The Texas mask mandate and the true nature of Conservatism

The Governor of the state of Texas has recently rescinded the mandatory mask requirements in the state.  So does that mean that everywhere you go in the state, there are now a dangerous number of unmasked people?  Of course, Austin has immediately made it clear that the mask mandate still applies in its city limits. But as a resident of the state who doesn’t even live in Austin, the answer would surprise most of the country. Same number of masked students at Baylor (although it has maintained the mask requirement on University grounds); same number of masked people, if not even more, in the grocery store; same number in every public space that you can imagine.  Why?  Short answer: private organizations like a University and grocery stores still can enforce a mask mandate.  The Governor can’t rescind that.  And, what’s more, he didn’t want to.  The question is whether the state itself will create the mask mandate, not whether people will wear masks.  Because conservatism got hijacked by Trumpism, that distinction got lost.  Instead of being a question as to the power of the state to enforce personal responsibility, it became a question as to whether you were tough enough not to wear a mask.  Whereas conservatism, properly understood, emphasizes the responsibility of both individuals and the intermediate institutions in which they participate (i.e. universities and businesses), Trumpian “conservatism” emphasizes the rebellion against the state.  Conservatism claims we don’t need the state to make us act responsibly.  True conservatives opposed mask mandates because they didn’t think those within the proper purview of the state.  Trumpian “conservatives” hijacked that opposition and turned it into something else.  Oddly, that something else is as state-centric as those they oppose.  Because the state had imposed mask mandates, they were “free” to the extent that they refused to wear masks.  It became liberal to wear a mask and “conservative” not to.  Rather than emphasizing their opposition to state-imposition, they opposed the masks themselves.  Based anecdotally on my experience traveling from Michigan to Texas recently, my suspicion is that opposition is even deeper among Trumpian Republicans (notice I’m no longer saying conservatives) in a place like Michigan.  Having only recently converted to Trump because they liked his toughness or something like that and having no real understanding of conservative principles themselves, the Michigan Trumpsters would have paraded into stores mask-less if Governor Whitmer were to have revoked the mask mandate.  I saw this difference reflected in a Facebook exchange I witnessed after the Michigan Supreme Court had declared her mandate unconstitutional a couple of months ago. One of my more earnest former students who had always understood himself as a conservative posted on his page: “The mask mandate has been revoked and yet I still see people wearing masks into stores and other public places; those stores still have signs up requiring masks.  Apparently we didn’t need the state mandate to behave responsibly.”  Then, in the comments section, there was this from someone who thought himself sympathetic: “When I went to Walmart today, they still had a sign at the door requiring masks to enter!  Don’t they know that there’s no longer a mask mandate?!?  I walked in without a mask and dared them to make me put one on.”  By contrast, my albeit limited observations suggest that Texas Republicans have a deeper and truer understanding of conservatism.  Revoking the order didn’t permit irresponsibility; it only pulls the state out of enforcing responsibility.    Remembering that crucial component of conservatism–a component that I suspect many would respect and even admire–might help Republicansd return to that majority my colleague Susan McWilliams recently recommended.

5 thoughts on “The Texas mask mandate and the true nature of Conservatism

  1. Yes there are a dangerous number of people wearing masks, including in Austin where I live. There were a dangerous number before the Governor lifted the mandate. I don’t know whether there are more now than before the Governor acted so irresponsibly, but there are way too many still.

    Why does it matter whether mask mandates are consistent with conservatism?

    Why do you assume that a mandate implies, or requires, state enforcement?

    1. I think my point was that it shouldn’t necessarily require state enforcement and still be worn by those who call themselves conservatives. At least at a level of principle, an opposition to state-mandated masks rooted in opposition to state-mandated things makes more sense than an opposition to masks, if chosen by individuals or required by intermediate-level establishments. And I didn’t think the Governor’s order will change that much, although a report from a relative of mine in Dallas on my Facebook page suggests otherwise. So perhaps it was more hope than reality.

      1. Lots of public safety measures — adopted by state authority — depend upon individual responsibility rather than governmental enforcement. In the recent weather crisis in Austin, for example, the city operated under a boil water order. There was no boil water police. There need not be mask mandate police to justify a mask mandate — a collective decision expressed through elected or duly appointed officials. Such orders convey vitally important information, express the seriousness of the policy, and confer moral/political authority.

  2. I also meant to suggest that refracting all policy concerns, especially in public health emergencies, through a conservative, liberal, or progressive lens, is a problem, perhaps a contemporary constitutional pathology.

Leave a Reply