SALT LAKE CITY — As the number of coronavirus cases in the U.S. surges past 3 million, governors across the country have a message for ordinary Americans: COVID-19 is a problem that individuals need to solve.
“This plan only works if we as individuals take on the responsibility to do our part,” Utah Gov. Gary Herbert said Thursday at a news conference announcing face masks would be required when public schools reopen, but avoided a broader mask mandate.
In South Carolina, Gov. Henry McMaster has said there is “very little” his administration can do, saying, “What it boils down to is, we must be careful individually.”
And in Tennessee, Gov. Bill Lee has said, “When we have people dying in this state as a result of this virus, we should be taking personal responsibility for this.”
Similar calls have come from Republican governors in Florida, Texas, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Missouri and Iowa, among others. The governor of South Dakota, Kristi Noem, uses the term regularly, suggesting in speeches and social media posts that COVID-19 cases have been relatively low in the state because its residents are so responsible.
“South Dakota is not New York City, and our sense of personal responsibility, our resiliency, and our already sparse population density put us in a great position to manage the spread of the virus without needing to resort to the kinds of draconian shutdowns adopted by big coastal cities or even other countries,” Noem has said.
In stressing individual behavior, Noem and the other governors echo an ideology embraced by the late President Ronald Reagan and the nation’s Founding Fathers, and one that many people believe is an underpinning of Judeo-Christian values.
But in the context of a deadly pandemic that has claimed more than 134,000 lives in the U.S., overemphasis on personal responsibility can lead to accusations of blaming the victims, which include a 41-year-old Broadway star with no preexisting conditions, and more than 75 residents at a home for veterans in Holyoke, Massachusetts.
“It is really striking at a moment we’re facing an unavoidable crisis for citizens — nobody can say we somehow brought COVID-19 on ourselves — that we are still seeing this rhetoric of personal responsibility,” said Jacob Hacker, a political-science professor at Yale University.
And when a hot spot emerges, such as Arizona or Florida, does the doctrine imply you and your neighbors are to blame?
‘A perfect example’
In his 2006 book “The Great Risk Shift,” Hacker said an ideological shift began in the 1970s, as governments and businesses began to transfer the economic risks of pensions and insurance to individuals. An example is the change from employer-provided pensions to 401(k) accounts to which employees choose to contribute.
What Hacker dubbed “the personal responsibility crusade” ultimately ushered in a sweeping change “from an all-in-the-boat philosophy of shared risk toward a go-it-alone vision of personal responsibility.”
And as the health issues associated with overeating and tobacco and alcohol abuse became widely known, producers of these products also adopted the personal-responsibility mantra.
Responsibility.org, for example, is the website of the Foundation for Advancing Alcohol Responsibility, which is supported by nine distillers that urge consumers to “drink responsibly,” even though the World Health Organization says there is no safe level of alcohol consumption.
It’s a shrewd strategy since individuality and freedom is baked into the American ethos and was even evoked in conversations among the Founding Fathers, according Mark Riebling, writing for City Journal. Responsibility was, Riebling wrote, “an old concept that found its fullest expression in the new world.” And writing for the Heritage Foundation, conservative talk-show host Dennis Prager called personal responsibility a foundational value of Christianity and Judaism, which teach that human beings are accountable to God. “Just as I am rewarded for my good behavior, I am accountable for my bad behavior,” Prager wrote.
But critics say that personal responsibility is weaponized when touted by governments and businesses trying to evade their own responsibility in a societal problem, such as obesity or tobacco and alcohol abuse.
“Personal responsibility often gets used as a dodge and a way of shirking duty and shifting blame away from government, businesses and other powerful entities onto individual citizens. COVID is a perfect example of this,” said Kelly Brownell, director of the World Food Policy Center at Duke University in North Carolina.
Many of the governors who stress personal responsibility do so in states that enacted fewer measures to slow the growth of the virus. In South Dakota, for example, where President Donald Trump held an Independence Day rally before a largely maskless crowd, Noem never issued a stay-at-home order, and South Dakota was recently ranked the state with the fewest coronavirus restrictions in a survey by WalletHub. (Utah came in third.)
Brownell, the former dean of the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke, doesn’t discount the importance of individual behavior. “Of course, people need to be responsible and wear masks and distance in crowded places, but it’s the government’s duty to help support responsibility, not undermine it.”
He said the federal government has undermined responsibility by sending mixed messages about the seriousness of the pandemic and the best ways to combat the virus. “In some ways, the focus on personal responsibility has become so necessary because of irresponsibility by the government,” he said.
And in fact, accusations of irresponsibility are rampant on both sides of the partisan divide. One person posted on Twitter, for example, that she was being personally responsible by exercising, praying and eating healthful foods. (Obesity is a risk factor for complications of COVID-19.) She concluded with the hashtag #saynotomasks.
‘The messenger matters’
Political scientist Yascha Mounk wrote about personal responsibility and the social safety net in his 2017 book “The Age of Responsibility.” Now an associate professor at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, D.C., Mounk notes that personal responsibility isn’t the exclusive domain of conservatives; the 1996 welfare reform signed by then-President Bill Clinton was called the “Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, and California Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, has also called for personal responsibility in his state. (Newsom has also said that he has a “responsibility to do better.”)
Hacker, at Yale, said “the most extreme version” of the personal-responsibility push is the effort to protect businesses from COVID-19-related liability. Similarly, people attending Trump campaign rallies have been asked to sign liability waivers.
“This is an evasion of the responsibility of governing officials to make reopening as safe as possible for citizens,” Hacker said. “To say it’s up to individuals, you’re basically washing your hands of responsibility and accountability for these terrible outcomes.”
But there’s another reason Americans should be careful about responsibility rhetoric, says Sherry Pagoto, a licensed clinical psychologist and professor in the Department of Allied Health Science at the University of Connecticut.
Pagoto said talk of personal responsibility is an “intellectual dead end” because there are myriad reasons that people make the choices they do, even when they conflict with what others believe is right.
For example, even though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says wearing masks and social distancing will help curb the virus, calling people who don’t do this irresponsible doesn’t help, Pagoto said. “That, I think, is a fast train to nowhere.”
“No one wants to be told they don’t care about other people. They don’t see it in that way. I don’t think that’s what’s in their heart and in their mind. They just don’t see that mask wearing is something useful to do,” she said.
“We all live in subcultures. If someone’s not wearing a mask, in their subculture, that behavior may actually make a lot of sense because it may be the case that if they wear a mask, their social circle is going to shame them or the information that they’ve received says it’s unnecessary, it’s not going to do much for them. The behavior makes sense within that context.”
Pagoto added that society needs to come up with strategies to overcome the barriers that keep people from complying with what medical experts consider best practices.
In the case of people who resist wearing a mask, for example, maybe someone needs to deliver the message other than public health officials.
“Unless the person saying that you should wear a mask is someone you really respect, then it won’t come off as useful. The messenger matters,” Pagoto said.
Meanwhile Noem, in South Dakota, continues to hammer the message of personal responsibility, hoping it will draw new residents to her state.
“Not all governors trusted their people, but I did,” she said recently. “Different paths mean people have different choices, and South Dakota chose commonsense solutions. If you want freedom, personal responsibility and a government that works for you rather than dictates to you, South Dakota is the place to get it.”
As for your chance of also getting COVID-19, the state had 7,336 cases and 101 deaths as of July 9, according to The New York Times’ coronavirus database. The state with the fewest is Hawaii, with 1,076 cases and 19 deaths.
The Hawaii governor, David Ige, is a Democrat who tweeted last month, “We need to take personal responsibility.”