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Fox News host Jesse Watters made headlines when he used violent language to denounce Dr. Anthony Fauci at a conservative conference. “Now you go in for the kill shot. The kill shot? With an ambush? Deadly. Because he doesn’t see it coming,” Watters said. Watters claimed that he was using a metaphor and wasn’t advocating for political violence.

But violence over mask and vaccine mandates is now so common that it has essentially become background noise. There is a constant stream of people being arrested for pulling out firearms after being asked to put on a mask. It has gotten so bad on airlines that the FAA has had to increase fines for unruly passengers, a direct result of many passengers refusing to wear masks. Angry parents have stormed school board meetings demanding that mask mandates be reversed.

What pushes people to become anti-mask, anti-vax fanatics? What creates this sort of indignation and zealotry against reasonable public health mandates?

It all comes down to fundamental political values. 

Violence over mask and vaccine mandates is now so common that it has essentially become background noise.

Conservatives and liberals are defined by distinct sets of political values. Liberals tend to value egalitarianism and promoting the collective good. They prioritize helping the poor at the expense of the wealthy. They favor multiculturalism over social and ethnic homogeneity. Conservatives prefer individualism and promote individual choices, even if those choices come at the expense of the group. They tend to believe that the wealthy deserve what they have and that social hierarchies are important for the stability of political systems.

Liberals tend to challenge entrenched power structures in society, while conservatives tend to protect those with power. Conservatives more often oppose contributing to the public good at the expense of individual freedoms and believe that being compelled to do so is an infringement on their political rights.

We tend to understand how this maps onto conventional political issues such as infrastructure, healthcare, education, and the social safety net. Conservatives don’t support expanded government intervention into these areas because doing so would compel conservatives to support the public good. That also means, directly or indirectly, challenging the social hierarchical system by providing those at the bottom with more resources and political power.

These values tell us a lot about how we would expect conservatives to respond to a pandemic. We wouldn’t expect conservatives to support mask or vaccine mandates because those interventions require individuals to take actions and endure inconveniences, however minimal, to further a benefit that is mostly collective. Their opposition to lockdowns and mandates comes from the same values frame as their general opposition to social services. They prioritize and champion individualism at the expense of the broader group. 

Another way to understand the conservative response to the pandemic is through the lens of sociology and social identity theory. Social identity theory argues that group membership is important to our identities and how we view the world. Individuals are constantly comparing their group identity and membership, their “ingroup,” to other “outgroups” which are outside of and different from their identity. Scholars generally expect ingroup favoritism, especially among more homogeneous groups.

Conservatism as an ideology values the protection of existing power structures and the status quo, and conservatives tend to view themselves at the top of the existing social hierarchy. Part of being atop of that hierarchy means that your group dictates the rules of the game to others. For generations, this is how America was run. White, wealthy, religious, and rural groups have become accustomed to disproportionate political power, having collectively made decisions for everyone else for generations, often without their input.

In recent decades, demographic change and immigration have already begun to address this imbalance. But the politics of the pandemic have presented a particular shock to the system. The federal government, along with myriad blue state governments, have pushed conservatives into the same kinds of mask and vaccine mandates as everyone else. Conservatives who felt that they were at the peak of the social pecking order found themselves being told what to do. That has played a role in some of the extreme responses to mask requirements. A traditionally privileged class that feels above restrictions on their individual choices is pushing back.

Conservatives are susceptible to misinformation because they tend to be more likely to oppose the public good and more likely to believe that they are a socially dominant group under siege. The reality that conservatives perceive during the pandemic does not align with their internal worldview. This mismatch presents the opportunity for misinformation to flourish.

Misinformation can have a calming effect, providing simple and comforting explanations for facts that are difficult to consume on their own. Our internal logic does not have to be consistent, and consuming bias confirming misinformation in difficult times can feel reassuring. Pandemic misinformation has continually come from Republican elites. Former President Trump has called the pandemic a “Fake news media conspiracy,” and Fox News has consistently downplayed the coronavirus as a minor issue that has been blown out of proportion. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis even made a plea to jail Dr. Fauci. Political elites can play a key role in the preferences of voters, and Trump’s early dismissal of the pandemic likely made it that much harder to reach conservatives on safety protocols like masks and vaccines.   

From the perspective of conservatives, their response is completely logical. They feel no obligation to contribute to the public good, and they feel their social group is under siege. From their point of view, they are pushing back to protect their social status and political power. These things might seem foreign and strange to Blue America, but for Red America, lockdowns and mandates are in direct tension with their worldview. And that makes it that much easier to consume bias confirming misinformation about the pandemic. The conservative response is ultimately a story about political values. 

Marcus Johnson

Marcus Johnson is a political commentator and a political science Ph.D. candidate at American University. His primary research focus is the impact of political institutions on the racial wealth gap.