Anti-lockdown movement puts conservative America’s toxic distrust in experts on display

by Dylan Meisner, Staff Writer

As Americans hunker down in our homes, trying to weather the viral storm of COVID-19, some Americans from all around the country have taken to the streets to protest in favor of reopening the American economy. These operations are largely astroturfed by shadowy, moneyed right-wing interest groups, but the sentiment among the attendees certainly seems genuine.

When assessing these protests and where they stem from, it is largely a fool’s errand to look at the ideas that they espouse. There will always be fringe actors who have asinine demands in politics, and it is nearly always a good idea to ignore them and not look into their claims too much. What is much more interesting is their place in recent trends across the political west.

In 2016, Great Britain was embroiled in a bitter internal battle over whether to leave the European Union. Populist politicians had for years were demagogued the conversation around the EU with their arguments largely hinging on xenophobic, nativist and mercantilist thinking. Standing against Brexit were nearly all public intellectuals and economic experts.

That divide between the belligerent populists and the considered experts was wide and plain for the public to see. When British politician Michael Gove went on TV a few days before the nationwide referendum, he let slip the truth behind the sentiment that would drive Britain out of Europe and galvanize the rise of rank anti-intellectualism across western conservative movements. When Gove was unable to name a single mainstream economist who backed his movement’s aim to help Britain by leaving the European Union, he snapped and said the “people in this country have had enough of experts.”

This thinking is not restricted to Brexit. In fact, it represents a larger trend in a shift in conservative thinking across the west, particularly in America. That trend can be clearly seen in polling data. For example, despite the 97 to 98% consensus among scientists that anthropogenic climate change is a reality, recent Gallup data shows that a mere eight percent of Republicans see it as an “extremely important” issue. 

A similar trend is clearly emergent on the topic of immigration, where 78% of Republicans see “large numbers of immigrants and refugees coming into the United States” to be a “critical threat” despite the fact that crime rates are markedly lower among immigrants than the native-born population and the consensus among economists that immigration is an unmitigated economic boon.

Republicans are increasingly hostile to free trade as well, another realm in which conservative opinion is at odds with the views of experts and the facts on the ground. More Gallup data shows that fully two-thirds of Democrats view the North American Free Trade Agreement as having been good for America. Although only 22% of Republicans feel the same, despite the resulting gains from NAFTA that included a near quadrupling of American exports to the other two parties in the pact (Canada and Mexico), reduced import prices, reduced our reliance on Middle Eastern oil and on other geopolitical foes like Venezuela, dramatically lowered food prices, created 5 million new jobs and increased GDP by as much as half a point by some estimations

The recent turn of western conservatives away from expertise and towards demagoguery and anti-intellectualism should worry us all. Not just because a country’s polity relies upon there being a reasonable counterbalance, but because when these new populist ideas become law they hurt their countries. Brexit is set to damage the British economy to the tune of about 0.7% less economic growth every year in the near future.

The casualties in the conservative war on expertise is not limited to GDP loss. Since objective truths are an enemy of anti-intellectualism, President Trump’s aides will come up with “alternative facts” and wage a bizarre war against the free press while threatening to loosen libel laws. And worst of all, Republican voters will actually believe them and cheer them on.

The protests are also a nice reminder that the war on expertise’s casualties are not limited to facts. Mass gatherings in public, especially when masks aren’t worn and proper distancing measures aren’t taken (as they were recently in Israel, where anti-corruption protesters made a point to stay masked and two meters apart from each other in Rabin Square) might spread the virus far beyond the people who chose to attend. 

In other words, the intelligent Americans who want nothing to do with the further spread of COVID-19 could possibly suffer the consequences from the deplorable choices of others. But why should the protestors care about a few more dead Americans — they’ve had enough of the experts.

Dylan Meisner is a sophomore studying political science. Follow him on Twitter @DylMeisner.

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