Conservatives and Corona: Why is the Pandemic Polarized?

Conservatives and Corona: Why is the Pandemic Polarized? September 19, 2021


One of the weirdest aspects of this endless pandemic is the political polarization of responses to it. It’s not surprising that people disagree over how to respond to a new disease. But it doesn’t, on the face of it, seem obvious that conservatives would oppose shutdowns and mask mandates and even vaccines while liberals would support those things.

Once upon a time, a very long time ago, in March of 2020, First Things editor Rusty Reno landed in a lot of trouble for a series of posts and tweets fuming at the coronavirus shutdown. He eventually apologized for a particularly outrageous comment about masks being cowardly, after nearly everyone, from fellow conservative pundit Rod Dreher to my Patheos colleague Mary Pezzulo, denounced him for it. As this article in The New Republic pointed out, the pandemic appeared to be “driving conservative intellectuals mad.”

In the year and a half since those early days, this ideological divide has only widened. The precise issue shifts, but predictably, people who see themselves as conservative are far more likely to be skeptical about the value of any given measure being proposed to fight COVID-19, and more prone to urge a return to normal life.
First Things writer Peter Leithart fired a new salvo in the debate just the other day by announcing that he had not gotten the vaccine and had no plans to do so.

Why is this pattern so pervasive? It isn’t obvious why conservatives would be opposed to taking strong measures to fight a disease. If this were a war against a human enemy, it would probably be the conservatives urging us to make sacrifices and do whatever is necessary. What makes the difference here?

Possible explanations

There’s a host of possible explanations. American “conservatives” tend to be defenders of capitalism and to value individual freedom. They are often supporters of Trump who saw the pandemic being used as a weapon against Trump by liberals and generally didn’t want to admit that anything very terrible was going bad on Trump’s watch. Many conservatives, at least the “populists,” are prone to believing conspiracy theories, including theories about the pandemic. They tend to mistrust the “mainstream media” and to worry about “government overreach.” Most, in America, are religious and may think that life in this world is less valuable than eternal life in heaven. (Some explicitly argued this in connection with the question of how the pandemic should affect worship.)

Or there’s the simple, brutal, polemical explanation: conservatives are callous jerks. They care more about the economy than about human lives. Or, as Mary suggests of Reno, they care more about their personal comforts and their cushy lives as NYC editors than about human lives. Or perhaps, when they claim that religious worship in particular should continue despite the pandemic, they are valuing their own “performative piety” over human lives. Or perhaps, most generously, they care more about ideals like “liberty” or “courage,” or cultural goods like the arts, or even spiritual goods such as the celebration of the Mass, than they do about human lives.

I think there’s something to be said for all of these explanations. But on the whole, I think the less cynical ones are more interesting and likely to have more explanatory power. People are motivated by lots of things, many of them quite base. But to explain their behavior adequately, you have to account for all the motivations instead of going for the low-hanging fruit. Evil is always parasitic on good. To explain a particular variety of evil requires us to understand what kind of good, in this case, has become corrupted.

The nature of conservatism

In a previous post, I’ve argued against the common view that the terms “conservative” and liberal” are basically meaningless. In any community or tradition, there are going to be disagreements between people who want stricter boundary maintenance and more continuity with the past on the one hand, and people who want more freedom and less continuity on the other. The terms “conservative” and “liberal” conveniently describe those basic options. However, I now think there’s more to it than that. There’s a basic set of intuitions rooted in metaphysical assumptions about the nature of reality which we can call “conservative.”

The most systematic recent attempt to define these intuitions is the thesis of Jonathan Haidt that conservatives and liberals are operating with a different set of core values. (I should confess here that I haven’t read Haidt’s The Righteous Mind myself but am relying on the many summaries of the argument I’ve read and heard. The core argument, from chap. 7 of the book, is available here.) Haidt argues that humans have five core “moral foundations”: care, fairness, loyalty, authority, and sanctity. Liberals rely primarily on the first two, whereas conservatives appeal to all five.

I think that’s true as far as it goes. But Haidt’s merely descriptive, evolutionary account doesn’t explain why some people need five foundations while others are happy with two. And by leaving it there, he makes it seem as if liberals are somehow defective for simply ignoring three basic intuitions that have played an important constructive role in the development of human society.

I think there’s a deeper and simpler explanation. In fact, it could be called simplistic, because it starts with the basic meaning of the terms “conservative” and “progressive.” A conservative wants to conserve what already exists. A progressive wants to make it better.

Often progressives see this as meaning that conservatives are just people of privilege who want to preserve the status quo because it benefits them, or people who have been duped by the powerful into supporting the status quo against their own interests. I don’t think that adequately explains the evidence. There’s something else going on.

The cosmic status quo

The status quo that conservatives want to preserve isn’t just social. It’s cosmic. To be a conservative is, on a basic intuitive level, to feel that there is something inherently good about existence. However gloomy and paranoid and judgmental conservatives may be, they tend to be fundamental optimists about the basic structures of reality. When they recognize that something has fundamentally gone wrong and needs to be fixed, they tend to identify it with some group of bad people who can be opposed and punished. The processes of nature, themselves, are for a true conservative something to be accepted rather than fixed. Hence, if the COVID pandemic is just a naturally occurring disease, it’s something we should endure and to which we should hope to acquire natural immunity. But of course if it was created (through malice or negligence) by the Chinese, then aggressive measures against the evil human beings behind the pandemic are entirely warranted and necessary.

A progressive, on the other hand, sees the good as something so far unachieved. Things could always be better than they are. The occurrence of bad things isn’t a call to find an enemy to blame but a challenge to work harder to bring into being the good that does not yet exist. (That doesn’t mean that progressives don’t blame people–obviously they do. But they’re more capable than conservatives, generally, of separating the statements “this is a bad state of affairs that you should fix” and “this is your personal responsibility for which you should feel guilty or be punished.” Try explaining to a conservative, for instance, that reparations doesn’t involve holding modern white people morally responsible for slavery.)

This isn’t always evident in the US because of the way American ideology is historically bound up with 18th-century “Whig” progressivism. In America, there’s a version of progressivism–the belief in endless change for the better and the need to reject established traditions–that has become the local version of “conservatism.” And this has affected the rest of the world due both to American dominance and to the prevalence of similar ideas in modern “Western” civilization more generally. Hence, it’s “conservative” to defend capitalism and “progressive” to think modern technology has been disastrous for the environment. This is rather mixed up from a larger historical and global perspective.

“Getting back to normal”

Obviously defending this account in a nuanced manner isn’t possible within this blog post. But if something like this is true, then that explains why, for conservatives, “getting back to normal” is such a high priority. To be a conservative by temperament is to long for normality, for the regular, blessed course of things, as one longs for air and water. To be a progressive by temperament is to be forever restless with the way things are and seek to make them better. To a progressive, the good is about making human life better, not about conformity to some paradigmatic order.

Hence, to a progressive, the pandemic is a challenge to minimize the damage to human life. It seems monstrous to speak of the need to go on as usual even if that means more people will die than would otherwise have died. Progressives tend to identify permission with action–to fail to do something that would have kept a person from dying is functionally the same as killing them. Conservatives, in the sense I’m using the term, generally don’t. Hence, one finds memes asking opponents of the shut down to be specific about which people they are willing to “kill” in order to reopen. For a conservative, this seems odd–how can just living one’s normal life be killing people? It’s the disease that kills.

We are all progressives; we are all conservatives

Now for a confession: I am, temperamentally, most fundamentally a conservative. Where I take progressive positions, I am forced to do so by my conscience. I don’t generally enjoy it. When I spoke of conservatives longing for a return to the normal course of human life as one longs for air and water, I spoke for myself.

But of course, the fact that I think my conscience often forces me to take progressive positions means that I have a good deal of both in me. And I think we all do. As I’ve been sketching out the difference, the distinction between “conservative” and “progressive” is another example of what Barfield would call “polarity.” They aren’t mutually exclusive but rather mutually dependent. (I’ll say more about that in later posts.)

On any given issue, though, it’s easy to forget this and speak as if the “other” perspective were obviously illegitimate. On the pandemic, as on many other specific hot-button issues, I generally agree with the progressives. In fact, much of the rhetoric common in conservative America right now is patently both absurd and wicked. (And of course this is why my claims to be a temperamental conservative ring hollow with most conservatives.) It’s quite OK to say that.

But I’ve seen a lot of progressive rhetoric that simply demonizes anyone who has any alternative views on the pandemic at all and treats the desire to “return to normal” as fundamentally selfish and immoral.

Apprehending the misapprehended good

We should all hold fast to the axiom that even when human beings do stupid and evil things, they are doing them for reasons that make some sort of sense and in pursuit of some sort of genuine good, however misapprehended. The denial of this axiom is, from my perspective, one of the terrifying things about modern progressivism.

To accomplish the good goals progressives want to accomplish–including the pressing immediate goal of ending this blasted pandemic–we have to be able to recognize that there are reasons other than mere malice and stupidity why many people either don’t want to achieve those goals or (as in this case) prefer other means of doing so. This doesn’t stop us from saying that the positions in question are profoundly wrong and profoundly evil. But it helps us immensely to understand how and why our fellow human beings wind up with positions we consider profoundly wrong and profoundly evil.

And obviously this is true of far more than the pandemic. But since the pandemic has become such an absurd political litmus test, let’s start there.

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