Disaster or Mass Hysteria? Depends on Who’s Saying It

Just as climate change finds itself at the center of the left/right divide, so today, coverage of COVID-19 -- both in major and minor news networks --points to a similar fissure in American perceptions of this worldwide pandemic. Those on the ideological left forecast a doom and gloom scenario as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. Alternatively, those on the right are less alarmist, questioning the science and data behind these dismal data projections. A logical question ensues: why such a divide? What is it about left and right ideologies that produce such stark differences in perception? Below are three theories:  

  1. Those on the political right believe in the freedom of the individual to wield his fate and are wary of the government. The saying, “the bigger the government, the smaller the individual” emblematizes the conservative position on government. Consequently, because those on the ideological right cherish the individual over the collective, they do not feel powerless. In contrast, those on the left value the government and would like to see its expansion into society’s economic, social, medical, and private realms. The individual is not free, but rather imprisoned by society’s constructs of say, gender and race. As such, government must step in to foster equilibrium. Because government is the antidote to chaos, the individual is powerless: he must wait for the government to fix the world. Ipso facto, doom and gloom. The worrisome element of this dual perception is the Overton window which presents a limited, binary prescription for policies: draconian vs. lenient measures. We either shut down all of America or business as usual.
  2. In God’s absence, science prevails! Reductive as this may be, and in no way do I suggest that everyone on the left is atheist, for those on the ideological left, science replaces God’s role. The left reminds us that doctors and scientists hold the monopoly on truth. Never mind that the data projections compiled by these scientists have been inaccurate or that, as we all know, science is always evolving. And yet, for those on the left, laboratories are holy chapels and scientists, priests donned in laboratory coats. To be sure, science is great and without it, we would be quite tragic. No one on the right, however, denies its importance. What they dare do, is question its assumptions and predictions. But, dare to question the legitimacy of climate change and you are denounced an apostate of all that is progressive and socially just.
  3. The big “T” word: if we couldn’t get Trump on collusion, we’ll definitely get him now! As one individual who loathes Trump said to me when I asked if he, too, notices a difference in how the left and right view COVID-19: “Yea, there’s a difference. Left: Facts, truth, both good and bad. Right: gibberish, conspiracy theories, lies, Trump bootlicking.” Or more alarming, a recent thought experiment posited to individuals in New York: “more severe Corona and more deaths, and in exchange Trump is no longer in office.” The response: “hell yeah!”

These three reasons -- the role of the individual, the God of science, and loathing for Trump -- amount to why those on the right and those on the left have such drastically differing views of a world plagued by COVID-19. Moreover, it may help to explain why conservatives are, by and large, happier and more fulfilled than their left-leaning counterpart. In a 2008 study conducted by the American Psychology Association, researchers found that “conservative ideology serves a palliative function to explain why conservatives are happier than liberals.” More specifically, studies found that “right-wing… orientation is indeed associated with greater subjective well-being” (Napier, J. L., & Jost, J. T., 2008).  

The idea of “pulling oneself by your bootstraps” demonstrates how those on the right confront adversaries in life by redirecting responsibility to the self. To be sure the task is grand and at times, agonizing, and yet, it may be just the answer to why when you turn on or read left-leaning media, headlines read something like this: “How the Coronavirus May Radically Transform Society”  “The ‘Absolutely Deadly’ Coronavirus Mistakes Trump is Repeating” (The Huffington Post), “The Enemy Isn’t Going Anywhere” (The Atlantic), “Trump is the Obstacle to Defeated Coronavirus” (The Atlantic), “I’m an E.R. Doctor in New York. None of Us Will Ever Be the Same” (The New York Times), and “The Last Words of a Healthcare Worker Who Dies of Coronavirus” (The New York Times). Meanwhile, opinions on the right erode at the panic induced by left-leaning media by “asking more questions about whether the cure may be worse than the disease.” A cursory look at some of headlines from the right reveal not only questioning, but more significantly, a suspicion of authoritarianism: “Here the People Rule” (National Review), “Coronavirus Authoritarianism is Getting out of Hand,” (National Review) and “The Thin Façade of Authority” (American Greatness).

Perceptions bias is nothing new. It is what makes us human and for that, we truly do live in a post-facts world: one where ideology shapes our assessment of reality. What is novel, however, is the backlash those on the right receive for daring to question a mainstream worldview: to suggest that one has “joined a death cult” or “promoted the personality cult of Trump” does not do favor to anyone. We truly must ring the alarm bells when, for merely questioning science, God, our leadership, or journalism, we become outcasts and a danger to the world.