MINOT, N.D. — America has long sought to protect itself from being governed by technical experts.
The best example of this is the military and law enforcement. The person at the top of the chain of command for cops and soldiers is always someone who is neither (at least not actively).
Police chiefs report to mayors and city councils. The commander-in-chief of any given state's National Guard is the governor. The commander-in-chief of the U.S. military is whoever is occupying the White House.
This is by design. While we acknowledge that generals and police chiefs have technical expertise in their fields which is owed respect, we also understand that policy decisions must be made by political leaders.
Which is why it's frustrating to see so many, in this time of pandemic, braying about letting the scientists lead us.
Case in point, this recent piece from left-wing columnist Jim Shaw suggesting that, under Gov. Doug Burgum, "science is taking a backseat to politics."
According to Shaw, Burgum ought to just do what scientists tell him to do.
But nobody voted for the scientists. North Dakota voted for Doug Burgum, and he's who ought to lead us, not a bunch of bureaucrats, whatever their technical qualifications.
One criticism Shaw launches against Burgum has to do with the color-coded statewide risk level. "One main sticking point is that Burgum insists on keeping the state’s COVID-19 risk level at green, which means low risk. The problem is, the data indicates otherwise. We’re reaching record highs for active cases," Shaw gripes.
Is the problem Burgum and politics, or the complexity behind using a statewide metric to describe the risk of a virus that has not had a uniform geographic impact? As of this morning, more than half of North Dakota's counties have less than 10 active cases, 15 counties have two or fewer active cases, and three counties have no cases at all.
Those areas are definitely "low risk."
A more thoughtful commentator might suggest that we ought to dispense with the statewide threat metric and instead focus on local or regional measures.
Shaw also demands a mask mandate.
Emergent situations tend to provoke the hidden authoritarian in some, and while there is no questioning that there is a near-consensus in the medical and scientific fields that we ought to be wearing masks as a way to combat the spread of the coronavirus, a policy forcing people to wear masks is a political question without an easy answer.
"Currently, 34 states have such mandates, including many red states," Shaw writes, glossing over the fact that these mandates aren't exactly enforced vigorously, and for good reason.
We don't have enough cops to enforce them, and in this current moment of widespread mistrust of law enforcement, do we really want uniformed officers handing out fines and handcuffing people for not wearing a mask?
A mask mandate might be gratifying for Shaw and his innate desire to straw boss his fellow citizens, but as a practical matter of policy it would accomplish little. To the extent that states with mandates have seen a slower spread of the virus, that likely has to do with politics.
Where a mask mandate is politically palatable are likely places where people are taking the virus more seriously in general.
Like it or not, North Dakota, on the whole, is not one of those places, which is likely why Burgum has resisted a mandate, believing he can accomplish more by inspiring people to choose to mask up as opposed to forcing them.
Criticize that choice if you like, but don't insist that Burgum just do what the science bureaucrats tell him.
"It is the job of elected leaders, like governors, to synthesize the advice from technical experts into practical real-world policies that work," I wrote in a column last week. "Many politicians like to excuse themselves from that responsibility during emergent situations, blowing hot air about 'just listening to the experts,' which gives them plausible deniability if things don't work out."
Burgum is leading, not hiding behind technical experts, and that's what we need.
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Rob Port, founder of SayAnythingBlog.com, is a Forum Communications commentator. Reach him on Twitter at @robport or via email at email@example.com.