The beginning of the pandemic nearly two years ago exemplified the traits that separate liberals and conservatives. Those on the left spoke out in favor of mask mandates, online school, restrictions on small businesses, and vaccine requirements, arguing that public safety must come first in a communitarian society.
On the other hand, those on the right have stressed the importance of individual liberties amidst the pandemic, especially after vaccines became available. They have vigorously pushed back against mask mandates and other restrictive public health policies.
College students are also starting to push back against restrictions they believe are unjust, with a larger number of students adopting conservative social values, such as a heightened value of individual liberty and distrust in restrictions.
After hearing more and more students from both the left and the right express frustration with Stanford’s COVID restrictions that have extended far into Winter Quarter, I decided to sit down with a few students to understand how COVID policies have shaped their political views.
Isabel* self-identifies as a socialist, and before COVID vaccines became widely available, she was a firm supporter of mask mandates, testing, and social distance measures. However, on a campus that’s over 95% vaccinated, she’s started to question the efficacy and necessity of these policies.
“I support measures that make sense,” Isabel told me. “But the measures that we have don’t make sense. It feels incredibly dysfunctional to have to walk into a dining hall to be told I have to take my cloth mask to put on a disposable mask. I put on my disposable mask because it’s more effective, I spend three minutes getting my food, and then I sit for an hour with a mask off at a table with like ten other people.”
In reaction to these policies, Isabel has developed a greater appreciation of the importance of individual liberties. She’s also grown distrustful of Democratic leadership that continues to bolster these policies while publicly disobeying them (think Gavin Newsom’s French Laundry escapade or Gretchen Whitmer hosting a dinner for twelve, when Michigan’s rules only allowed for tables of six). Isabel’s views about continuing lockdowns reflect national trends: restrictive COVID policies have led to sinking approval ratings for Democrats.
Isabel mentioned that other students have similar attitudes: “I think that there is a widely held consensus that if we were at [the University of Alabama] or [UMiami] or UT, this would not be happening. I think there is a libertarian sense of ‘I don’t want the school to have my health information' and ‘I don’t want the school to mandate whether I get a booster or not.’” Even her friends who “will probably vote Democratic ’til the day they die” are tired of weekly testing and mask mandates and have gradually lost interest in tweeting out support for the Black Lives Matter movement and the Green New Deal. This highlights a serious issue with Democrats moving into the upcoming elections: pandemic fatigue is making people disinterested in politics.
Another student, Tom*, has grown increasingly frustrated by a lack of critical thinking around COVID policies. “Tell me why the policy in Green Library is that if you are alone in a cement room with the door shut, why I should have a mask on? There is no sense left. The problem is that once you start accepting these sort of irrational incidents and saying ‘oh well it’s not a big deal’, that’s the answer everyone gives. They will say ‘yeah masks are stupid but it’s not really a big inconvenience.’ You give them an inch and they will take a mile.”
The polarized reaction to the pandemic has forced Tom to reevaluate where his views lie on the political spectrum. He now identifies as a conservative: he says that his political views have not fundamentally changed, but the left has become too radical for him to support it.
Tom worries that the fewer people question COVID protocols, the more power elected officials gain to impose other restrictions that go unchallenged. “We are three vaccines later, two years, and we are still masked. It’s not self-evident that if you grant [left-leaning people and politicians] a little bit of ground and say ‘we will accept this lie for the greater good’ that they will ever relent.”
Tom also expressed concerns about how quick students are to judge those who don’t always wear masks, even in situations where the risk of COVID contagion is extremely low. Although “most people have my politics [and] most people know [Stanford’s restrictions are] stupid,” students are “scared to say something, and in a lot of cases, they just don’t care.” So when he takes off his mask “in spaces where I know everyone is vaccinated, just receiving people’s stares [feels like a] sort of shock therapy.”
Isabel has noticed similar social repercussions of questioning and challenging COVID policies. She’s “definitely had students give [her] bad looks for saying ‘I’m going to a party’” and been chastised by other students for going to downtown Palo Alto. Tom has expressed his belief that students who “get to enforce the COVID regime have an authoritarian personality type.” In the face of this casual authoritarianism, it’s no wonder students increasingly value individual liberty. While this concept may have been abstract before the pandemic, it’s now directly at play every time we don a mask or submit yet another Color test. The ideological debate behind COVID of individual liberties versus communitarianism becomes moot when considering that lockdowns had little to no effect on containing the virus. Those who continue to police others’ adherence to COVID protocols not only are fomenting a cultural resistance against communitarianism but also are unscientific.
Thankfully, Spring Quarter will likely see a loosening of draconian COVID protocols. Nevertheless, a return to normal life won’t erase the impact of the last few years on Isabel, Tom, and other students drifting toward conservatism. Students have now seen the direct effects of administrative overreach on individual liberties, causing them to reevaluate their political standing. This ‘once in a lifetime’ event will fundamentally shift our generation’s views on politics, having dealt with this mass reckoning and its countless mishaps.
This user posted on an anonymous chat platform called Fizz popular among Stanford students and echoed Isabel’s sentiments about Stanford’s COVID policies. The post received 546 upvotes from students.
Quotes have been lightly edited for clarity
*Names changed to preserve anonymity