A Pandemic of Political Irresponsibility

Many politicians don’t think the strict COVID-19 rules they’re mandating apply to them

Image Credit: Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images

One of the ironies of modern politics is how often policymakers lament declining public trust in political institutions while simultaneously engaging in irresponsible behavior that undermines their own credibility. “Do as I say, not as I do” is all too common among political elites.

The COVID-19 restrictions have provided a litany of examples of politicians and regulators behaving badly. After issuing numerous warnings and executive orders in the name of protecting public safety, many have openly disregarded their own rules—with zero consequences aside from embarrassment. If politicians want a sometimes-skeptical public to listen to them, they’d better practice what they preach.

Here are just a few examples of what’s become a pandemic of political irresponsibility:

Denver Mayor Michael B. Hancock tweeted that residents should “host virtual gatherings instead of in-person dinners” and avoid travel for Thanksgiving. An hour later, he and his family boarded a flight to Mississippi to attend a family gathering. San Jose, California, Mayor Sam Liccardo also found himself in hot water for dining with his elderly parents and other guests just a day after issuing a tweet urging people to “cancel the big gatherings this year and focus on keeping each other safe.” Similarly, two Texas county judges who’ve pushed for mask mandates and told Texans to avoid family holiday get-togethers were exposed for attending a wedding and family gatherings without masks.

Caution to the Wind

Despite issuing some of the most stringent lockdown orders of any state, California Gov. Gavin Newsom met a private party for dinner at The French Laundry, an expensive restaurant in the Napa Valley. The episode “helped reinforce that California’s government is a mess of bureaucratic dysfunction and aristocratic indifference,” wrote New York Times columnist Miriam Pawel. Indeed, just one night later, San Francisco Mayor London Breed enjoyed a private dinner at that same swank eatery, despite lockdown orders everyone else was expected to follow. Similarly, a Los Angeles County supervisor who voted to ban outdoor dining was caught dining outside at a restaurant just hours later.

We’re not done with California. In mid-November, more than a half-dozen state legislators flew to Hawaii to attend a four-day conference sponsored by the Independent Voter Project. Ironically, according to the Los Angeles Times, “The conference began on the same day that California public officials moved many counties back to the purple reopening tier, reimplementing the state’s toughest restrictions for public gatherings and business operations to stem the transmission of the virus.”

In early November, Austin Mayor Steve Adler and several guests who had just attended his daughter’s wedding took a private jet to Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. While vacationing there, Adler had the audacity to address Austin residents in a Facebook video, telling them: “We need to stay home if you can. This is not the time to relax.” He did not bother informing them that he had left the country to relax.

Of course, these aren’t the only examples. Multiple politicians around the country are doing this. Most politicians hope we’ll just laugh off all this hypocrisy or at least quickly forgive their failure to follow their own rules once they employ the “I’m only human” defense. But it is hard to forgive this behavior when it has such serious costs.

The first cost is direct. When politicians ignore their own public health warnings or restrictions, they are presumably putting others and themselves at risk. More generally, their restrictions impose financial and emotional costs on businesses and individuals, who are denied the ability to serve or help others—even as politicians do whatever they please.

The indirect cost is the continued erosion of public trust in political leaders and institutions. When they impose rules only to turn around and ignore them, it undermines their credibility. And the public’s trust in our leaders hasn’t been exactly strong to begin with. A 2019 Pew Research Center survey on Trust and Distrust in America revealed that “two-thirds of adults think other Americans have little or no confidence in the federal government. Majorities believe the public’s confidence in the U.S. government and in each other is shrinking, and most believe a shortage of trust in government and in other citizens makes it harder to solve some of the nation’s key problems.”

With so many politicians professing worries about the health of our democratic republic, you’d think they would at least try to live up to their own rules. Instead, they behave like unaccountable royals who can ignore the edicts they impose on the masses.

Arbitrary Rules

Equally troubling is the unequal treatment that businesses receive. Last week a video featuring the owner of the Pineapple Hill Saloon & Grill in Los Angeles went viral; the city had reimposed a ban on outdoor dining. Choking back tears, the bar’s owner noted how hard she and her employees had worked to make their outdoor eating area compliant with state health regulations so she could stay open and keep her workers employed, only to be closed down again. Astonishingly, she then showed how Mayor Eric Garcetti was allowing a movie company to set up an outdoor dining area for its staff in a parking lot just a few feet away, apparently setting different rules than for the small pub.

This incident occurred just a few weeks after Garcetti and city officials had come under fire for almost allowing a COVID-19 testing site at Union Station to close so that a movie could be shot there. Luckily, the public backlash forced the city to take steps to make sure the testing site could remain open. These incidents point to a double standard whereby politicians grant certain well-heeled businesses special dispensations while others must follow the rules. This undermines trust even more.

A decline in public trust at this moment is particularly concerning as America gets ready to roll out COVID vaccines. Some experts and leaders are worried that not enough people will sign up for shots to stop the spread of the disease. When politicians ignore their own rules, it could undermine their efforts to persuade the public to get vaccinated quickly.

Should we forgive politicians for these violations of public trust? Media attention alone doesn’t seem to be changing their behavior. Leaders who don’t abide by the same standards they expect the rest of us to follow should face more serious penalties. Perhaps we can force politicians who violate their own rules to wear a scarlet “H” lapel pin (for hypocrite).

More seriously, why not take whatever penalty or fine politicians impose on anyone who violates their mandates and restrictions and double it when they violate these orders themselves? It would help them appreciate the pain that so many others are feeling. We should at least demand that our leaders treat individuals and businesses more equally under the law and end special carve-outs for favored constituencies.

Government officials are right to warn against congregating and traveling to avoid spreading the virus. But when leaders fail to follow their own orders, it represents a dereliction of duty and a betrayal of public trust that deserves not only our scorn but serious sanctions.

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