The Covid-19 pandemic was the perfect disaster for our cultural moment, because it made other people being wrong on the internet a matter of life and death.
My use of the past tense here is aspirational. The emergence of the more contagious Delta variant threatens to undo a lot of progress – particularly here in the US, where active cases of coronavirus infection are up 149% from two weeks ago. Last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended that fully vaccinated people return to wearing masks indoors in public spaces. The hope that this summer would mark our return to normal is curdling fast, and the enlightened majority – the fact-based, Facebook-sceptical, and fully vaccinated – are looking for someone to blame.
A moralist might argue that the Delta variant is poetic justice in light of the US government’s reluctance to provide free vaccines to places such as India, where it first emerged. The notion that doses should be saved for Americans or exported at profit was selfish and shortsighted, and now the chickens (germs) have come home to roost (sickened millions). But this sort of pitiless self-recrimination is so old-fashioned. The modern person prefers to lay blame where it rests more comfortably: on other, dumber people.
Take this tweet from a sportswriter, which implied that the people of Alabama – where the vaccination rate lingers at about 34% – would get the jab if the alternative meant no American football. Such remarks often play on the association between the American south and a certain type of person: culturally conservative, frequently undereducated, more interested in sports on TV than pandemics in the newspaper. This person, a kind of back-formation from various statistical trends, has become a familiar scapegoat during the coronavirus pandemic. They represent the obstinate minority – 30% of adults in the US – whose refusal to get vaccinated threatens to mess up the recovery for the rest of us.
This narrative, which has become especially popular among American liberals, excoriates imaginary dummies instead of confronting the problems that have discouraged people from getting the jab. These problems include an employer-based healthcare system that favours professionals with permanent jobs and makes it difficult for many Americans to form trusting relationships with doctors. According to Kaiser Health News, the demographic with the lowest vaccination rate in the United States is uninsured people under the age of 65. The difficulty of reaching this group has been compounded by a world-historical explosion of misinformation and a political culture bent on pandering to it.
The insistence, among the Republican leadership in the spring of 2020, that Covid-19 was a glorified version of the flu guaranteed that responses to the pandemic would shake out along political and, therefore, cultural lines. In places such as Alabama, not getting the vaccine has more to do with socio-economic identity than with scientific literacy. This is a fatal flaw in the reasoning of unvaccinated people, who are absolutely wrong in a way that endangers not only themselves but also others.
But given the haughty reaction of many liberals, can you blame them? Even as the cost of their obstinacy has become grimly clear, the cost of admitting they were wrong has risen; to get the vaccine now would be to kowtow to a class that holds them in contempt.
The notion that a vocal minority of our fellow citizens threaten to undo us with their ignorance has become something of a master narrative in anglophone democracies over the past five years. Trump did it for a lot of American Democrats in 2016, and Brexit – which, unlike Trump, won popular support at the polls but, like Trump, was overwhelmingly opposed by the urban and higher-educated – had a similar effect in the UK. The current Republican mania for making voting more difficult seems to be a product of Trump’s loss in November. Last week, a Pew Research Center poll found that 42% of respondents agreed with the statement: “Voting is a privilege that comes with responsibilities and can be limited.” This attitude is fundamentally incompatible with democracy.
The belief that the masses are fundamentally decent and capable of governing themselves – or at least qualified to select leaders capable of governing for them – has been badly dented by social media, which confronts us with the ignorance of strangers at high volume every day. Basic forms of empathy, emerging from real-life communication, are fading from modern democracy, washed out of our assessment of the average stranger by a high-pressure spray of anonymous idiots on the internet.
I think we should resist the urge to hold the unvaccinated in contempt. Their premises are wrong, but they are doing what we want citizens in a democracy to do: thinking for themselves, questioning authority, refusing to submit to a class they perceive as bent on ruling them by fiat. The fact that they are doing these things in the service of dangerous misinformation is a terrible irony, and it threatens the stability of 21st-century democracy.
Covid-19 might be the most convincing counterargument to the western liberal tradition we see in our lifetimes. It offers a counterexample to two foundational ideas: that ordinary people can recognise their own best interests, and that the minority who do not can be afforded their freedom without endangering the rest of us. A plague is one of those classic exceptions that appears in the literature of political science again and again. I don’t know if existing systems can withstand it. I do know that, like a marriage, a democracy can survive anything but contempt.