The idea that “politics is downstream of culture,” a phrase coined by the late journalist and gadfly Andrew Breitbart, is perhaps the leitmotif of the last decade of American public life.
But culture does not merely inform politics. It can also trump policy action, acting as a check on political excess. This is precisely what we’ve seen recently with the rollback of various COVID restrictions in preparation for what will likely be a fairly normal summer—at least in areas where there’s a culture of normality that trumps a culture of continued fear.
Culture, in other words, isn’t just upstream from politics. It’s stronger than politics.
When the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention dramatically revised its guidance on mask wearing last month, it set off a furious cascade of governors rescinding and amending orders, with local governments and schools in hot pursuit. Some stores and private firms adjusted their policies as well, briefly creating a hodgepodge of policies.
For some people, this was a watershed moment. Among those for whom rigorous adherence to CDC guidelines has become a lifestyle marker, the revelation from the agency’s Atlanta headquarters was celebrated. Still others ignored the new guidance and, like Japanese soldiers on remote Pacific Islands years after V-J Day, continued to wage the war.
For those who have found opposition to masking to be an act of considered civil disobedience, this was the denouement of a yearlong struggle against the only low-cost noninvasive intervention available to minimize illness and death while maximizing normal life. Quite a victory, I guess.
As with many things, the vast majority of Americans fell somewhere between these two extreme poles. They took the change to the mandates in stride and went on about their lives.
Since March 2020, staying abreast of state and local mandates about masks (where to wear them, what kind), social distancing ( 6 feet, 3 feet), maximum group sizes, restaurant capacities, ages of enforcement and exemptions to various rules (for instance while eating or worshiping) could well have been a full-time job. Not only did the rules change with great regularity, they did so in unpredictable and at times inexplicable ways—and, pace their progenitors, seldom in response to new scientific knowledge.
Given our incomplete understanding of the pandemic, particularly in its early months, some of this haphazard policymaking was understandable; we must differentiate time inconsistency in gubernatorial proclamations caused by increasing scientific knowledge from inconsistency brought about by political calculus. At the same time, the constant drip of stories of elected officials being caught violating their own rules sent the clear message that the rules were not meant to be taken literally, and perhaps not even taken all that seriously.
Far more important than the rules on the books was the cultural milieu of communities. Response throughout my own state of Virginia has been heterogenous, to put it politely. In highly educated, densely populated, deep blue Northern Virginia, I almost never saw someone in a shop or restaurant without a mask when they were mandated. Even today, the majority of people continue to wear masks indoors, even as local COVID case rates plummet and vaccination rates skyrocket.
Yet as little as 50 miles to the south or west, masks are as rare as hens’ teeth. This is as true today as it was in the winter, when cases and deaths were far higher. The rules from Richmond didn’t dictate people’s behavior nearly as much as their local culture and the social expectations of their friends and neighbors.
Policies that run counter to culture and community norms are in most cases dead on arrival, a lesson that has been hard-learned in international economic development but seldom learned domestically. Remember this spring when people were earnestly debating how best to implement a nationwide system of vaccine passports? Other than in New York, the idea seems to have pretty much fallen flat. Adam Smith’s men of system, wise in their own conceit, couldn’t wait to implement such passports—oblivious to the fact that there are few phrases more antithetical to American culture than “your papers please.” For many of the more technocratically minded, the only relevant question was how to implement vaccine passports—whether to do it wasn’t even worth asking.
This is the story of the last 15 months in brief. No matter what guidance came down from Atlanta or Washington, and no matter what legal mandates governors or statehouses issued, culture trumped policy in individual decision-making. Public institutions like state universities and public schools were more or less bound to follow mandates (although some, like George Mason University, performed far better than others); but their private sector counterparts, by contrast, mostly carved their own path—and were much more likely to reopen to in-person instruction.
If anything, after months of honoring these restrictions more in the breach than the observance, people seem relieved to stop pretending to follow essentially arbitrary rules they weren’t really following to begin with. This isn’t simply the case of a few misleading statements and fog-of-war confusion in the early weeks of the pandemic; federal statements on school reopening, for instance, remain confusing and ham-fisted.
Throughout the process, government mandates have been lagging indicators of private action to stop COVID. Think back to March 2020: Businesses and individuals led the retreat indoors. People started avoiding restaurants before governors shut them down, and individual choices had much more significant economic impacts than did state policies. At the Mercatus Center, March 11 was our first day working from home; the state didn’t issue any restrictions for another 13 days. West Coast tech companies like Stripe and Microsoft also shut their offices weeks ahead of their states’ mandated closures.
The Society for Human Resource Management reports on a poll conducted from March 12 to March 16, 2020, which found that at that time, about a third of all firms were actively encouraging employees to work remotely, and two-thirds were allowing employees to work from home. At that point, not a single state had issued a stay-at-home order.
While policy certainly did have at least some effect on social indicators during the pandemic, it’s hard to draw indisputable connections between policy and mortality and morbidity. Indeed, the amount of attention given to state mask mandates by the media was completely out of sync with the actual effects of these policies, which appear to be quite small—not to mention largely endogenous to culture.
A lesson of the pandemic should be that not only is politics largely downstream of culture—culture can to a degree veto policy entirely. Eventually, policymakers have to give in to the reality that their levers of control are far weaker than they imagine. Policymakers have had to bow to culture, sometimes in amusing ways. In the United Kingdom, the virus apparently took time off for the Christmas holidays, but it wasn’t until May that sex (at least among singles) was again on the table. Even Boris Johnson had to acknowledge the cultural reality of his country: The British might give up sex, but never Christmas.
America retains a strong individualist cultural streak, with a skepticism of central power that’s held us in good stead over the past year and that has long served as a bulwark against concentrated power of all kinds. As long as we retain this robust culture, those who try to “arrange the different members of a great society with as much ease as the hand arranges the different pieces upon a chess-board,” as Adam Smith wrote, whether through political or cultural machinations, will be stymied by the cultural reality that Americans refuse to be the chess pieces of others.