Demonstrators at Houston Methodist Baytown Hospital in Baytown, Texas, protest...

Demonstrators at Houston Methodist Baytown Hospital in Baytown, Texas, protest mandatory vaccinations for hospital employees. Credit: AP/Yi-Chin Lee

Every week we seem to read another story about a right-wing populist talk show host dying of COVID-19. If it’s not a radio personality, it’s some hot-talking minister or flame-throwing social media figure succumbing to the illness after railing against masks and vaccines for months.

In many cases, there’s a deathbed conversion, with the victim belatedly imploring followers to get masked and get vaccinated before it’s too late. For him, of course, it already is.

The reaction from populist influencers to COVID science has been a head-scratcher from the beginning. If the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say wear a mask, then masks are anathema. If experts advise nucleic acid vaccines, designed at a cost of billions by some of the best minds on the planet, internet yahoos fire back with livestock deworming injections — or worse. (Remember bleach?)

The pushback against science from this sector has come to feel willful — almost automatic, really — as if something bigger than COVID is driving it. I think it is.

It’s been the same with climate science. No matter what’s going on outside our windows — record temperatures, drought and forest fires, or Ida dropping seven inches of rain on New York City within hours, setting a record that broke the record set a week before — there seems to be a reflexive refusal among populists to acknowledge what’s occurring and suggest their own remedies. It’s a shame, because we need a balance of ideas in this country to best solve the challenges before us.

There’s an unmistakable "us vs. them" mentality proliferating among populists today, many of whom I call friends, with "them" being the government, academics, Hollywood, big business, scientists and journalists, and "us" being anyone who has come to distrust and, in many cases despise, those groups. The greater the consensus among the former, the greater the resistance from the latter, no matter the issue, leaving both sides further apart than ever.

Anne Applebaum penned a potentially seminal essay in The Atlantic last week titled "The New Puritans" whose premise offers insight into what may be going on. Applebaum zeros in on the illiberal zeitgeist limiting dissent in this country, warning of a creeping intellectual authoritarianism in which free thinking is punishable by public banishment.

"Social codes are changing, in many ways for the better," Applebaum writes. "But for those whose behavior doesn’t adapt fast enough to the new norms, judgment can be swift — and merciless."

With that sentence, Applebaum may have hit the nail on the head. Those whose behavior doesn’t adapt fast enough to the new norms may be picking up their marbles and saying we don’t even want to play anymore, thereby abandoning the field of ideas to a voracious progressive minority. It’s understandable, and deeply regrettable.

In a country in which change is coming too fast, and too untested, reasoned dissent is imperative. Instead, we’re getting knee-jerk reactions that add little to the public debate. That hurts us all.

But mostly it hurts center-right populists, who have taken themselves out of some of the most important conversations occurring in this country, with climate change, arguably, being at the top of the list. Surely, there are more responsible ideas than the Green New Deal. Let’s hear them.

If populists want to be taken seriously, they need to reengage in the mainstream, and stop listening to radio hosts from Pluto.

Opinions expressed by William F. B. O’Reilly, a consultant to Republicans, are his own.


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