Internet Explorer 11 is not supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

Political Hypocrisy Is Undermining Public Health

Politicians who have imposed some of the nation's toughest coronavirus restrictions have been caught violating them. Their lack of self-control makes safety messages less convincing to the public.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom has been criticized for attending a birthday celebration of a dozen people at a restaurant. (Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times/TNS)
The day before Thanksgiving, Denver Mayor Michael Hancock tweeted out some safety recommendations. He advised residents to “stay home as much as you can,” “avoid travel” and “host virtual gatherings instead of in-person dinners.”

About a half-hour later, Hancock boarded the first of two planes he took to Mississippi to visit his daughter.

"It was unwise, it was hypocritical, it was a mistake that I deeply regret and deeply apologize for," Hancock told KUSA, Denver’s NBC affiliate. 

Hancock isn’t the only politician who’s had to explain rule-breaking behavior. Around the country, elected officials who have imposed some of the strictest restrictions in the face of the coronavirus pandemic have, at least once, flouted their own rules.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo canceled plans to host an extended family Thanksgiving dinner, in the face of a public backlash. San Jose Mayor Sam Riccardo apologized after attending a holiday meal that combined relatives from five different households, in violation of state rules. Protesters gathered outside the home of Los Angeles County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl on Tuesday, following reports that she’d eaten at a Santa Monica restaurant last week, hours after she voted to ban outdoor dining. 

Last month, Austin Mayor Steve Adler posted a video on Facebook telling residents, "We need to stay home if you can. This is not the time to relax... We may have to close things down if we are not careful." It turned out that Adler was vacationing in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, when he recorded the video.

Call it leading by lack of example. By giving themselves greater freedom and discretion than they've allowed the public, these politicians and others have earned themselves media criticism and social media mockery. “What California restaurant would politician you be caught hypocritically eating at?” tweeted one state resident. 

The criticism is a symptom of a larger problem. By demonstrating their belief that it's okay to indulge, if only briefly, politicians have made their own job of getting the public to accept new or continuing restrictions that much harder. 

The politicians who get caught cheating routinely apologize and admit they should have known better. In his KUSA interview, Hancock owned up to his mistake but pointed out he’s worked long and hard during the pandemic. "There's a whole cadre of people who are working hard every day since this virus came upon us, spending 12, 14, 18 hours a day, seven days a week to save the lives and save the livelihoods of the people of this city and this state,” he said. “Nothing that I've done should negate that."

But during the pandemic, everyone is suffering. Even those with good health and good jobs are having to keep themselves separate from friends and loved ones. Or at least they’re supposed to. 

Perhaps the elected officials in question decided it was okay to take a calculated risk. Having been careful for months, they believed they could still eat out or travel or get haircuts with minimal risks. But plenty of people who followed the rules ended up deathly ill by letting down their guard once or occasionally.

The danger is especially great right now, with the country seeing 1 million new coronavirus cases a week. Public health officials are pleading with people to stay safe until vaccines are approved and distributed, but some people seem to be taking the positive vaccine news as permission to skip other precautions.

Democrats Dining Out

It’s Democrats who’ve been pilloried for cheating recently, which makes sense. A Republican governor who hasn’t imposed a mask mandate may come in for some criticism, but can’t be called out as a hypocrite for not wearing a face covering.

Last month, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi – who had gotten an unmasked haircut in September – canceled a large indoor dinner she’d planned at the Capitol for incoming freshmen. Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser traveled to Delaware, which is on her city’s list of “high risk” states, to attend Joe Biden’s victory rally. D.C. residents are supposed to quarantine after visiting high-risk states, but Bowser claimed an exemption because it was “essential travel.” (Denver Mayor Hancock is remaining in quarantine following his Thanksgiving trip.) Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney ate at a Maryland restaurant owned by a friend in August, at a time when indoor restaurants were shut in his own city. 

California Gov. Gavin Newsom last month attended a birthday celebration of a dozen people for a lobbyist at a $450 per plate prix fixe restaurant called The French Laundry, located near Napa. California guidelines “strongly discourage” social gatherings and limit them to members of three households. Newsom called it a "bad mistake." 

On Tuesday, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that Mayor London Breed was part of a party of eight at The French Laundry the night after the Newsom event. “The dinner would have certainly violated San Francisco’s health guidelines if it took place in Breed’s own city,” according to the Chronicle.

Throughout the pandemic, San Francisco has maintained rules that are among the strictest in the nation. The city has been rewarded with comparatively low coronavirus caseloads and deaths for a city of its size.

But it has relied on residents to be stalwart. No matter how strict the rules, they rely on willing compliance. Even if a city wanted to arrest or fine people, for instance, for violating a ban on small household gatherings, it would be logistically impossible to enforce.

As the pandemic has worn on, restrictions have not only worn some people down but become in some instances contradictory and confusing. In New York, for example, Cuomo called on people not to gather for Thanksgiving but kept indoor restaurants open, imposing a 10 p.m. curfew. Why is indoor dining among strangers safe most hours of the day, but being with family is not okay?

“When health authorities present one rule after another without clear, science-based substantiation, their advice ends up seeming arbitrary and capricious,” writes science reporter Roxanne Khamsi. “That erodes public trust and makes it harder to implement rules that do make sense.” 

Calling Out Hypocrisy

President Trump contracted the coronavirus and has hosted a number of White House events that flouted D.C. restrictions and appear to have spread the disease. But Trump has consistently called for opening up the country and the economy. That may be bad policy, but it means he isn’t contradicting himself when engaging in risky behavior.

That matters in terms of press psychology and coverage. Media outlets like to see themselves as upholding truth and high standards, so they always feel that it’s fair game to knock politicians who act privately in contradiction to their public positions.

This is a longstanding dynamic. Closeted politicians are still more likely to be outed if they attack LGBTQ rights. On Sunday, Hungarian politician József Szájer, who wrote the nation’s ban on same-sex marriage, resigned from the European Parliament after police raided a 25-man orgy in Brussels (which violated a COVID-19 lockdown). 

Back in 1996, when the media still honored more of a separation between private lives and public acts, the Washington Post confirmed that Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole had engaged in an affair, but decided not to run with the story since Dole had not made “family values” a theme of his campaign. 

There are good reasons for the press to be vigilant about hypocrisy. The public is always angered when they sense that politicians enjoy special privileges. Corrupt politicians can engage in all manner of self-serving behavior, whether it’s cutting sweetheart deals for their friends or putting family members on the payroll.

When politicians get caught, they’d better have a good explanation handy. That’s why the politicians who’ve been dining out or traveling have quickly apologized. They know they have no good excuse for failing to live up to their own standards.

Alan Greenblatt is the editor of Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
Special Projects