Even in the quick-as-a-wink world of democratic politics, where calculations change at slot-machine speed, you can feel major moments growling and growing. You don’t know precisely where things and events are going. You just know they are going.
We’re in one of those moments now, with Texas and its 29 million people poised to move out of the heavy shadow of government control over their lives and movements as we head towards what we must hope is the late stages of this so-called ‘war’ against COVID-19.
On Tuesday March 2 — otherwise known as Texas Independence Day, when Lone Star flags decorate staves everywhere, honoring Texas’ successful struggle in 1836 for freedom from Mexico — Gov. Greg Abbott announced he was letting life return to normal.
Specifically, Abbott ordered an end to restrictions, after Wednesday March 10, on the right of businesses to define the conditions of interaction with customers. Any business now can decide how it wants to operate. Less substantively but more important in the symbolic sense, he said he was lifting the state-imposed requirement to wear a face-mask in public. Businesses can still require masks, but who wants to be the only shop in town policing facial appearance? Abbott cited the falling rate of coronavirus spread and lauded the widespread availability of vaccines. ‘People and business,’ the governor said, ‘don’t need the state telling them how to operate.’
Oh, yes, they do!, plenteous Democratic party figures and health officials shouted. Ex-presidential candidate Robert Francis (Beto) O’Rourke charmingly notified the world that Abbott was issuing ‘a death warrant for Texans’. The county judge of Dallas, a Democrat, tweeted: ‘You should focus on what doctors, facts and science say is safe; not on what Gov. says is legal.’ California governor Gavin Newsom, who’s now infamous for acting as if the rules he imposes don’t apply to him, called Abbott ‘absolutely reckless’.
The doctors-facts-science mantras have become familiar over the past year. The experts tell us, expertly, what we need to know, and we do it. At least until all this science starts to fog up our mental windshields and we, the people, start to wear out. Our irritability mounts; our attention wanes; the guide-rope in our mouth starts to chafe. It is then that the bawdy obstreperousness and its odd twin, the glory hallelujah, of democracy come into view — a single unit; maddening, infuriating, nevertheless fused. And Greg Abbott or someone else steps up to lead the beast forward, by instinct if not by Hoyle.
Abbott, a smart man, with a tough streak, certainly understands he is running some risks by opening up, as he puts it, ‘100 percent’. Yet, by running a multiplicity of risks over the years, starting with declaring independence from Mexico, Abbott’s state has attracted risk-takers galore, of the sort mostly indisposed to nervous nail-biting.
I would say Abbott knows this. He knows the virus has not been felled; that people, if at a declining rate, will continue to die of COVID-19. He knows the terrors of death, having come close to them himself when a falling tree cost the young, bright, ambitious Greg Abbott the use of his legs.
He senses at the same time the exasperation felt all over the country, after a year of masquerade that was supposed originally to have been a period of three or, at most, maybe, four months. He knows the economic bite the pandemic has taken out of jobs and economic growth. How long was long enough? Another half year? Longer still?
Florida’s and South Dakota’s recent economic reopenings, engineered by popular Republican governors, preceded Texas’s without inspiring it. Reopening was coming anyway to Texas and its diversified, if pandemically pinched, economy. Immediately upon Abbott’s March 2 announcement neighboring Louisiana announced major loosening of its restrictions, and nearby Mississippi declared itself open for business. The loosening goes on even in Massachusetts, where Gov. Charlie Baker has opened restaurants to full capacity. Montana and Iowa have abolished face-mask requirements. This unmasking business has legs, whether the experts like it or not.
The love of democratic citizens for experts shouldn’t be overestimated. The nature of democracy is preference for or deference to popular wisdom, however unwise that wisdom may prove in action. It’s been a long time since this pandemic started. People are tired. People want to see, and relate to, each other. That’s human nature. The human nature-affirmers like Greg Abbott, with a little luck and sense of timing, are likely to come out way ahead of their castigators and vilifiers, Robert Francis (Beto) O’Rourke conspicuously included.