In early Anglo-Saxon England and until the end of European feudalism, there existed a class of people known as churls, from which we get the adjective “churlish.” They weren’t called that because they had bad manners; churls were the lowest class of free people. They were not bound to a manor like serfs, but neither did they have wealth and own property like nobles. They were people who possessed freedom to do as they pleased in theory. In practice, their poverty meant that their “free” lives were little different from those of unfree serfs.
Economic reality dictated then, as it dictates today, one’s freedom. People are only as free as they can afford to be. For Americans, lacking guaranteed access to basic necessities like housing, food, and health care (and with our bank accounts determining access to the good versions of those things), this is a constant dilemma. We place great value in perceiving ourselves as free. Yet the more we extol this freedom’s virtue, the more it sounds like we are just trying to convince ourselves.
Real freedom would include being free to quit a terrible job without losing access to everything on the bottom level of Maslow’s pyramid. It would include freedom to live where we want, not where “the market” decides jobs will be available. It would include control over our own labor, like negotiating power over our earnings and our working conditions. In short, it would mean freedom to live the lives we desire, rather than the lives we choose based on a curated set of options over which we exercise no control.
In 2008, then-candidate Barack Obama caused controversy by claiming of working-class voters in the postindustrial Midwest, “They get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.” The “bitter clingers” remark stuck throughout the campaign, particularly as he applied it to conservative shibboleths like the Second Amendment and religion.
To many liberals this represents a hard truth, while to the left it is an example of how a politics that abandons economic populism is an invitation for “culture wars” issues to dominate. In either case, it is a useful basis for understanding why so many Americans find comfort in a misguided notion of “freedom” that amounts only to small acts of refusenik-ism, like school kids who rebel against the dress code by untucking one corner of their shirt. When our economic system takes freedom in a meaningful sense away from the vast majority of the population, people place more value on its symbolic expression.
In its current manifestation, this explains part of the vehemence with which some Americans reject orders to wear masks or maintain social distance. Many factors affect individuals’ choices, including partisanship and misinformation about the current pandemic, but there is a sadness in hearing people equate going unmasked with human rights and an imagined war against authoritarianism. “I will not be muzzled like a mad dog!” sounds less like a free man asserting his rights and more like an unfree man cosplaying the American Revolution in his head.
The mask backlash is only the latest iteration of this form of petty revolt. The journalist Daniel Ackerman recently explained in Business Insider how some Americans “went to war against seat belts,” and in the mid-1990s the introduction of recycling into the American consciousness was met with an anti-recycling backlash that reframed throwing plastic bottles in landfills as heroic acts of civil disobedience. The same spirit of disobedience-as-freedom percolates beneath issues like the phony “war” over saying Happy Holidays and Christmas-themed Starbucks cups and in the way some Americans equate spending money on guns as a measure of the freedom they enjoy.
Of course, the appeal of Donald Trump is often attributed to the now-clichéd “white working class,” when in fact some of his most die-hard support is found among upper-middle-class suburban Republicans—the small-business-owning conservatives who are well-off but not private-equity rich. Nation contributor and Roosevelt Institute director Mike Konczal has called them Buddy Garrity Republicans, after the meddling character in Friday Night Lights who wields economic power in his small town because he owns the Chevy dealership. They aren’t brandishing guns unmasked in front of their homes because life offers them insufficient freedom; on the contrary, they can afford far more than most people. But the conservative worldview also holds that strict adherence to the law is mandatory for the lower social classes and optional for people who see themselves as being at the top. Not everyone is a frustrated churl rebelling against masks because they lack choices in life; some people just see themselves as above the law.
For the majority of us, things like mask requirements represent one of two things: either one more minor rule to follow, another inconvenience and discomfort in a daily life already full of them, or an opportunity shaped by partisan and ideological incentives to show that we are in fact as free and independent as we like to see ourselves.
As upsetting as it is to see Americans who refuse to take simple precautions to fight a pandemic, symbolic freedom becomes more appealing when more useful freedoms are not available. Congress has failed to provide meaningful and lasting income support for people who have lost jobs, and business owners have received only a botched “support” plan that proved to be both woefully insufficient and ineptly administered. Mask wearing would not be universal under any circumstances in the United States, but replacing the feeling of insecurity and panic with a sense that the pandemic is a disruption we can weather would make the medicine of more restrictive rules go down a lot easier.
Instead, the federal government has responded by offering us a combination of Hobbes’s state of nature and the Articles of Confederation: Every state, every individual, every organization (universities, businesses, sports leagues, churches) should do whatever seems best in an environment of limited, conflicting, and inaccurate information. The policy amounts to every man for himself, with the devil taking the hindmost. Under those circumstances, it can hardly be surprising that some Americans cling to a sense of individualism, even if pointless and performative.