Republicans, COVID, and the rise of ‘militant ignorance’

Greg Nash

Last month, CNN medical analyst Dr. Jonathan Reiner called Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) “the most ignorant man in the United States Senate,” adding “and that says a lot.” What Johnson did was oppose vaccination, saying “Vaccinated individuals can catch COVID. They can transmit COVID. So what’s the point?”

The point is we don’t know exactly how or why this happens. So it is better to be cautious until we know more.

Many years ago, I worked in the office of Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.), a former Harvard professor and probably the least ignorant member of the U.S. Senate. His aides were debating whether the Senate should support U.S. aid to the mujaheddin, resistance fighters who opposed the Soviet takeover of Afghanistan. One staffer said, “Those people are ignorant religious radicals. How can we support them?”

Sen. Moynihan became indignant. “In my office, we do not criticize ignorance,” he said. “Most people who are ignorant can’t help it. They had no opportunity to learn.”  The senator then paused for thought and added: “Militant ignorance is different. Ignorance that is proud of itself, that holds knowledge in contempt — that must be condemned.”

What we are seeing right now in the debate over COVID is a lot of militant ignorance. The virus is changing in unpredictable ways and, as one expert put it to the New York Times, “The guidance has to change when the science changes.”

That kind of uncertainty causes people to lose faith in science and challenge expertise. Challenging expertise is an old political tradition in the U.S. It’s called populism — resentment of elites. In this case, resentment of educated elites, which is the driving force behind right-wing populism. (Left-wing populism is something else — resentment of the rich, which also emerges from time to time. See Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) for that.)

Back in 1975, according to the Gallup poll, 70 percent of Americans said they had a lot of confidence in science. Last year, that number had slipped to 64 percent. Why? Politics. The percentage of Democrats who expressed confidence in science went up 12 points. But the percentage of Republicans declined by an eye-popping 27 points. In 2021, only 45 percent of Republicans said they had a lot of confidence in science, down from 72 percent in 1975. Think of it: Most Republicans no longer have confidence in scientific knowledge. “People start questioning the science, questioning whether or not we really know what we’re doing — questioning, you know, ‘Am I going to have to do this every six months?’” another medical expert said. The answer is very likely, yes.

That answer is not very popular politically. Which is why scientists like Dr. Anthony Fauci have become a target for conservatives. As the science changes, his advice changes. Ten-day quarantines used to be recommended. That recommendation has been shortened to five days.

Most voters see lack of certainty in leaders as a weakness. President Biden, for example, is often criticized as a weak leader because he doesn’t have the certainty of a Ronald Reagan or a Donald Trump.

Even Trump has run into trouble with his supporters because he has wavered on vaccinations. It used to be the case that Republicans opposed government vaccination mandates. Now they are turning against vaccination itself. One of President Trump’s strongest supporters, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), tweeted that she spoke to former President Trump and “I have President Trump’s permission to tell you all that he is 100 percent AGAINST the mandates, but he still encourages everyone to get the vaccine and booster.” That produced boos from some Trump supporters and criticism from far-right figures like Alex Jones who called Trump’s words “nothing but a raft of dirty lies.”

One reason for the partisan divide over COVID is the growing “diploma divide” in American politics. Voters with college degrees are becoming more Democratic while non-college white voters are becoming more Republican. And Republicans are deeply resentful over what they see as condescension toward them.

A right-wing speaker told a church audience in Oklahoma that what he called “the metropolitan elite … want to crush you … They call you ‘the smelly Walmart people.’ … They have contempt for you.”

During a fight over mask mandates, a city commissioner in Enid, Okla., is reported to have told a local audience that America is in a moment when the people who ran things from the beginning — mostly white, mostly Christian, mostly male — are now having to share control. “You don’t just get to be the sole solitary voice in terms of what we do here, what we teach here, what we show on television here. You don’t get to do it any more. That’s where the fight is.”

Many Americans long for certainty in their leaders as a sign of strength. But education — even science — is not the realm of certainty. Religion is. Which is why religious differences — churchgoers versus non-churchgoers — have been increasing in the political spectrum alongside differences by education.

Bill Schneider is an emeritus professor at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University and author of “Standoff: How America Became Ungovernable” (Simon & Schuster).

Tags Anthony Fauci Anti-intellectualism anti-science Bernie Sanders Donald Trump Ignorance Joe Biden Marjorie Taylor Greene Republican Party Right-wing populism in the United States Ron Johnson trumpism

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