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Arthur Brooks: Time for Biden administration to depoliticize COVID-19 vaccine

Author and social scientist says Biden administration needs fresh coronavirus team

Arthur Brooks speaks at the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute symposium.
Arthur Brooks, the William Henry Bloomberg professor of the practice of public leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School and professor of management practice at the Harvard Business School, speaks at the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute symposium at the Thomas S. Monson Center in Salt Lake City on Friday, Jan. 7, 2022.
Laura Seitz, Deseret News

Noted author and social scientist Arthur Brooks says it’s time to depoliticize the COVID-19 vaccine, and time for the Biden administration to start over with its public health advisory team.

“This is political. This is sociological. This is psychological at this point in time,” he said.

“We need to depoliticize. We need to move away from force and coercion and we need to actually start working on trust and fear. These are the key things, and we’ve gone the wrong direction.”

Brooks touched on a variety of current issues Friday during an hourlong discussion at the University of Utah’s Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute. Utah House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, facilitated the conversation for a small audience of local politicians and community and business leaders.

The author of several books, including “Love Your Enemies,” “The Conservative Heart” and a new one to help people find success and purpose as they age titled “From Strength to Strength,” Brooks has spoken to Utah audiences many times over the years.

Utah, he said, has garnered a lot of national attention.

“There’s a possibility Utah and Salt Lake City can help bring this country back together again,” Brooks said.

Developing the COVID-19 vaccine is an achievement akin to hitting the moon, but it’s an empty victory because so many people don’t trust public health officials, and “I understand why,” Brooks said. “It’s been highly politicized.”

Public health leaders at the national level will not stand up and say schools should be open, said Brooks, a professor of management at Harvard Business School where he teaches a class on happiness. Public health data, he said, are unambiguous that schools should be open.

Utah House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, left, listens as Arthur Brooks, the William Henry Bloomberg professor of the practice of public leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School and professor of management practice at the Harvard Business School, speaks at the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute symposium at the Thomas S. Monson Center in Salt Lake City on Friday, Jan. 7, 2022.
Utah House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, left, listens as Arthur Brooks, the William Henry Bloomberg professor of the practice of public leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School and professor of management practice at the Harvard Business School, speaks at the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute symposium at the Thomas S. Monson Center in Salt Lake City on Friday, Jan. 7, 2022.
Laura Seitz, Deseret News

“We need the president of the United States to stand up and say, ‘Open schools.’ That would be a nonpartisan thing to do,” he said. “Nonpartisan words are always more powerful when you stand up to your own side.”

In addition, Brooks said President Joe Biden needs to get a new coronavirus team to “clear out” what’s actually happened the past two years, “an entirely new team of people who are not afraid.”

“Not to cast aspersions on anybody, but I think it’s very important to see some fresh faces who are relentlessly nonpolitical,” Brooks said.

Public health leaders need to acknowledge that there is evidence the virus originated in Wuhan, China, and natural immunity is real, he said, noting some studies show it’s 27 times more powerful than vaccinated immunity.

“We’re not stupid. It’s very important that we have trust in public health officials. And when we have trust in public health officials and they say ‘Yeah, these things are true and you need to go get vaccinated for the good of our community and for your good,’ then people will do it,” Brooks said.

“When you force people to do it, they don’t want to. Americans are funny that way, aren’t they?”

Brooks, the former president of the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute, also talked about how to overcome the lack of trust people have in government institutions.

He called it a “national crisis” that has been going on long before the COVID-19 pandemic. The U.S. military is the only government entity that has risen in trust over the years, though that has dipped a little lately too, he said.

Even though the loss of trust in institutions is a problem, Brooks said he doesn’t see it as a threat to American democracy.

“I think it’s a threat to American unity and the trust that we can actually have for each other, which makes it impossible or really, really hard for us to do things. That trust issue is something that we need to take on,” he said.

Arthur Brooks, the William Henry Bloomberg professor of the practice of public leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School and professor of management practice at the Harvard Business School, left, speaks with Catherine Kanter, center, and Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall at a Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute symposium at the Thomas S. Monson Center in Salt Lake City on Friday, Jan. 7, 2022.
Arthur Brooks, the William Henry Bloomberg professor of the practice of public leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School and professor of management practice at the Harvard Business School, left, speaks with Catherine Kanter, center, and Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall at a Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute symposium at the Thomas S. Monson Center in Salt Lake City on Friday, Jan. 7, 2022.
Laura Seitz, Deseret News

Political, community and business leaders need to publicly fight back against the excesses on their own sides.

During a speech Thursday on the anniversary of the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, Biden said, “You can’t love your country only when you win.” Brooks applauded the statement as a wise and correct message, but for the wrong audience.

“He needs to be saying that to people on the cultural left who only believe in elections when the Democrats win, who only love America when progressive things happen and who hate America and cast aspersions on this whole country and think we’re all a bunch of right-wing stooges when the Supreme Court has the wrong composition or the wrong party wins control of Congress,” Brooks said.

“And the right needs to do exactly the same thing.”

Also, he said politicians on both sides need to “get caught showing love.”

Brooks also addressed ways for leaders to depoliticize society in general, saying they shouldn’t use hot-button issues to gain a partisan advantage by politicizing things that shouldn’t be political. It’s easy to make race or COVID-19 something that fires up people, he said.

“You’re making things worse under the circumstances,” he said.

Brooks said he believes the partisanship that exists in the country will subside over the next five years.

“We can’t maintain this level of partisan energy around absolutely every issue,” he said. “That would be historically anomalous for the United States.”