we’ve been hit with the greatest one-two punch since the Great Depression and World War II – a killer pandemic and an economic collapse.

Fox News does a poll asking voters which message they want to send the federal government: “leave me alone” or “lend me a hand.” Last October, 50% said “leave me alone” and 44%, “lend me a hand.” 

Opinions have now reversed. In Fox’s August 9-12 poll, 57% said “lend me a hand” and 36%, “leave me alone.”

That’s a 37-point swing. 

The 2020 election will be not only a referendum on President Trump, but also a decision on whether we continue a 40-year experiment with Ronald Reagan’s theory that government is the problem, not the solution.

For nearly 50 years before that, after Franklin D. Roosevelt’s election in 1932, we generally believed that an active government was needed to secure our health, safety and economic future.

We’ve gone back and forth between those two philosophies throughout our history. The early nation of yeoman farmers gave way to national banks, internal improvements, subsidized railroads and land-grant colleges. The Industrial Revolution and the Robber Barons gave way to trust-busting, national parks and the Progressive Era. The Roaring Twenties gave way to the New Deal.

No matter how bad the crisis and how dire the need for reform, the nay-sayers are always with us. Even in the depths of the Depression, with a third of adults out of work, farmers failing and people starving, Herbert Hoover, conservatives and Wall Street issued dark warnings about government action. It smacked of Stalin, they said. 

When FDR proposed Social Security, unemployment relief and farm-price supports, conservatives said it was the end of freedom. People would rather go on the dole than go to work, they claimed.

Today, when Congress debates unemployment compensation, conservatives say it will just reward people for not working.

And today, with 1,000 Americans dying daily, some people insist on their right to not wear a mask.

2020 could be one of those elections that ushers in sweeping reforms like the Progressive Era and the New Deal.

Black Americans want government action against racism and police brutality. Younger voters – who’ve gone through the 2008 and 2020 economic meltdowns – want government action against economic inequality. Millions of Americans want more affordable health care. And they want super-rich individuals and big corporations that have thrived these last 40 years to pay their fair share.

Democrats, who could be running both the legislative and executive branches next year, have come a long way from Clinton-era “triangulation” and even from the Obama-Biden administration’s economic-recovery and health-care initiatives, which seem cautious in retrospect.

The convention last week showed where Democrats stand now. They’ve taken the temper of the times. They believe Americans want big changes. 

But don’t expect everybody to wear masks.

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