As Vaccine Holdouts Cave What’s the Lesson for Liberals? Authoritarians Require Force

Monday was the deadline here in Connecticut for state employees to get vaccinated, per order of the governor, Ned Lamont. The state press corps spent last week speculating about the number of workers who’d walk off the job before being forced to get the shot. Attention settled on school bus drivers. Around 500,000 children depend on them. Reporters asked the Lamont administration what it would do if thousands of kids were left stranded. But by Monday, it was clear that the vast majority of drivers complied with the law.

A similar pattern played out across the country. Deadlines were imposed. Blood oaths were taken. Anxieties grew. Americans of seemingly sound mind swore they’d never get vaccinated against their will. Then—obedience. The people who said they’d never do what they were told did what they were told. The people with so many “reasons” for being against vaccines forgot all about those “reasons.” The people whose identities were built on “beliefs” decided those “beliefs” weren’t as important as the consequences of keeping them.

What lessons can we draw from this? Most importantly, Americans with authoritarian tendencies are weak. They don’t know how to make decisions independent of authority figures in their lives (whoever they may be). Because of this, they fear making the wrong choice. They fear the humiliation and pain they believe comes with being wrong. Legally enforceable mandates make the choice easy by making the choice for them. Authoritarians are weak. Vaccine mandates help them save face.

Second, they don’t want freedom. Yes, I know. They say they want freedom. They say they will die for it. They won’t, though. They won’t do anything demanding sacrifice. What they want is the sense of community that comes with belonging to an authoritarian collective that does, in its own way, what mandates do—choose for them. So while they say they want freedom, what they desire is being told what to do. They don’t have the skills. Coercion and force come as a relief.

They are not rugged individualists, far from it, but they believe they are. That tells you their true ideology. The lies. All the lies. The wild, howling lies they tell about their enemies and themselves. The lies bind them together to form an authoritarian collective. But the lies cannot exist outside the group. As soon as the lies encounter democracy—that is, as soon as they encounter people who don’t already believe the lies—the lies shatter, causing authoritarians to feel enormous pain and humiliation. They retreat back to the authoritarian collective, where they don’t have to do the work of figuring out the truth.

The lies are the tell. They can’t and won’t engage democracy, which privileges facts and truth. Democracy does not already believe, and probably won’t ever believe, the lies they tell about their enemies and themselves. They can’t stand the humiliation and pain, however. They want that to stop. Freedom isn’t the answer. It risks more of the same. So the solution is the opposite of what they say. The solution is forcing democracy to believe their lies. The solution is taking away your liberty.

Like most liberals, I used to believe there was nothing to fear from weakness. After all, what harm can be done without strength? But I have come to believe the weakness I’m describing is dangerous. It’s the reason behind the election of Donald Trump. It’s the reason behind the January 6 insurrection. It’s the reason the United States hasn’t recovered from the pandemic. It’s the reason a major political party behaves more like a separatist movement than the loyal opposition. These people don’t want liberty, but they fear yours. They don’t want democracy, but they can’t tolerate ours. They can’t be trusted to act on their own in accordance with norms, rules and laws when those norms, rules and laws cause them enormous feelings of humiliation and pain.

The appropriate response, therefore, is not what liberals normally think it should be. Liberals typically try to understand fear. We typically try to feel empathy. That’s why, after Donald Trump was elected, all those stories about “economic anxiety” made sense. We were trying to give them the benefit of the doubt. They were not domestic enemies. They were victims of unfettered capitalism. I hope all of us, but liberals especially, draw the right lesson from the fact that nearly all of these people caved under legal pressure. The political answer to authoritarian weakness isn’t compassion. It’s coercion and force.