As we ride into the summer, I’m delighted to see that we’re looking at the COVID-19 pandemic largely in the rear-view mirror, swinging our tequila bottles above the windshield of our national cherry-red convertible as we drive into the future, speeding toward the border where we finally can be unconcerned with masks or unexpected school closures.
I’ve been a bit surprised at how quickly things go back to normal when people decide they should. And honestly, I want nothing more than to never give a single thought to this crisis ever again. But, as the danger of the COVID pandemic has receded, a noteworthy trend has emerged: the high-handed rhetoric around “following the Science” that was particularly dominant among a few nationally lauded leaders in the early days of this crisis has been abandoned. We must look back to find out why this is, because it tells us something extremely valuable about our leaders, our national culture, and the future of governance. The “party of Science” has quietly abandoned its appeal to science.
There is a theory of governance that is crudely labeled “technocratic.” This is a vision of a ruling class in which the experts of a given field directly command the levers of policy. When Michigan’s Gretchen Whitmer says, “I have made decisions based on science and facts,” when California’s Gavin Newsom says, “SCIENCE — not politics — must be California’s guide,” when Jay Inslee says, “We trust science in Washington,” these governors are claiming that they are not ruling as leaders in their own right but as a conduit for the wisdom of the experts. In the case of the COVID pandemic response, this is a claim that they will do what the experts tell them in order to save lives and guide the actions of the citizenry. It is a promise to submit their own leadership instincts and the desires of their citizenry to a panel of experts for review.
Technocracy is a seductive governance strategy because it combines the simplicity of asking your mom if you’re allowed to go outside with a reliance on a class of people who are supposedly devoted to apolitical objectivity. The technocratic approach promises that having a red or blue governor wouldn’t matter because the leader is listening to experts who, given their objectivity, would all come to the same policy conclusions. During the pandemic, those conclusions were not to be based on polls or the whims of the democratic rabble but on the mechanics of how a virus spreads. The goal in all this is an objective and scientific one: to keep infection rates as low as possible.
In the first few months of the pandemic, the technocratic approach seemed like the obvious solution. With people scrambling to figure out how to stop the virus from spreading, scientists had answers. They had metrics like the R0 (pronounced “are-naught”), a value to gauge viral spread; they provided testing targets for opening back up; they gave us detailed phased reopening plans that were hundreds of pages long. They provided far more material than could be digested by an individual, and they were consulted daily by heads of state for their guidance.
But as the shock of the first few months faded, more questions arose about the details of this science-driven approach. As the summer of 2020 wore on, it became clear that the response favored by many public policy experts was an abundance of caution that translated poorly to the real world. For months, Washington state’s formal guidance for gradual reopening required such a low threshold of new COVID cases that it became clear we would never dip below that number and thus never advance to the next phase. Across the country, reopening preconditions made little sense. Metrics were poorly thought out and poorly communicated.
Herein lies one of the greatest faults of the technocratic approach: It presumes that policy is a series of knobs. Technocrats assume that when these knobs are turned from, say, 3 to 7, we should see recognizable differences in the results. Thus we should be able to twist the knobs on masks, remote work, in-classroom instruction versus virtual instruction, restaurants, public gatherings, and religious gatherings and watch COVID case numbers go up or down in response.
But back in reality, this is not how any of this works. Public policy mitigations are often buried in large documents, filled with details and caveats that are not only difficult to follow but also change constantly, leaving individuals and businesses wondering what a given policy is on a given day. Some states made a big deal out of moving from 25 percent capacity for indoor dining to 50 percent, as if this were a consequential action. Instead, it was a distinction with effects so small as to be unmeasurable — and yet Washington state stripped a bar of its liquor license for violating this distinction.
Even if there were a clear strategy for applying these restrictions, there is no such thing as politics-free health policy. In a now infamous and gut-wrenching video, the owner of the Pineapple Hill Saloon in California showed how the state not only shut her restaurant down but also took over her parking lot to give space to a politically connected movie studio so they could feed their crew in exactly the same space in where they forbade her to serve. It became clear that there was no objective anti-virus strategy in place; it was all a blanket suppressive action that allowed favored political actors an exemption. This was reiterated in the early fight over vaccine access as large companies and industry advocates jockeyed for position to have their workers classified as “essential” so they might move up the vaccination queue.
There is a saying on public health communication that “You have about five words.” This is a way of expressing the fact that people can’t digest a wide range of public health information at scale. The technocratic approach relied on a phone book of regulations applied to each industry across a four-phase reopening approach with exemptions and carveouts for businesses and industries with the political clout to plead their case to the authorities.
This would all be excusable if we saw clear results from technocratic governance. Instead, we don’t see any meaningful difference in either case surges or death rates from states with governors who insist they are listening to “the Science” and states with governors who are clearly eager to remove restrictions and return to normal. There is no difference in COVID rates between districts with closed schools and open ones. Capacity restrictions on restaurants and religious gatherings did not deliver better results to those states during the winter surges. A study published in Science magazine found that the only mitigation strategy that produced any clear, positive effect in COVID rates in schoolchildren was a daily symptom screen. Every other response recommended by public health departments and the CDC resulted in either no effect or an increase in COVID rates.
The only benefit that the technocratic approach truly delivers is allowing a leader to say, “It’s not my fault; I’m listening to the Science.” This abdication of responsibility and appeal to a higher power is what makes this approach so attractive for politicians. Several governors embraced this strategy and immediately proclaimed their moral and intellectual superiority while claiming that, regarding policy, their hands were tied by the Science and the metrics.
Despite all the pitfalls of this technocratic strategy, the contrasting leadership approach is not to toss all science aside and ignore the experts. Instead, it is for leaders to act as mediators between expert opinion, the needs of citizens and businesses, and the will of the people. These are fine lines, and they’re ones that Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has walked since early in the pandemic.
Gov. DeSantis’s pandemic response strategy has been remarkable and provides an exemplary contrast to that of governors who fell for the technocratic approach. In line with the “five words” advice on public health, most of his policies can be summarized in a sentence or two. When the virus first broke out in early 2020, Florida worked to protect nursing homes and long-term care facilities. After the initial wave of lockdowns, DeSantis’s policies were designed to promote stability for people and businesses while allowing some degree of local control. This meant encouraging individual caution while allowing businesses room to operate.
When DeSantis lifted restrictions on restaurants, he left in place the ability for local municipalities and counties to institute their own mask mandates or dining capacity restrictions up to 50 percent without any state interference. Many counties did just that, including the very blue Miami-Dade County, where the residents preferred to have tighter restrictions. But the policy was a promise to businesses that they would not suddenly be shut down again. It was a promise of stability when stability was very much needed.
This strategy of clarity and simplicity over technocratic knob-fiddling carried over into vaccine distribution. In the “listen to the Science” states, lengthy documents explained how vaccines would be distributed, in what phases, and to which people. In my home state of Washington, we had an eighteen-page form that was a maze of potential eligibility guidelines. One question on that form was, “Are you a critical worker according to the Washington Critical Infrastructure Worker list?” To answer that, one would click on a link to another document that is itself fourteen pages long defining critical infrastructure across a dozen industries.
Florida’s strategy was this: vaccinate seniors. For the first two months of vaccine availability, the only requirement was that all seniors were eligible. Then, in late March, there was one week that everyone over age forty could be vaccinated. After that, anyone of any age who wanted a vaccine was eligible. It was as simple as that.
But for all the successes and beneficial policies implemented in Florida, the real vindication of Gov. DeSantis’s strategy has the “we believe in Science” governors quietly abandoning rule-by-metric and rule-by-expert governance in favor of DeSantis-style leadership.
In late March, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee abandoned the CDC guidelines for reopening schools and simply told school districts that they must reopen for in-person instruction. No metrics were given, no excuses were made, and no experts were referenced. He simply invoked his emergency powers to override the school districts and teachers unions and told them they would open by April 19, end of discussion. And they did. There was complaining and scrambling among the school boards in the state, but in the end every school district opened back up in accordance with the dictates of the governor and in defiance of the formal CDC guidelines.
A few weeks later, as the state of Michigan was experiencing a late-spring surge of COVID cases, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer publicly rejected the policy recommendations of her expert advisers. Seeing the surge, the experts recommended yet again shutting down restaurants, youth sports, and high schools. Whitmer replied that “policy changes won’t reduce the spread” and rejected their recommendations. She made it very clear that she would not implement any further orders, mandates, or requirements, but would simply recommend caution among the unvaccinated and high risk.
In the space of a year, Whitmer went from loudly proclaiming her deference to experts and her determination to “make decisions based on science” to quietly mimicking DeSantis’s leadership. The rhetoric of technocracy remains intact in some places, but the strategy has been abandoned in favor of a stability that is only bought when leaders press for the freedom of their constituents to make their own choices and manage their own risk.
This does not mean that the rhetoric of technocracy is dead. But we should remember its failures wherever it rears its head. We should remind our elected officials that their experiment in expert-rule was a failure and antithetical to the spirit of our country.
Matt Shapiro is a data visualization expert and author of the Substack Marginally Compelling.