Anyone who thought that the American crisis was going to be resolved at the ballot box November 3 has been rapidly disillusioned. The election revealed that America is — and is likely to remain — a deeply divided nation. And many of us are skeptical that our deep cultural divides and structural instabilities can be fixed simply by electing the “right” people to office.

Scholar Patrick J. Deneen wrote in 2018:

“Every institution of government shows declining levels of public trust by the citizenry, and deep cynicism toward politics is reflected in an uprising on all sides of the political spectrum against political and economic elites… It is evident to all that the political system is broken and the social fabric is fraying, particularly as a growing gap increases between the wealthy haves and the left-behind have-nots, a hostile divide opens between faithful and secular peoples, and deep disagreement persists over America’s role in the world…”

And that was before COVID-19.

The announcement of effective vaccines for COVID-19 is wonderful news, a magnificent accomplishment of science — but they are a ways off from implementation. Right now, we are caught in a dire new surge of the disease.

The threat from COVID-19 is real. Focusing on mortality rates distorts the picture and may have given us a false complacency toward the disease’s potential to disrupt, damage and destroy lives. Dr. Andrea Caballero, an infectious disease expert who has been on the frontlines for months treating COVID patients talked with Anchorage Daily News about recovering COVID patients:

“The way that epidemiology works is that we have strict definitions of what constitutes a case and what constitutes a recovered case. We’re trying to fit the real world into a statistical analysis, and it has its limitations.

“One of the things that I think is underappreciated is that even though we have a seemingly low mortality level, some of these patients that are surviving are not surviving (and simply) walking out of the hospital back home. We’re talking about ending up with tracheostomies, which is a tube in your throat to help you breathe, a PEG (percutaneous endoscopic gastronomy) tube in your stomach to feed you, and then months and months and months of in-patient therapy.”

Health officials are right to be deeply alarmed at the current surge, particularly at the potential to overstress weary healthcare workers and break down overtaxed systems.

Government officials have a fine line to walk in taking measures to combat the spread of COVID-19. It’s not easy in such a crisis balancing public health and individual rights and liberties. But make no mistake: crossing that line creates a threat perhaps less immediate — but no less damaging — than the disease itself.

When executives, acting by fiat, seek to regulate who you have in your home — backed with the threat of law enforcement action — that is… alarming. Concern over the constitutionality and rectitude of such measures is not — at least it shouldn’t be — a fringe position. The American Republic was founded upon deep suspicion of power vested in an executive, upon a healthy fear of the state reaching into our private lives.

The robust checks and balances of our system have been eroded by generations of executives of both parties taking more and more authority upon themselves, and legislative bodies and the courts abdicating their role to put the reins on those executives.

Are “wartime measures” necessary to combat the threat of COVID-19? Perhaps. Certainly, the wise citizen should exercise extreme caution and good judgment in the face of a surging epidemic of a virulent contagion.

Good example and persuasion, the rallying of constitutionally sound legislative backing for extended states of emergency, and treating citizens as responsible adults represent a higher form of leadership. Unfortunately, we have been conditioned by decades of abuse of executive power and our own civic disengagement to a degree that we accept less than we as citizens are owed by our government — and less than we owe ourselves.

We can regret that we did not see better example and rallying leadership at many levels at the beginning of this crisis. We can regret that a public-health crisis has been politicized and warped into yet another front in an apparently intractable cultural conflict. We can, going forward, choose to act as responsible citizens — and insist upon being treated as such.

And — always — we must support each other in our own community, where we are all under the strain of living through this terrible year.