On Thursday, Rep. Jim Jordan’s aggressive questioning of Dr. Anthony Fauci seemed to epitomize the partisan divide between individual liberties as defined by the Constitution and public health measures that have been enforced in an attempt to curb the coronavirus pandemic.
“We had 15 days to slow the spread turn into a year of lost liberty,” Jordan, R-Ohio, said during a House Coronavirus Crisis Subcommittee hearing where Fauci, the nation’s leading expert on infectious diseases, was testifying. “What metrics — what measures — what has to happen before Americans get more freedoms?”
“You’re indicating liberty and freedom,” Fauci responded. “I look at it as a public health measure to prevent people from dying and going to the hospital.”
As the clash continued, Jordan pressed his case. “Your right to go to church, your right to assemble, your right to petition your government, freedom of the press, freedom of speech, [has] all been assaulted,” he said.
“I think you’re making this a personal thing, and it isn’t,” Fauci replied.
Jordan’s indignation over state-issued mandates that have shuttered the in-person operation of businesses, schools and houses of worship is not unique among members of his party. It is rooted in the belief that freedom is, above all else, the defining characteristic of what it is to be American. To borrow Patrick Henry’s famous phrase, the reasoning boils down to: “Give me liberty or give me death.”
Over the course of the past year, even as the U.S. death toll continued to rise, Republicans like former President Donald Trump regularly bristled at the advice of health experts like Fauci, whom they viewed as an impediment to freedom (as well as to Trump’s reelection).
“People are tired of hearing Fauci and all these idiots,” Trump said at an October campaign rally in Tucson, Ariz. “Every time he goes on television, there’s always a bomb. But there’s a bigger bomb if you fire him. But Fauci’s a disaster.”
Democrats, however, have tended to endorse Fauci’s perspective that protecting public health sometimes requires drastic measures. More than 565,000 Americans, after all, have been killed during the pandemic so far, a number that pales in comparison to the 2.5 million that studies estimated might die without any restrictions. For those Democrats, the word in the Declaration of Independence’s famous phrase “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” that stands out is “life.”
Where many Republicans see a binary — liberty or death — Democrats believe a more apt conjunction to describe the choice before the country would be “and.”
On the other hand, Republican governors in several states did institute wide-ranging COVID safety protocols and lift them earlier than their Democratic counterparts without seeing the spikes predicted by many experts. Likewise, some Democratic governors, such as Michigan’s Gretchen Whitmer, are now blanching about a return to lockdowns even as the number of cases in some states continues to rise.
One thing that is clear about the pandemic is that it is almost impossible to separate it from politics. After President Biden was sworn in, Fauci, who was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2008 by then-President George W. Bush, described no longer working for Trump as a “liberating feeling.” That remark didn’t exactly help heal the political divide, and ensured that Trump loyalists like Jordan and Sen. Rand Paul would continue to attack him on Capitol Hill.
Jordan has invoked liberty when opposing any new gun control measures in the wake of ongoing mass shootings across the country. In response to two bills initiated by Democrats to expand background checks to unlicensed firearm dealers and to extend the time frame in order to conduct background checks from three to 10 days, Jordan framed the issue in terms of freedom.
“This is going to make it more difficult for law-abiding Americans to exercise a fundamental liberty guaranteed in the United States Constitution — the Second Amendment to the Bill of Rights — it’s going to make it more difficult for them to exercise their fundamental liberties,” Jordan said in a March speech on the House floor.
Democrats, and a handful of Republicans who helped pass both bills in the House, framed the issue as one of public health.
“Background checks are simple, easy and they save lives,” Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., said in March. “That’s why more than 90 percent of Americans support our legislation to make sure no guns are sold in this country without a check.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, meanwhile, anticipated GOP resistance to any imposition on the Second Amendment in her speech in support of the two bills on the House floor.
“We respect our Constitution, but we also say that the Constitution talks about ‘well regulated,’” Pelosi, D-Calif., said.
The fate of the two bills remains in doubt, however, as more Republicans there seem to agree with Jordan than Pelosi.
While pandemic restrictions and gun control measures are not the only two issues that Jordan has sought to portray in black-and-white terms, they both effectively highlight a GOP mindset in which the concepts of liberty and freedom trump all else.
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