Manufactured outrage

Partisans scream overreach, yet business lobby largely welcomes federal action on vaccine mandates. So what's really going on?

For a moment, I’m going to ask you to suspend your instant, entrenched, or learned reactions to all things Covid-19.

Just for a moment - then we can all go back to accusing one another of destroying every good thing that ever existed, and in that process of aggravating divisions actually destroy every good thing that ever existed.

As soon as I read the stories about President Biden’s broad action to use OSHA rules to require vaccinations for employees at companies with more than 100 employees, it was fairly predictable what would happen next. (It’s important to note this is a ‘soft’ mandate - those who absolutely don’t want to be vaccinated have the option of weekly Covid-19 testing instead).

Almost instantly came the critiques from Republican governors, lawmakers and attorneys general to block, sue, and do whatever must be done to stop this gross abuse of federal power. Kansas’ Republican Congressional Delegation launched its volley, then the state level elected officials and the party structure threw their efforts behind generating outrage. The government, the narrative went, cannot tell business what they must or must not do.

Missing, however, was the outrage of corporate America. That, coupled with what we already know about companies independently, on their own, mandating vaccinations, didn’t make sense to me.

The whole thing started to smell like political B.S. And after just a few years in Topeka, political B.S. has become an all too familiar smell.

So I developed a theory - based on current reporting, what I’ve seen from the previous legislation sessions, and from years of watching state and national politics.

First, we all know that what the public sees in politics is the proverbial tip of the iceberg. By the time the announcements and counterpoints come out to the public, there have been a number of discussions between other people, somewhere else. Decisions of magnitude - such as mandating vaccines - aren’t typically done without consultation of a broad range of stakeholders. In this case, one of those stakeholders would’ve definitely been the business lobbying groups.

It turns out that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Business Roundtable, and the National Association of Manufacturers generally support Biden’s vaccination measure. Moreover, they all require vaccinations for their own employees - as do several of the organizations’ largest members. Likewise in Kansas, we’ve seen more large employers mandate vaccinations of their employees, well before the federal shift in policy.

From Reuters -

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which opposes many of Biden's tax and spending proposals, said it would "carefully review" the vaccination mandate. The Business Roundtable, which represents chief executives, said it welcomed the move. The National Association of Manufacturers, which represents big and small employers, said it would work to make sure the rules don't hurt business operations.

So, let’s think about this for a minute. The same business lobby that wails and gnashes its teeth if anyone attempts to do anything to change the status quo is largely silent and subdued on a broad and sweeping mandate that directly affects their member businesses.

What in the global pandemic is going on?

My suspicion - based on my experience in Topeka and some of the reporting on this - is that business welcomes a shift of the “bad guy” from employers to government. Large companies were increasingly mandating vaccines anyway - and in some cases angering and losing employees over it. With a sweeping federal mandate, the business community eliminates that problem, because they’re all in the same boat.

Essentially - “I don’t really want to make you get vaccinated, but I don’t have a choice. Thanks Biden.”

It turns out I’m not alone in my suspicion. This, from longtime political writer Noah Millman, on his blog Gideon’s Substack about Biden’s vaccine mandates:

So why impose them? Many Republicans are going to argue that it’s a pure power grab, but I think that’s almost completely backwards. What I suspect they’re doing first and foremost is providing cover to other entities that want to impose mandates of their own, but have been reluctant to date to do so.

So the business community gets its cover and a scape goat. The Republican party and its candidates get another thing to scare voters about and use on the postcards we’ll all enjoy in 2022 and 2024. And President Biden gets to boast that he’s been aggressive in fighting the virus and has done everything in his ability to increase vaccination rates.

All that’s left is for our industrialized political machine to ramp up the public outrage.

In fact just this Tuesday the self-proclaimed Truth Caucus and Kansas Republican House leadership sent out tandem statements condemning Biden’s vaccine order. The latter - a letter from House Leadership addressed to Kansas’ federal delegation is framed as an attempt to coordinate efforts to counter Biden’s initiatives. Yet, that could be done with a phone call or email. It’s not like a strongly-worded letter from Kansas is going to create any meaningful change. - but a public letter carries the added benefit of capturing the news cycle for a day and providing some swell content for social media. And we’ll all help with our likes, shares, and clever memes.

For the purposes of this piece I don’t want to get into a discussion about the rightness or wrongness of vaccine mandates. That’s adjacent to the point I’m trying to make here.

We - voters, consumers of information, members of a community - have to do a better job of sniffing out when we’re being played. We have to do a better job of making the distinction between when we should really be outraged, and when we’re being fed outrage to advance political ends. We have to weigh who wins what in any policy decision. We have to do a better job of comparing information from different places. We have to be aware of things like the Social Media filter bubbles - and recognize that we’re largely fed the information for which we’ve already shown a preference.

And we have to more critically examine whether we’re upset with the right people, for the right reasons, and consider whether we want to follow the on-demand current of outrage, or try something different for a change.