Lockdowns pushed us online, polarizing us more

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I can’t be the only rightist who was left feeling dizzy and disoriented when the Republicans veered off in new directions under former President Donald Trump. All sorts of ideas that had previously been central to American conservatism, including strict constitutionalism, fiscal discipline, free trade, and a readiness to deploy proportionate force in the national interest, were suddenly suspect. Sticking to them made you a RINO. Politicians who had previously been seen as ideological hard-liners, such as Sens. Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, were, by the 2016 primaries, dismissed as establishment insiders but had fallen in behind Trump by 2020.

How did it happen? And so quickly? My hunch is that the GOP’s radicalization is part of a broader phenomenon: a general radicalization of discourse. Perhaps it might help to consider the phenomenon from a related perspective.

On two other critical questions, I have felt the same vertiginous lurch — that queasiness when, without changing your position, you sense the ground slipping underneath you. On Brexit and lockdowns, I have gone from being an extremist to a pantywaist without altering my views at all.

For 30 years, I campaigned to take the United Kingdom out of the European Union. My argument was that we should have a common market, not a common government. In other words, we should withdraw from the EU’s political structures while retaining economic links in the way that, say, Switzerland does. For the first 25 of those 30 years, that position placed me beyond the bounds of polite society. No newspaper and no political party backed Brexit. I was the first elected politician in the U.K. to suggest it, and for a long time, that marked me out as a madman.

Then came the referendum. Suddenly, the country was divided into two camps, each talking only to itself and each subject to what psychologists call a “purity spiral.” People who had come new to the argument had no time for compromise. To argue for any continuing links to the EU was a betrayal. Having been a lone voice calling for withdrawal, I was being denounced as a milksop by people who had only been around for five minutes.

It was a similar story when it came to the lockdowns. I argued from the start that subjecting people to house arrest was disproportionate. My point was not that lockdowns didn’t work. Plainly, immobilizing a population would reduce the spread of a contagious disease. Instead, the impact was excessive — the cost of lost education, lost jobs, and lost liberty was too high. I argued that we should impose minimal restrictions, such as banning large meetings and otherwise trusting people to use their common sense.

Again, that view was initially regarded as demented. To oppose the lockdowns meant that you wanted to kill grandma. Yet, just as with Brexit, competitive virtue-signaling took over. A tribe of online warriors sprang into existence, sporting happy yellow faces as their avatars, determined to deny that the disease was a problem. It was a “case-demic”, they said — a product of false-positive tests. It was a plot by Big Pharma and Bill Gates to impose an unnecessary vaccination program.

In all three cases — Trumpsters, hard Brexiteers, and COVID-19 deniers — we see some common features. First, there is a determined refusal to consider conflicting evidence. There is no point in trying to argue that votes were certified by Republican-appointed officials any more than there is in pointing out that the excess mortality rates correspond pretty much as you would expect with the certified coronavirus-related deaths. Second, there is pronounced tribalism — a determination to hunt for heretics rather than to seek converts. Third, there is a suspicious number of new online accounts that spring into existence more or less purely to take the hardest possible line.

This last strikes me as an underexplored factor in driving radicalization. I noticed long ago that whenever I tweeted anything even mildly critical of Trump, I would lose several hundred followers. Since I was a British politician rather than an American politician, that didn’t bother me. Had I been a Republican congressman, wondering whether each of those lost followers was a lost voter, it would have concentrated my mind. There is simply no way of knowing whether an account is an algorithm designed in Moscow or a constituent.

If social media platforms are responsible for polarization, the outlook is bleak. A consequence of the lockdowns has been to drive us online more. Having spent years telling children to spend less time on screens, we are now obliging them to do their schoolwork on their laptops. The political breakdown may be just getting underway.

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