Are Covid deniers stupid?
Though certain beliefs are unreasonable and should be excluded from public debate, liberals tend not to understand the functions of right-populist values
In a new paper in Political Psychology, Jan-Willem van Prooijen and colleagues argue that populists are more gullible. Undertaking three studies, the authors found that populist attitudes were associated with conspiracy mentalities, credulity, receptivity to ‘bullshit’ statements and supernatural beliefs. Though van Prooijen and colleagues define populism generally, the focus of such debate tends to be right populism.
Some liberals will embrace such findings. Aside from the liberals who mock right populists on social media, liberal philosophy emphasizes the ‘reasonableness’ of liberal beliefs, sometimes advocating the political exclusion of the ‘unreasonable’. In certain cases, such explanations are more convincing. As I will argue, denial of the existence of Coronavirus, a distinct position from respectable critiques of lockdowns and extensions of vaccine rollouts, might be dismissed as unreasonable. Notwithstanding this, arguments that right-populist attitudes are unreasonable have clear limits, failing to appreciate the functions of right-populist views. If we are to understand the appeal of such positions and decide whether certain positions should be excluded from public debate, we must establish these limits.
As sociologists have long observed, values and traditions have functions. In a classic analysis of the Hopi Indian rain-dance, Merton argued that the ritual promoted solidarity during hard times. This explained the endurance of the tradition, notwithstanding its lack of scientific basis. Despite problems with parts of functionalist theory, the approach underestimating conflict and historical contingency, scholars continue to emphasize functional aspects of values and traditions. The theory of cultural evolution updates functionalism, emphasizing the evolutionary process through which culture emerges.
Though individual right populists may tend to be more gullible, it is difficult to argue that right-populist values do not have functions. Rather than evaluating individuals, as van Prooijen and colleagues do, focus on the needs of groups is more appropriate, research suggesting that values are selected at group level. In some cases, consistency between right-populist values and the collective needs of supporters is obvious. For example, immigration increases uncertainty and puts pressure on the welfare state. Supporters of right populism tend to be poorer and less educated, making them particularly averse to this. Such individuals may often be uninformed, many believing lies about immigrants, but there is broad congruence between anti-immigration positions and group needs. This resolves a conundrum of Brexit. After the referendum, many wondered why voters who lived in areas with few immigrants had cast anti-immigrant votes. Individuals who encountered few immigrants may not have adopted such positions from personal experience, yet group discourse was a key influence. Cultural influences upon low-education voters, such as tabloid newspapers, tend to adopt anti-immigrant stances, reflecting the wider needs of these demographics.
But such explanations have limits, Coronavirus denialism providing one such example. By Coronavirus denialism, I do not mean critiques of lockdowns or extensions of vaccine rollouts; serious people have advanced these positions (though I tend to disagree with them). Rather, I refer to the position that Coronavirus is a hoax, significant minorities believing that the virus is a fabrication. Given the nature of this belief and following the van Prooijen study, we may expect that such people tend to be more gullible.
Yet in this case, group-based explanations are unconvincing. How does disbelief in Coronavirus help a group? Denial of Coronavirus increases the likelihood of the virus circulating and people dying. Moreover, those who deny the virus tend to be more exposed to its effects, low education also predicting employment in front-line sectors such as retail and hospitality. Though Brexit presented similar problems, poor Leave voters being more exposed to ‘no deal’, the case of Coronavirus denial is more extreme.
There are many theories of why certain right populists deny Coronavirus - tell me yours in the comments(!) - but in my opinion, the position has links with the wider functions of right populism. Specifically, right-populist dismissal of expertise is related to the need to be proud and self-reliant, such values enhancing survival in insecure conditions. Yet right populism evolves at a generic level, meaning that some positions are inefficient. Coronavirus denial is such an inefficiency, anti-intellectualism being a by-product of an ideology which emphasizes pride and self-reliance. This is akin to biological evolution. Moths are drawn to light, light normally acting as a compass, but this also means that moths are attracted to flames, resulting in harm.
This has implications for public policy. To some extent, I agree with those liberals who emphasize reasonableness; beliefs which are evidently unreasonable should not be acknowledged as legitimate. Given the weight of evidence, positions such as Coronavirus or climate change denial should not be represented in policy deliberation or articulated on state television. Yet beyond such clear cases, things become complicated. As I have emphasized, expansive notions of liberal reasonableness fail to recognize the functions of right-populist values and the philosophical nature of divisions on issues such as immigration and women’s rights. In my opinion, liberalism is strongest when it acknowledges intellectual diversity, even when competing positions challenge liberal principles. Alas, too many liberals struggle with this.
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