COVID-19 Highlighted The Failures Of Conservatism

The incompetent governance, radical individualism, and anti-intellectualism in modern conservatism made the pandemic much worse than it had to be.
President Donald J. Trump, joined by Vice President Mike Pence and members of the White House COVID-19 Coronavirus task force – – Thursday, April 16, 2020. (Official White House Photo by Joyce N. Boghosian)

President Donald J. Trump, joined by Vice President Mike Pence and members of the White House COVID-19 Coronavirus task force – – Thursday, April 16, 2020. (Official White House Photo by Joyce N. Boghosian)

Professor Leonard Weinberg is a Senior Fellow at CARR, Professor Emeritus at the University of Nevada, and recipient of both Fulbright and Guggenheim research awards.

Decades ago America’s two major political parties were divided largely over the role of government or, more specifically, the federal government’s role in the economy.  Democrats, at least outside the South, usually supported interventionist programs, such as Medicare, while Republicans in Congress usually opposed them. So long as the disputes were over money, how much or how little should be spent, compromises between the parties were possible and even desirable.

As most observers have noted in recent years, things have changed. The Republicans and Democrats in Washington, but also in the country in general, have become far more polarized along ideological lines. The inter-party struggles have become less about money and more about what are or aren’t legitimate social values and appropriate ways of behaving in public and private places. Of course, this polarization is hardly equal, with one side digesting a steady diet of disinformation.

By most accounts, the public’s voting behavior has also undergone a significant shift. For decades following Roosevelt and the New Deal, the Democrats tended to win the support of blue collar-workers, often ‘ethnics’, with limited years of formal education. GOP supporters, on the other hand, tended to be drawn from the country’s better educated white Protestant population who made their living in white-collar jobs and in the professions.

As in the case of life-style or social values, so too in regard to voting preferences, there has been a notable shift in the electorate. Since the Southern Strategy began in 1968, Republicans targeted working-class whites by scapegoating their economic plight on immigrants and people of color. Especially since the election of Donald Trump to the presidency in 2016, white working-class voters have become far more attracted to Republican candidates than once was the case. The well-known ‘base’ of Trump’s support has been concentrated among older white male voters with less than a college education.

At the core of this support has been a set of ideas, which many call conservative.  These ideas include the following:

  1. Radical individualism: Government has no right to constrain your behavior under virtually any and all circumstances. The ‘right to bear arms’ is a sacred principle. Constant vigilance is required to protect this right.
  2. Nationalism: The United States is the greatest country in human history.  Because of  ‘liberal’ or ‘socialist’ policies, the country has been seriously weakened.  To make America great again, self-defined patriots need to take charge and, among other things, prevent immigrants from entering the country.
  3. Anti-Intellectualism: Experts, scientists, academics, and all those who claim to possess special knowledge are not to be believed. For example, those so-called experts who claim the Earth is warming and the climate changing are just in it for themselves. They want to make money by receiving government subsidies. Instead of what many regard as scientific explanations for a wide variety of phenomena, current “conservative” thinking often relies on conspiratorial thinking as reflected, for example, in the wide popularity of QAnon theory.
  4. Rejection of the Declaration of Independence:  It is self-evident that all men are not created equal. Whites of European origins are superior to other elements in the American population. In recent decades this alleged superiority has been threatened by the illegitimate claims of immigrants and racial/religious minorities who more and more can be seen as occupying prominent places in public life. This belief drives many of the conservative movement’s cultural grievances.

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Trump is hardly an ideologue in the sense that he filters the world of politics through a logically consistent set of ideas.  He often contradicts himself within the space of a paragraph. Nevertheless, he managed to develop a rapport with his ‘base’ because of his skills as a demagogue and correlative ability to express the “conservative” values listed above. Lesser lights, other “conservative” politicians seeking or holding public office at the national or state level usually succeed to the extent they articulate these same ideas. The angrier their tone, the better.

This brings us to the COVID-19 pandemic. More than a half-million Americans have died from this disease since it arrived in the country in January 2020. The death toll is the highest in the world. What explains this calamitous development? Public health experts, epidemiologists, virologists, and other scientists have come forward with carefully considered explanations.

Under the general heading of public health practices, we might consider “conservatism” as an explanation for the heavy death toll. In the last half of 2020, GOP-led states had a higher rate of COVID-19 cases and deaths than Democratic-led states.

Virtually all public health specialists urged governments to require mask-wearing in public places to avoid COVID-19’s spread. The governors of some 17 states refused to follow this advice. Aside from this refusal, what do Alaska, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Iowa, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, and Tennessee have in common? They were all lead by conservative Republican governors at the height of the pandemic.  More recently the governors of Texas and Mississippi have joined their GOP colleagues in ending mask-wearing requirements in public places.  In most cases, the announced justification for the failure to impose the requirement has been based on the conservative principle of radical individualism.

In some states, leaders who imposed mask-wearing and other public health requirements suffered as the result. In Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer was the target of a kidnapping/assassination plot because of her intent to maintain public health standards. Armed Michigan “conservatives” were encouraged by President Trump to ‘liberate” Michigan after they invaded the state capitol.

Maintaining social distance in public places has been another measure urged on by public health experts. This measure was largely ignored under various circumstances by conservative GOP leaders. For example, meat-packing evidently requires workers (largely Hispanic) to stand close to one another in performing their jobs. But conservative governors in South Dakota and Kansas chose not to require new rules to make this factory work safer by restructuring the workplace to provide for greater social distance between employees as they did their work. As a result, cases of COVID-19 increased substantially as the disease spread around the country.

The Trump administration was slow to react to the disease, despite warnings from scientists about the threat posed by COVID-19. When it did react, the President chose to downplay the advice of scientists in favor of more appealing political accounts and the recommendation of various quacks. For some time, Trump publicly touted the drug Hydroxychloroquine as a cure for the disease. Scientists who studied its properties found it had no benefits in fighting the disease. In addition to spreading doubt about the work of public health officials, Trump appointed Dr. Scott Atlas, a radiologist from Stanford, to advise him about potential treatments. Trump was evidently drawn to Atlas’ approach after watching him argue the benefits, on a Fox News show, of doing nothing until ‘herd’ immunity was achieved by the natural course of the disease.

“Conservatism” still makes a difference even now after COVID-19 vaccines are available and Trump has left the White House.  Recent public opinion polls suggest that large majorities of individuals identifying themselves as Independents and Democrats express a desire to be vaccinated. Respondents calling themselves Republicans express great distrust about the benefits of vaccination. Only about 35 percent of “conservative” GOP identifiers have expressed a desire to receive the inoculation.  They seem willing to risk death rather than follow the advice of scientists. How many thousands have already died because of their “conservative” commitments?

In seeking to understand the spread of COVID-19 around the United States in 2020, monocausal explanations do not suffice.  Various conditions played a role in helping the virus infect millions of Americans. One of these has been the significant role played by the country’s now dominant “conservative” ideology in inhibiting the social cohesion necessary in limiting the effects of the disease in the general population and in downplaying the scientific work essential in defeating it.

This article is brought to you by the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). Through their research, CARR intends to lead discussions on the development of radical right extremism around the world.

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