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The Coronavirus Pandemic
July 6, 2020

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Covid Denialists and the Fight over Liberalism 

Aaron Sibarium

Why the swamp and its drainers were both blind to the threat

In early March, the coronavirus went from anodyne to apocalyptic seemingly overnight — from far-off threat to foreign invader, from “just the flu” to “once-in-a-century pathogen.” For the most part, this threat was unpredicted, especially by the current administration and the press, whose job it is to predict such things. But it was not unpredictable, and indeed many did predict it, just not those who mattered — the people who could have prepared the public for what was to come and made it less painful when it did.

Thus a large fraction of coronavirus commentary has been dedicated to explaining why there wasn’t more of it early on, and why what little there was aged so poorly — why, as Wuhan locked down its 11 million citizens and the disease spread across the globe, we were told again and again not to worry.

Some of the better answers have focused on political psychology, the ways the virus challenged “open” personalities and priors by presenting them with a foreign threat, to which a kumbaya response was plainly insufficient. But these accounts have their limits, because the coronavirus could just as easily be seen as underscoring the need for openness and global cooperation in times of crisis. And this is precisely how the crisis was seen (or, at least, how it was presented) once the mainstream media began taking it seriously in late February — as a blow to “isolationism,” rather than a vindication thereof.

So however much stock one places in these narratives, it’s clear they don’t tell the whole story. In particular, they don’t explain the tendency to be optimistic about the virus itself — “don’t panic, the flu is much worse” — rather than about some policy response. And it was optimism about the virus itself that defined many early reactions to the pandemic.

Consider three examples. In late January, Vox observed that American officials did not “expect the US to be inundated with dozens of patients or that the virus will spread broadly within the country.” (We now know that on the same day, President Trump’s economic advisor Peter Navarro warned him of precisely this scenario.) In late February, Cass Sunstein averred that “most people in North America and Europe do not need to worry much about the risk of contracting the disease,” which would likely create “more fear, and much more in the way of economic and social dislocation, than is warranted by the actual risk.” (He later backpedaled, citing new cost-benefit analyses.) And in early March, less than one week before Italy imposed the first in a series of unprecedented lockdowns throughout the Western world, a Harvard M.D. penned a Slate piece titled, reassuringly, “COVID-19’s Mortality Rate Isn’t As High As We Think.” Even a 1 percent case fatality rate “likely substantially overstates the case,” he argued, given how “in past epidemics, initial CFRs were floridly exaggerated.” (The opposite was true of SARS, a close cousin of Covid-19, whose death rate ended up being five times higher than initial estimates.)

It’s tempting to believe that this optimism stemmed from American culture, with its can-do faith in self-reliance. But from Trump to Slate, the official message wasn’t that we’d grin and bear it, but that there wouldn’t be much to bear at all. No patients dying in hospital hallways. No makeshift morgues in freezer trucks. That mass death could happen here, for months, with no end in sight, was a proposition few reporters or leaders seemed prepared to entertain — as if such a thing were not, and could not be, possible in the twenty-first century.

Why? Because admitting that possibility would have complicated the myth on which much of our discourse rests: the assumption of inevitable progress.

The Liberal Creed

The myth comes in both left-wing and right-wing forms. On the left, it is the justification for technocracy, and for technocrats, who view politics as a series of problems solvable through reason alone. The right’s version is less friendly toward experts (public health experts especially), but it too evinces a kind of rationalism: the rationalism of the market, of the spontaneous order in which reason resides, diffuse and disembodied yet still essentially all-powerful, all-knowing, all-directing.

And it is rule by rationalism that guarantees progress — that keeps us, supposedly, from sliding back into history. Few put the argument in quite these terms, of course, even fewer now that Donald Trump is president. But some version of this thinking has been operative in policy and media circles for quite some time, especially after the Cold War seemed to have vindicated it — which would explain the bien-pensant tendency to smirk at the alarmists, those crazy curmudgeons who believed that something like that could still happen. (Farhad Manjoo, the resident tech Pollyanna at the New York Times, was one such smirker back in January; by May, he was confessing that the coronavirus had “smashed optimists like me in the head,” and pondering, as if for the first time, “the real possibility that every problem we face will get much worse than we ever imagined.”)

The alarmists, meanwhile, tended to be critics of establishment liberalism — left-populists like Matt Stoller and right-reactionaries like Rod Dreher, both of whom warned about the virus back in February. For different reasons, both camps see the post–Cold War order as fundamentally brittle, and, in their own ways, as fundamentally unjust, beset by economic and cultural forces that are neither rational nor inevitable. So when dystopian footage began to surface of Chinese lockdowns and body bags and barricades, they had an easier time picturing how it could happen here, to us, at the end of History, the next nightmare in our own quasi-dystopia.

By contrast, libertarians, Never Trumpers, and small-government conservatives generally did not register alarm until the outbreak was out of control. Several shared articles and statistics claiming the virus wasn’t nearly as deadly as we’d been led to believe, while others chided the media for overreacting, as if this were just another made-up panic, another snowflake-manufactured crisis. “It is hard to imagine that the panicked leaders and populace of today would have been able to triumph in the last century’s World Wars,” Heather Mac Donald wrote on March 13, two days after the de facto national shutdown. “America’s colleges sent off thousands of their young men to fight and die in those wars,” yet are now “shutting down with no hint of the virus in their vicinity.”

The invocation of academia, and the imputation of cowardice to it, calls to mind a common trope in right-liberal thought: that our problems today stem mostly from a failure to appreciate and defend the postwar global order — a failure supposedly compounded by college students, with their pusillanimous protests against intellectual diversity. To the extent this way of thinking acknowledges danger, it is always one arising out of threats to liberalism, rather than threats from liberalism itself, whose basic justice and competence go unquestioned. Left-liberals have the same anxiety, if not the same emphasis: Nationalism, Trumpism, Orbanism, Evangelicalism, Authoritarianism — all are bad insofar as they reject liberal principles as progressives conceive them.

The problem isn’t so much the assumption that liberalism is just and worth preserving, but the way in which many liberals treat this assumption: as a hegemonic, self-evident creed, beyond doubt or amendment or even friendly critique. Such triumphalism can blind us to man-made vulnerabilities in our system — the 2008 financial crisis, for example — but also to naturally occurring ones, and to the potential interactions between them. It should come as no surprise, then, that the first Covid alarmists tended not to share the progressive faith, whereas the early denialists did.

Denying Progress

But what about Covid’s post-liberal deniers? If a fraught relationship with liberalism makes it easier to imagine catastrophe, why have some post-liberals spent so much time and energy downplaying the virus? One would expect, say, Rod Dreher and R. R. Reno, one blogging at The American Conservative and the other the editor of First Things, to be equally alarmed by a pandemic that originated in China, spread via international travel, was initially ignored by elites, and exposed the limits of modernity.

But while Dreher began worrying about the virus in late January, Reno has remained what some Very Online Right-wingers call a “floomer,” downplaying Covid-19’s severity with specious comparisons to the seasonal flu. Those denials, in turn, have pushed First Things somewhat away from its incipient post-liberal posture: instead of seeing the lockdowns as prudent constraints on individual autonomy, necessary to ensure the common good of preventing hundreds of thousands of deaths, Reno describes them as an “unprecedented” “regime of social control”; instead of criticizing “free trade on every front, free movement through every boundary,” as his magazine did one year ago, he posits a “death-infused propaganda” campaign “designed to motivate obedience to the limits on free movement”; instead of suggesting that human life might sometimes take precedence over the economy, he ventures that “we may look back and judge the shutdown of the global economy an ill-advised course of action, no matter how dangerous the virus is for those vulnerable to complications.”

What explains this seemingly libertarian turn? Perhaps partisanship: If the coronavirus tanks President Trump’s re-election, the post-liberals will once again be on the defensive, making their dream of “integration from within” — of ending the liberal state by joining and transforming its institutions — an even higher pie in the sky. It’s also possible that they’re worried about the threat to churches as the secular state prohibits large gatherings — an exaggerated but hardly misguided fear, as evidenced by some of Bill de Blasio’s recent statements.

But another explanation is that post-liberal intuitions can obscure the very fragility they purport to illuminate. In particular, an excessive skepticism of progress can paradoxically mask threats of regress by erasing the distinctions between different societies and eras, between worse times and better. Consider these lines from Reno’s pandemic “diary”:

Death is a hard truth, but we are always swimming against its undertow....

Suffering and death are sad facts of life. An experienced doctor knows that even as we struggle against our vulnerability and mortality, eventual defeat is inevitable.

Death has been with us since the dawn of time, it will be with us forever — so why shutter society in the vain hope of preventing the unpreventable?

Reno is far from the only conservative to have questioned progress in recent years. But for those with some remaining sympathy for liberalism, these doubts typically take the form of lamenting progress’s end — Peter Thiel’s “end of the future,” Tyler Cowen’s “great stagnation,” Ross Douthat’s “decadent society” — not of downplaying its existence in the past.

As Sebastian Milbank, a doctoral candidate in the divinity school at Cambridge, put it a few weeks ago:

The world has seen absolutely no meaningful technological progress in my lifetime - all we've had are faster and smaller computers, bigger networks, slightly more efficient machines and medicines. No true breakthroughs, no world-changing discoveries.

Among certain post-liberals, however, this disenchantment has shaded into something more extreme. It is “a fairy tale,” Reno writes in another pandemic post, to suppose that past generations “were superstitious and ignorant about medical science,” while we “are scientific and pro-active, meeting the threat of disease with much greater intelligence and moral rectitude.” We haven’t just exaggerated progress, we’ve made it up out of thin air. Progress, rightly understood, doesn’t exist — which means there is nothing to be gained by temporarily halting daily life, only something to be lost.

But of course there has been progress. Death is inevitable, but polio and smallpox no longer are. We do, in fact, know more about disease control than any other generation in human history, and applying that knowledge can prevent suffering and death — not forever, not for everyone, but still, in many cases, for quite a long time.

So if liberalism’s Covid myopia shows why it’s dangerous to take progress for granted, liberalism’s critics show why it’s dangerous to dismiss progress out of hand. Both groups tend toward denialism — Panglossian in the first instance, fatalistic in the second — which suggests that both have something to learn from each other. Liberals should recognize the fragility of their project, the way death and disease can strike in any place at any time. And liberalism’s critics should learn to see themselves as just that — critics of a flawed system, not enemies of a failed one.

Aaron Sibarium is assistant editor at The American Interest.

Aaron Sibarium, "Covid Denialists and the Fight over Liberalism,", July 6, 2020.