COVID-19 and the war on populism

Hat tip to Bill Harvey.

Thomas Frank had a good interview last week on the Breaking Points TV show.  It’s worth watching.

He talked about how failure to control the spread of the COVID-19 virus, instead of being blamed on the failed health care system, is instead blamed on people who are skeptical of established authority.

The problem is that there are good reasons to be skeptical of authority.  It was Anthony Fauci, who is nowadays considered to the voice of science, who in the early days of the pandemic said that it was not to be taken seriously, it was just like the ‘flu, and that masks were useless.

It was the Centers for DIsease Control that, in the early days, advised the U.S. government not to screen air travelers coming in from China. 

Established authority nowadays tells us that vaccination will prevent the spread of the disease, when, so far as is known, it merely suppresses the symptoms and does little or nothing to stop the spread.

Nobody is being called to account for this.  The bulk of the press, the political establishment and the medical establishment say that everything that has gone wrong, and everything that is predictably going to go wrong, is the fault of right-wingers who refuse to get vaccinated.

There are all kinds of reasons why people don’t get vaccinated.  There are medical reasons.  There are economic reasons.  There are religious reasons.

And of course there are conspiracy theorists who think the pandemic is a Democratic hoax.  I don’t share their views, of course, but conspiracy theories flourish in times like these, when established authority can’t be trusted.

Whatever the reasons people have for not getting vaccinated, ridicule and scapegoating are not good methods for bringing them around.  They are, however, good tactics for diverting blame for failure from the people in charge.

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Thomas Frank had a good article in Le monde diplomatique about a year ago.

The great underlying political crisis of this plague year, it is often said, is the stubborn refusal of Americans to respect expert authority.  There’s an epidemic raging… and just look at those people frolicking in a swimming pool at the Lake of the Ozarks, repeating stupid conspiracy theories, spreading non-peer-reviewed medical advice on social media, running errands without a mask on, setting off roman candles in the street.  And just look at their idiot of a president, dismissing the advice of his own medical experts, blaming everyone but himself for the disaster, suggesting we inject ourselves with Clorox because it’s effective on countertops and toilet bowls.

In truth, this grand conflict between the ignorant and the enlightened has been a motif of our politics for years.  Liberals, we believe, are uniquely attuned to objective reality; they dutifully heed the words of Nobel laureates and Genius Grant winners.  But Republicans are different: they live in a world of myth and fable where the truth does not apply.

Ordinarily our punditburo plays this conflict for simple partisan point-scoring.  Us: smart!  Them: stupid!

But the pandemic has given the conflict an urgency we have not seen before.  These days, right-thinking Americans are tearfully declaring their eternal and unswerving faith in science.  Democratic leaders are urging our disease-stricken country to heed the findings of medical experts as though they were the word of God.

Our ‘thought leaders,’ meanwhile, have developed a theory for understanding the crazy behavior we see around us: these misguided people are not merely stupid, they are in the grip of a full-blown philosophy of anti-expertise called ‘populism.’   These populists are the unlettered who resent the educated and sneer at the learned.  They believe in hunches instead of scholarship; they flout the advice of the medical profession; they extol the wisdom of the mob.  Populism is science’s enemy; it is at war with sound thinking. It is an enabler of disease, if not a disease itself.

So sweetly flattering, so gorgeously attractive is this tidy little syllogism that members of our country’s thinking class return to it again and again.  Medical science is so obviously right and populism so obviously wrong that celebrating the one and deploring the other has become for them one of the great literary set pieces of the era, the raw material for endless columns and articles.

Unfortunately, it’s all a mistake.  Donald Trump’s prodigious stupidity is not the sole cause of our crushing national failure to beat the coronavirus.  Plenty of blame must also go to our screwed-up healthcare system, which scorns the very idea of public health and treats access to medical care as a private luxury that is rightfully available only to some.

It is the healthcare system, not Trump, that routinely denies people treatment if they lack insurance; that bankrupts people for ordinary therapies; that strips people of their coverage when they lose their jobs — and millions of people are losing their jobs in this pandemic.  It is the healthcare system that, when a Covid treatment finally arrives, will almost certainly charge Americans a hefty price to receive it.

And that system is the way it is because organized medicine has for almost a century used the prestige of expertise to keep it that way.

He went on to write about the history of campaigns for universal medical care—successful in Canada, so far unsuccessful in the USA, and about how distrusting the medical establishment never was the same thing as distrusting science.

LINKS

It’s the healthcare system, stupid by Thomas Frank for Le Monde diplomatique.

Liberals want to blame rightwing ‘misinformation’ for our problems | Get real by Thomas Frank for The Guardian.

Biden’s Speech on Covid Vaccine Mandates, Annotated by Lambert Strether for Naked Capitalism.  [Added Later]

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One Response to “COVID-19 and the war on populism”

  1. mickmar21 Says:

    I watch Breaking Points from time to time and enjoy the way in which they do their job without kissing butt.
    History will judge this turbulent time harshly for the ways in which things have been done and perhaps condemn many of our leaders globally for their actions.
    Hopefully people will learn from this but that is a slim hope given human history as time dilutes the impacts of turbulent times.

    Liked by 1 person

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