Right-wing Anti-science Populism vs. Our Collective Obligations in a Democracy

What are the collective implications as certain political tribes, the anti-mask wearing brigade in the midst of an alarming (and discouraging) surge in COVID-19 flu cases in the United States, openly defy the science it doesn’t agree with? In this case, a largely conservative tribe with a right-wing, political worldview where science can provide theories that paint a picture of the world as orderly and structured or also; threatens certain moral claims to the extent that rejecting it has a protective function? That the preservation of certain group ideologies can undermine basic precautionary measures in the case of public health risks that override our collective responsibilities in a democracy?

While certainly not all skepticism about scientific findings or even science generally, should be judged as unwarranted or irrational. Or even that the surge in COVID-19 is directly a result of a right-wing rejection of science. But given the cynical and incoherent response by the Trump Administration to the epidemiological, economic and political implications of the current pandemic, my primary concern is when certain groups, who percieve the science it doesn’t like as fundamentally corrupt or unreliable, and which forms a basis seeking to openly and politically defy it. Dudes who don’t wear masks or reject climate science for that matter, also bury the complexities and interdependencies of life together on a planet. In other words, they undermine coordinated, democratic efforts needed to address these issues which often times, are depedent on the expertise of scientific institutions.

The impulse to stifle then, the voices that contradict conservative worldviews; Fauci on-again-off-again muzzled in COVID-19 Whitehouse briefings, Red- state vs. blue-state coverups of Covid-infection rates, not to mention historical organized efforts lead by conservatives to undermine a political response to climate change, illustrate an authoritarian desire to bury the science that contradicts its ideology and as we are seeing during a pandemic, culminating into open revolt.

Science rejection then, based on a mixture of ideological, motivational and moral concerns in which science can contradict, can increasingly turn to an authoritarianism that seeks to homogenize by force and supports the increased use of coercion in order to counter reasonable efforts, like mandatory national mask wearing or heck, a coherent emissions-reductions policy.

Anti-democratic science-rejection emanating from the right

To be clear, the acceptance of science that is inconvenient and/or contradicts deeply held ideals of reality is not just a right-wing thing. Humans as explained by Bastiaan Rutjens et al., are hard-wired towards a promiscuous teleology; e.g., it rains so that plants have water to grow, rather than complex meteorological phenomena. Science can be highly counterintuitive and contradict flawed human intuitions about what reality consists of and how things work, that spring from this set of evolved cognitive biases. When science runs afoul of our preferred modes of thinking, beyond a lack of ability to understand it, these are the ideological and motivational antecedents of science rejection.

Right-wing populism according to John Abromeit as opposed to left, that begins to nudge towards an authoritarian politic, is about the defense and fortification of a class already occupying a position of relative privilege in society (left wing populism in contrast, as witnessed in BLM protests, can loosely be explained as more or less an underclass resisting structural power). These movements he explains, are always, and at least partially a response to an inability to remember the impacts of rapid social change and are powerful, according to Ray Kiely of Locating Trump: paleoconservativism, neoliberalism and anti-globalization, because there are significant levels of despair and lack of future promise in some of the regions with significant Trump support.

The ‘end’ of the middle-class American dream according to Kiely, resting precisely on the image of rugged individualism and the republican ideal, and consists of a defensive uprising by a population that becomes dispossessed and rises up to reclaim that stability, centrality and dignity they believe should be theirs as “the people”.

Right wing populism slipping towards science-denying authoritarianism

The impulse of right-wing populism, uses coercive force is to otherwise eliminate, homogenize or subdue the science that contradicts it’s ideology. Whence, the Trump Administration’s historical climate science denial, willy-nilly elimination of environmental regulation and compulsive, downplaying of the severity of the flu pandemic.

While certainly other global leaders downplayed COVID-19; the disease to American conservatives represents the specter of government interventions that trouble the purity of free markets–as well as dim Trump reelection prospects. Ironically, the roots of right-wing populism is rapid and disruptive change brought on by unfettered markets as the cultural antecedents of American authoritarianism; a neoliberal paradox and right-wing resistance to technocratic engineering.

For many Trump voters, encountering rapid change through capitalism within a previously traditional rural society, there is the promise of pristine markets that can never be fulfilled, and the failure to deliver on that promise. Rapid modernization needs to justify its existence in democratic systems and requires popular consent to continue without revolt. As explained in the book Theorizing Populism at the Margins, many of these changes do not pertain to the lives of the average Trump supporter, and where the question of political representation becomes a crux of social stability.

A right-wing, free market fundamentalism produces “cheaters” of the promise of pristine markets. Often the promoters of globalization, multiculturalism and political correctness that ignore the concerns of “middle” America. The powerful myth and the American dream of go-it-alone individualism would exist if people were prepared to play by market rules and not those who con the system; welfare recipients, immigrants and privileged identity groups, all encouraged by a Washington elite.

According to John Abromeit, right-wing populist ideas and the emergence of right-wing populist authoritarianism, is linked to rising levels of despair witnessed in Trump dominated voting districts. He argues a relationship between capitalist crisis, authoritarian social movements and right-wing populism. And where Trump’s neoliberal political agenda does not have the ability to undo the complexities of trade deals in the era of globalization that would restore the American dream in regions most impacted by it.

Trump’s failure to advance a real alternative that restores it will simply exacerbate the poisonous, dangerous political trends of which Trump himself is a culmination and symptom. A Trump politic where there are easy and fast solutions to complex problems becomes more a reflection of his potential authoritarianism creating a populist message that narratively reduces elite persons and established institutions to bastions of corruption.

The Scientist is a Political Elite

The science (e.g. climate science, epidemiology) that threaten right-wing populist perceptions of order and control needs to justify its existence. Rather than a result of ever-present epidemiological phenomena, COVID-19 can more easily represent an assault to personal liberties with government public health measures to control the spread attempts at social engineering. Conspiracy thinking fills the void that forms its political response to the demands of the outbreak. Conspiracy thinking, a contributor to science rejection, is linked to people’s perception of a loss of order and control and fulfills a psychological motivation to perceive and experience order and control.

For authors Morelock and Narita, right-wing populism centers around the alienation of ‘regular people’ from government and the political elites legislating the changes whose logic doesn’t match with their own. American, right-wing populism is an ideology of “producers” and “parasites”. A business-centric view of the world explains Ray Kiely, that pits producers—workers and industry leaders (like Trump) producing a direct public good (anyone who pays directly into social support systems is therefore entitled to the treasure)—against immoral parasites(e.g., bureaucratic elites as non-producers of direct public good). This ideology can put the focus on the alleged wrongdoing of elite scientists contradicting the epistemologies of regular people who have found themselves out of power, where conspiracy theories offer a way to make sense of their situation and gain a compensatory validation of their beliefs.

Thus a parasitic scientist promulgating consensually established science, can more easily be seen as a pursuit of an agenda or self-interest and to be colluding with each other to distort, conceal, and falsify. And where any attempts to disprove or debunk these claims by authorities are not only unconvincing, but may themselves be part of the ongoing conspiracy. All in serving a psychological need for order and control where lacking it, this ideological group will seek to prevent further randomness and, as we are seeing by the curiosity of the Karen’s (and the Ken’s) on social media (among other right-wing populist awfulness during a pandemic), raw defiance, and a real, public threat.

[1] KIELY, RAY. “LOCATING TRUMP: PALEOCONSERVATISM, NEOLIBERALISM, AND ANTI-GLOBALIZATION.” In The World Turned Upside Down?: Socialist Register 2019, edited by PANITCH LEO and ALBO GREG, 126–49. London: NYU Press, 2018. Accessed July 4, 2020. doi:10.2307/j.ctv12pnr7c.9.

[2] Abromeit, John. “Frankfurt School Critical Theory and the Persistence of Authoritarian Populism in the United States.”

[3] Rutjens, Bastiaan T., Steven J. Heine, Robbie M. Sutton, and Frenk van Harreveld. “Attitudes towards science.” In Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, vol. 57, pp. 125–165. Academic Press, 2018.


Founder of the non-profit, Think Beyond the Pump. The group promotes a climate/public health warning label on all points of fossil purchase.