How the conservatives grew to reject experts and science

Oct 8, 2021
qanon protest
(Image: AP/Graham Hughes)

Anti-vaccine rioters on Melbourne’s streets were part of QAnon’s radicalisation of ordinary citizens around the world in this Covid era. They are the local eruption of an aggrieved demographic which resents a system it struggles to comprehend.

Read the first part of this essay here.

When a nation’s dominant policies have tended to favour the demands of donors and lobbyists, it is unsurprising that the population would become frustrated that their own needs are ever less being met. This is much more the case in the US where Covid has exposed the precariousness of millions of people’s lives.

A political system so utterly distorted away from being representative makes too many cynical about its value. A congress seized up by political machinations leads to despair.

For Westerners unused to the natural and political crises that have marked life for most of human history, it can be hard to understand the impositions something like a pandemic might inflict upon our existence.

Some found an answer on Facebook and YouTube. In October 2017, some posts on the 4chan platform echoed a common game where the poster pretended to leak military secrets. This version — with its play-acted Q-level, top secret security clearance — took off. The “Q” persona is believed to be played by an American pig farmer who runs internet platform 8chan from the Philippines with his son. Facebook was the conspiracy theory’s strongest recruiting tool.

Over the past 18 months QAnon has metastasised into something that fits any conspiracist’s needs.

It focuses on resentment against the rich and powerful, particularly progressives, who need to be killed off to cleanse the world of its injustices and crimes. It is a cult-like phenomenon where devotees believe that politicians such as Joe Biden and Daniel Andrews are dead and have been replaced by clones. It is almost impossible to convince believers that Covid vaccines are based on research science rather than a slow-acting poison.

This is an international phenomenon with relevance in most nations. White supremacist QAnon groups have been practising military drills in the south of France. Conspiracies are flourishing around the world.

Conservative attacks on “expertise” readied many to embrace this farrago of nonsense.

After Paul Weyrich and associates forged the Moral Majority as a Republican voting force primarily motivated by the opposition to abortion access, the next main thrust in the creation of an anti-intellectual conservative identity came from the push to delay climate action.

Australia has proved fertile ground for US anti-intellectual propaganda

In the 1970s, Exxon planned to produce a new Bell Lab (which had been responsible for so many revolutionary communication inventions). Exxon had a number of scientific departments working on new energy strategies to replace fossil fuels. Its scientists had made clear that the risk of a climate crisis was real. The only questions were “how bad” and “how soon.”

Shell’s projections about the carbon threat had been even more concerning.

Conservative politicians such as Maggie Thatcher and George HW Bush later spoke about climate change as a problem that must be addressed.

When oil prices crashed in the early ’80s and a new corporate leadership took charge, however, the science was abandoned. The fossil fuel lobby elected to borrow the tobacco sector playbook to launch a PR effort to muddy the debate instead of making the transition to new business models.

Funders such as the oil-rich Koch brothers poured billions into libertarian think tanks which would amplify the disinformation.

A flourishing network of pretend “grass roots” organisations was established (astroturfing) to compound the many voices of think tank experts to create a chorus of doubt about climate science.

The conservative identity would no longer be allowed to accept that fossil fuels posed a threat. In the ’90s, figures like Peabody Oil’s Fred Palmer were key to the campaign to promote a new anti-science, anti-expert conservative identity.

Fossil fuels were made to seem integral to the American dream and CO2 central to a greener, more prolific planet. Any “so-called expert” that tried to explain the science was anti-American.

These groups surrounded politicians but also produced information for schools and universities. They filled the newspapers with advertorials and shifted even The New York Times’s editorial stance towards the fossil fuel position. The libertarian think tanks — funded by fossil fuel millions — have had considerable input into the shaping of academic and intellectual debate channeling public discourse.

It was no longer possible for conservatives to accept that climate science was a science, nor an important problem confronting humanity.

Palmer, a Catholic, was also central to the campaign to make the use of fossil fuels a new part of the conservative Evangelical identity. He still claims today that fossil fuels were placed in the earth as part of a divine plan. Nor has he rejected his 1997 proclamation that burning gasoline in cars was “doing the work of the Lord”.

Discrediting climate science was key, and central figures in the disinformation campaign remain close to government. Steve Milloy, linked to tobacco and fossil fuel companies, was part of Donald Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) transition team.

These bodies’ research cited “older less educated men” as a key demographic for anti climate science campaigns. They were considered easily mobilised by conspiracy theories and ready to scoff at experts. Campaigns were orchestrated to encourage them to take pride in their opposition to intellectuals.

Ronald Reagan’s ending of the fairness doctrine, which had mandated “fair and balanced” coverage of issues, in the ’80s led to a flourishing of shock jocks on radio. Rush Limbaugh was the most famous. He worked actively with the fossil fuel lobby in the creation of this conservative identity. He fostered loathing of “misguided commie libs”, and their “out of touch with reality” ideas.

These strategies and talking points became central to the new “conservative” Fox News, unleashed by the end of the fairness doctrine too.

The media forces were able to build on the deliberate creation of a conservative sphere of disinformation begun in the early 1970s by Richard Viguerie who used direct mail to scare grandmothers out of their pittance in the face of imaginary threats looming at the hands of the Democrats. Ultimately social media multiplied this effect exponentially.

Now this “conservative identity” with its disdain for experts and science and the mainstream media, all linked to the loathed “libs”, has become something radically disruptive. Using the tools designed by then immature social media entrepreneurs, these “do your own research” figures are radicalising each other into festering chaos.

Throughout the Covid lockdowns, frightened and anxious figures looked for knowledge from people like them on the internet. YouTube and Facebook allowed them to “research” all the ways that a “global elite” was harming them and their children. QAnon went from a joke on an “image board” to something able to swing American elections by the end of 2020.

And leaders of the “conservative” political parties fed into the folly. Trump pandered to the QAnon voter in a series of instances tracked by Forbes. This is hardly surprising. Some commentators fear he is becoming a god to a burgeoning religion. More surprising is our own Scott Morrison adding the word “ritual” to his apology to sexual abuse survivors in what some Australian QAnon supporters have claimed as a nod to QAnon theories.

It is hard to know which of the pundits and politicians believe the tropes of the “conservative” culture war against “the left”.

More than 90 per cent of Fox employees are vaccinated even as their talking heads inculcate mistrust of science, experts and the Biden government in their viewers, leading to those viewers dying. Sky News, Australia’s Fox, has been part of the News Corp campaign to discredit the Andrews government and virus mitigation. One banner displayed at the Melbourne riots repeated one of the Herald Sun‘s many anti-Daniel Andrews headlines.

The increasingly radicalised “conservative” parties of the anglosphere depend on the votes of people equally radicalised against the consensus reality.

They also depend on the money of economic sector bodies which have narrow interests in controlling political decision making rather than the public good.

Conservative strategists encouraged the formation of an identity that would be tribal in allegiance, rejecting the knowledge and advice of experts. These machinations pose a critical threat to our lives during a pandemic, our democratic nations and potentially the survival of our civilisation.

Australian voters should be wary of a Coalition government which imports the American conservative playbook.

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