Masks in a Vaccinated Nation

With vaccination rates surpassing 50 percent, the U.S. is beginning to navigate the process of returning to normal. To many Americans, masks remain a salient and emotional symbol — but of what?

Here’s the current conversation around masks within each side’s own terms:

Left

To the left, wearing masks symbolizes safety and compassion for other people. Although vaccinations are going up, the pandemic is not over. We need to make sure vulnerable people in our communities are safe and be ready in case new variants start spreading. Going back to a maskless life is difficult, and we need to be respectful of people who find it hard to make that adjustment.

 

Right

To the right, wearing masks is a symbol of government overreach and herd mentality. The CDC says it’s completely safe for vaccinated people to unmask. Continuing the mask wearing charade is unnecessary virtue signaling and exhibits a lack of independent thinking. This behavior shows it was never about science, but fear and control.

 

 

 

Themes in the mask conversation

How a person instinctively views masks depends on their broader worldview.

People on the right tend to be rooted in the value of self-reliance and uphold the primacy of the local community. They tend to believe that the people closest to the problem are the ones best suited to solve it — not a national or state government hundreds of miles away.

Mask mandates violate these principles by stripping the individual of their autonomy and putting it into the hands of national officials who don’t know that individual’s specific circumstances. When viewed in this light, a piece of cloth is transformed into a symbol of government overreach.

People on the left tend to focus on the whole nation as the unit of analysis and emphasize the idea of compassionate self-sacrifice for the benefit of the greater good. They see a strong central government as the best solution to the challenges society faces, especially when it comes to protecting and supporting marginalized groups. 

In times of crisis, left-leaning people tend to push collective action over inaction. Since mask mandates are seen as a way to ensure everyone is doing their part to fight this virus, they will see mask-wearing as a symbol of a united, compassionate nation taking action. 

These dynamics become clear when you take a closer look at the conversation about masks over the course of the pandemic:

 

 

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Anna Tyger, Shaun Cammack, and Sofia Sedergren-Booker June 1, 2021