Is Matt Gaetz Arguing that Imperfect Safety Precautions Are Worthless?
A case study of political dogma trumping basic decency or logic
On Friday Representative Matt Gaetz (R-FL) and Tucker Carlson discussed conclusions to draw from the President’s positive COVID-19 diagnosis. Their conversation illustrates how dogma (in this case right-wing) can distort rational thought and attempts to develop practical policy. The nation desperately needs all of us to do better than this:
Gaetz: “What I can tell you is if this virus can get into the Oval, into the body of the president, there is no place where it could not possibly infect one of our fellow Americans. And that’s why it’s so important to continue executing on President Trump’s strategy to allow our country to open up, but then to ensure we protect the vulnerable. Because there is no lockdown that can be a panacea to save everyone from everything. And this is proof-positive that’s the case.”
Carlson: “It’s such a smart point. I mean, if the president can get this virus, then it tells you a lot about our ability to protect ourselves from it.”
Political dogmatism versus pragmatism
Dogmatism: Unwillingness to question a belief
This can occur when we consider defending a belief (or position based on it) essential for our survival or self-definition. It’s revealed in how we construct and deliver arguments in bad faith. Symptoms include:
- Twisting selective facts to fit our agenda
- Oversimplifying or relying on rhetorical tricks like logical fallacies
- Misinterpreting or suppressing contradicting data
Without a reality-based foundation, dogmatism produces failed policies. Persistent failure to address issues erodes confidence in democratic institutions. That eventually leads to rioting or other violence among people feeling unable to influence their surroundings through legal means.
Pragmatism: Choosing approaches based on what works
By prioritizing practical outcomes, we can increase the likelihood of effectively addressing challenges. That includes having productive policy arguments and spending less time and energy scoring partisan points or stoking our egos by pwning others. Pragmatic approaches also allow for learning from new data and adjusting policies based on unexpected impacts.
Gaetz’s problematic argument
Businesses and schools throughout the country must re-open immediately, regardless of local or regional virus transmission levels.
Apparent underlying assumptions:
- It is possible to protect “vulnerable” groups while fully re-opening businesses and schools
- It is possible to increase economic well-being despite infection spikes
- A one-size-fits-all reopening strategy is better than state or locality-based approaches tailored to conditions on the ground
- Because the virus is difficult to control, a lot of us should stop trying
Gaetz’s problematic approach
Failing to define terms:
He fails to define the meaning of “allow our country to open up.” Does it include wearing masks and spacing in indoor settings, or does he seek to return to pre-COVID business practices and lifestyles?
He also fails to specify who is included among “the vulnerable.” Since we’re all arguably vulnerable to getting sick (possibly excluding recently infected people who have built up significant immunity), where would he draw the line for infection fatality ratio (the estimated proportion of deaths to all those infected) or some other indicator of risk?
Gaetz also fails to acknowledge the great variability in pandemic policy effectiveness. Despite the President’s diagnosis and overall tragic loss of life and health, a number of communities have successfully reduced or prevented virus transmission. Colleges like Duke, Cornell, and Colby are using frequent testing and distancing measures to prevent significant spread on campus, despite holding in-person classes. And cities like Newark, NJ have used robust contact tracing and personalized support for people in quarantine to bring initially severe outbreaks under control. Steps like these are the primary means for protecting “the vulnerable.” By failing to promote them publicly, Gaetz undermines his own goal.
Moving the goalposts (a logical fallacy):
He argues that because a safety measure is imperfect, it must be disregarded. No safety precautions can “save everyone from everything.” That goes for seat belts, bike helmets, food safety rules, condoms, etc. The idea of precautions is obviously to reduce risks, not eliminate them.
The POTUS got infected despite people around him being constantly tested. On the other hand, he has frequently failed to mask up around others, such as when preparing for the first debate, has requested reporters remove their masks in press conferences, and has also held large rallies and other hazardous events, both indoors and out. He clearly could have taken more precautions to reduce risk of infection to himself and others.
An ideally more logical take
Alternative conclusions we might draw:
- Nobody is immune to the biological reality that SARS-COV-2 is contagious
- Risk mitigation doesn’t mean absolute protection
- Testing alone can fail as a precautionary measure, warranting mask-wearing and distancing as well
- By not employing simple available precautions, alerting others about feeling ill, or immediately quarantining himself upon feeling that way or learning about a person close to him testing positive, the POTUS showed potentially tragic disregard for the health of people around him
What appears to be going on here
Matt Gaetz is no idiot and holds a law degree from William and Mary. He must be aware that arguments like this are illogical and misleading. Regardless, he’s clearly willing to defend party dogma about reopening fully, now. Such defenses serve as “red meat” for a base eager for reasons to resent pro-precaution Democrats. He bolsters the partisan angle by conflating precautions with general popularity (especially face mask requirements) with “lockdowns,” a measure increasingly despised within the GOP. The intended effect is likely to appear strong in promoting aggressive reopening to frustrated or suffering constituents.
2020 has been brutal. As of October 1, over 200,000 American lives have been cut short by COVID-19. It has imperiled people and economies around the world. Leaders step up at such moments to provide us with information to make decisions to promote public and economic health. They also model behaviors proven to save lives like wearing masks and distancing when possible. They speak in ways that inspire people to work together to tackle common challenges. Politicians like Matt Gaetz and pundits like Tucker Carlson are failing in all of these ways and thus contributing to the nation’s ongoing failure to respond effectively to a pandemic.