He changed the minds of an entire ruling class
If I were ever put in charge of the New York Times op-ed page, I would fire the lot of them, with a single exception. The one Times scribbler who would keep his job during Jeremy Lott’s Reign of Terror is Ross Douthat.
The retention would not happen because Douthat is a conservative, though he is. Nor would he be kept on simply because he is the only person regularly writing for that page who practices what philosopher John Rawls called “public reason,” though he does and it helps.
As a rule, Douthat is reasonable, shows his work, and doesn’t take potshots or any more shortcuts than word limits force upon him. This approach doesn’t always make for the most scintillating reading, I will grant. And yet with a single column this year, Douthat showed himself to be a writer of great import in a way that few peers will ever manage. His triumph was so thorough that if he were to turn in pure gobbledygook for the next few decades, it should hardly matter.
That column, “The COVID Emergency Must End,” published on February 23 of this year, made use of Douthat’s position at the commanding heights of American commentary to change the minds of an entire ruling class by changing the minds of its leaders. It began:
Christmas of 2021: According to both President Biden and Dr. Anthony Fauci, together the two most prominent voices on public health in America right now, that’s when we can hope for a return to normalcy, the beginning of life after the emergency.
Here’s where it ended:
Joe Biden would be doing our struggling, freezing country a great service if he suggested, with evidence, that with continued effort and reasonably good fortune, the era of emergency might be over by the Fourth of July.
Rhetoricians should study the argument between those two points to see how Douthat did it, because his line became the party line, and quite rapidly by government standards. My very brief analysis is that Douthat wrote a script for how the government could pivot, and the machinery of American state then followed that script.
To that end, on March 11, President Joe Biden approached the microphone and took his mask off to address the nation. The president announced, “I will direct all states, tribes, and territories to make all adults – people 18 and over – eligible to be vaccinated no later than May 1.” Biden said the federal government would make great efforts to make it simpler for American adults to know where they could go to get vaccinated, and how to sign up.
Of K-12 education, Biden said that recent congressional funding would make it easier to “vaccinate teachers and school staff, including bus drivers” to “accelerate the massive, nationwide effort to reopen our schools.” He pronounced this “the number one priority” of his new Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona.
Then came the cherry on top.
“If we do our part, if we do this together, by July the Fourth, there’s a good chance you, your families, and friends will be able to get together in your backyard or in your neighborhood and have a cookout and a barbecue and celebrate Independence Day,” Biden said.
“After this long hard year, that will make this Independence Day something truly special, where we not only mark our independence as a nation, but we begin to mark our independence from this virus,” the president added.
When Biden said those words, there were a lot of things going against his pronouncement institutionally. But one by one, they are falling before our eyes.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which is ultimately under the political control of the White House, dropped its ridiculous insistence that fully vaccinated people should still wear masks in many circumstances, for one.
This is having a domino effect on states with strict mask regimes. I live in one of those states and it is thrilling to experience this cultural thaw all around me.
Public school teachers unions had taken the basic stance that government had better keep paying teachers and, no, they would not be going back to school until it was 1000% safe to do so. Philadelphia public schools made four attempts to reopen and were stymied by the teachers union at every turn.
“Philadelphia Federation of Teachers president Jerry Jordan had directed his members not to report to schools. Instead, many worked from outside their buildings, teaching from tents and joining supporters to stake out their skepticism on the district’s pledges that schools are safe,” reported the Philadelphia Inquirer.
As this school year winds down, that is changing, in Philadelphia and around the rest of the country. There was no more stalwart opponent of opening the schools than American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten. Now she is the latest domino to fall, arguing that “prolonged isolation is harmful” to the children.
There is a lot of speculation about why that change of heart happened. While I will have more to say about fears of a Homeschoolgeddon in a future column, the simplest explanation is that Douthat’s vision about what needs to happen, and when, has triumphed. There will be holdouts, but they are holding against a new consensus, from the president down.
The new consensus is that America will be mostly open again by the Fourth of July and that schools will be fully open again come fall. I hope at least a few of the parents who drop their children off at school on the first day of next school year realize that without Douthat’s column, that likely would not have happened.