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Now that the Food and Drug Administration has finally given its full blessing to the Pfizer BioNTech shot, the president is jawboning corporate leaders into establishing mandates requiring employees to be vaccinated. This is not a reversal, as some reporters have said. Joe Biden is not ordering firms to do anything. (Though in the case of air travel, the Federal Aviation Administration’s vaccine mandate for flight passengers has an obvious effect on the airlines.) He’s using the world’s biggest bullhorn to champion good public health. With the FDA’s approval, firms are now rushing to show how much they agree.
According to Bloomberg: “A day after the federal Food and Drug Administration approved the Pfizer BioNTech vaccine, institutions central to their regions announced tougher — perhaps bellwether — rules.” These include Goldman Sachs, Disney, Delta, Chevron, and Louisiana State University. If you want to see LSU play college ball at Tiger Stadium, you’re going to have to show proof of vaccination or a recent negative covid test. New York City now has a mandate. Same for other major cities. The California university system has one. Ditto for a galaxy of other systems, municipalities, and countless small businesses.
Republican leaders in states like Florida and Texas have been trying to get ahead of what is likely going to become a new national norm by signing executive orders or enacting legislation that forbids government entities, such as public schools, from instituting vaccine or mask mandates. So far, this has fallen into the larger constellation of conservative thinking. (Though there’s pushback from schools requiring masks.) Government is best when it governs least blah blah blah. What are these leaders going to do when the civil society, including the biggest firms, moves in the direction of good public health, which in this climate means moving in the direction of the GOP’s enemies?
We could see a repeat of what we saw after the January 6 insurrection and after states like Georgia made laws giving legislatures effective veto power over democratic outcomes. That’s when Coke, Major League Baseball, and others issued statements affirming their commitment to the principle of one person, one vote. That rankled Republicans like Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who famously said earlier this year that corporations should “stay out of politics” or suffer “consequences.” Some state GOP threatened to rescind tax rebates for firms speaking out in favor of democracy. So it’s possible a company like Disney, for instance, which is headquartered in Florida, could butt heads with right-wing lawmakers. It’s possible the party of limited government, private enterprise, and free markets could abandon all that for the sake of grinding its many, many axes.
To be sure, someone like Florida Governor Ron DeSantis is going to pander to the party’s extreme right, which has always been skeptical of corporations, especially multinational corporations, who at the very least make traditional social hierarchies difficult to maintain or at the very most are in league with a shady cabal of Jewish conspirators trying to take over the world. (You think I’m kidding.) These people will always be with us. Demagogues will always have an audience. But will such pandering mean going to war with the party’s biggest backers?
Well, going to war would demand sacrifice, like eating out, flying, or going to football games. I’m here to tell you, right-wing radicals make a helluva holler but don’t overestimate the noise. Authoritarians are weak on account of their being authoritarians. Their meaning of freedom, as I have said before, is the narrowest, brittlest and dumbest meaning of freedom. Once the whole mainstream of civil society starts asserting itself — once private businesses say do this or you can’t do that — the authoritarians among us, even the wild ones most animated by fantastical belief in the “Jewish conspiracy,” will cave in a hurry.
But there’s a deeper reason why GOP authoritarians will comply once civil society demands compliance. They say they’re against masks and vaccines, because they fear losing their freedoms. They don’t, though. What they fear, as I have said many times before, is humiliation. Mandating vaccines actually helps authoritarians save face. They say they don’t want to be forced, but what they are really saying is they don’t want to choose. They can’t choose. They don’t know how. And they are afraid of making the “wrong choice.” They are not going to go to war with big corporations. They’ll obey, like good authoritarians.
This isn’t to say they won’t resent it. This isn’t to say demagogues like Ron DeSantis won’t whip them up into a frenzy. Authoritarians will still elect their own. But it won’t have anything to do with ideological consistency. It won’t have anything to do with deference to private enterprise on account of their being conservatives committed to the principle of limited government. They don’t care about “limited government.” They’d be fine with Louisiana’s legislature hammering Louisiana State as long as it didn’t get in the way of watching LSU football. If that doesn’t make sense, well, it’s not supposed to.
John Stoehr is a visiting assistant professor of public policy and liberal studies at Wesleyan University, and editor and publisher of the Editorial Board. This article was originally published at The Editorial Board.