Illiberal Liberalism: COVID and the Moral Crisis of the Left

by Muriel Blaive

In the recent pandemic, the moderate left has failed the lower half, what we used to call the working class, which is now rather the working poor.

What do I mean by the left? Its definition varies from country to country and almost from person to person. I leave aside the extreme left and focus in this article on the liberal left, which I use as a synonym for the moderate left or liberals, a current of thought largely represented amongst intellectuals and journalists, for instance those of the New York Times, the Guardian or the Washington Post that I will cite many times here.

While this moderate left has historically claimed to represent the interests of the disadvantaged, I argue that with COVID they have focused instead on surviving at all costs at the expense of the poor, including – and this is my second point – by endorsing authoritarian means: censorship, repression, and public shaming. They rationalized their heavy-handed response with a narrative built around notions of truth, civic virtue, and fear.

Of course, any government can make mistakes; misguided policies at a time of perceived crisis are unavoidable and even forgivable. But censorship and repression remain unacceptable under any circumstances: they are not only unscientific, but also undemocratic. Has the liberal left become illiberal? This debate is worth having as the future of our democracies depends on it, and not only regarding COVID – climate change or the war between Israel and Hamas immediately jump to mind too.

Liberals endorsed an authoritarian way of dealing with COVID sceptics

Western enlightened elites, primarily a large part of the moderate left – along with part of the authoritarian right, for instance, the Orbán regime in Hungary, which should have been flagged as a warning signal – have endorsed and shared the official narrative of fear, Non Pharmaceutical Interventions, and vaccines, which can be subsumed under the formula of containing the virus by civic virtue. “I wear a mask to protect you”, hammered Andrew Cuomo, the Democrat governor of New York as he extolled the civic mindedness and “coolness” of wearing a mask. However, “you don’t have the right to infect me”, he added in a message that was considerably more ominous. The liberal press soon delegitimized any alternative or critical narrative as fringe science, right-wing, white supremacist, or far right. An article in the Washington Post even likened “anti-vaccine extremism” to “domestic terrorism.” 

Liberals often became openly scornful of the people who refused vaccine mandates. Contempt for the opinion of the lower half is, to quote an adjective made infamous by Hillary Clinton, deplorable. It could also signal the upcoming end of democracy: if our only political choice is between an illiberal left and an illiberal right, what awaits is an illiberal regime.

The moderate left was more concerned with not catching COVID than with the poor dying of hunger

The moderate left shared three mantras during the pandemic.

The first was not catching the disease: “I really don’t want to get COVID”“it makes total sense if you still don’t want to get COVID”“why you really don’t want to catch COVID”, went the newspapers. Those who could do so barricaded themselves at home, ordered home delivery, carefully disinfected it with wipes, forbade their children to go out, and resumed work online. The modern-day proletarians who faced the virus in order to deliver them this food, on the other hand, were hardly granted any consideration. Wired was one of the rare outlets to question the ethics of staying home to avoid exposure while other people brought them what they ordered. The New York Times was less hesitant: it was ethical to stay at home, unethical to risk transmitting the disease to others by going out.

A similar lack of concern was afforded to the populations of the poorer countries which were devastated by the lockdowns, going hungry, and set back a decade or more on some gender, educational, and living standard issues. Food and vaccination programs were interrupted. As The Economist put it, COVID-19 is undoing years of progress in curbing global poverty. “Some kinds of lockdown could cost more lives than they save”, it added already in May 2020.  Toby Green and Thomas Fazi’s volume, The Covid Consensus, shows the extent of the devastation visited upon developing countries by the pandemic response. The subtitle of their book, The Global Assault on Democracy and the Poor. A Critique from the Left, speaks for itself.

Secondly, a number of liberals became infatuated with public denunciations of the would-be culprits who contaminated them when they did catch the virus, as they inevitably would. In almost all countries, the police were overwhelmed by people eager to snitch on their neighbors for flouting lockdown and mask rules. The public shaming compulsion sometimes even targeted people’s own spouses or children – which is rather chilling.

A third compulsion of the liberal left has been to fight “disinformation”, which meant not only actual disinformation, but also any narrative critical of its conviction that we can defeat the virus only thanks to the requisite civic behavior. To this day, many “Covidians” refuse to establish a distinction between conspiracy theorists and university professors of medicine from Harvard, Stanford, and Oxford, such as the authors of the Great Barrington Declaration who have advocated for focused protection. Crucially, criticism of the pandemic response was politicized, linking it, for example, to alleged support of President Trump in the US. Empathy almost completely disappeared from the public space: “I have no empathy for the willfully unvaccinated. Let them die. Unvaccinated patients do not deserve ICU beds”, were words that could appear on a liberal newspaper’s front page.

Moreover, disinformation spread to both camps. On 3 October 2023, the French Health Minister asserted on French public radio that the COVID vaccine “has no side effects.” No matter how effective the vaccine might have been (it is not the purpose of this op-ed to discuss that question), this is a demonstrably false claim. It came on top of multiple demonstrably false claims in which public health leaders assured the public that vaccination would stop virus transmission, only before denying they ever said so – and being ridiculed on social media by reminders that they actually did.

Notwithstanding the unethical aspect of these COVID measures, I hoped the moderate left would come to its senses when it realized lockdowns hadn’t achieved much more than destroying the livelihood of the working classes it purports to defend, and after masks had mainly succeeded in impairing the mental health and education of our children.

But no evidence seems to make any difference anymore, not least because enough studies have made it into scientific journals to support either narrative. It has become mission impossible to reestablish any form of communication between what liberals perceive as the far rightfascists, or neo-fascists and what the right or alt-right perceives as the woke left or cancel culture. This could be almost amusing, except that it is signaling the erosion of democracy and could be heralding the upcoming victory of the populist and extreme right in many Western countries.

We are now reaping what we have sowed for almost four years

Liberal elites, misled by their censorship of any criticism, have deluded themselves about the consequences of the policies they have endorsed. They are only starting to face the devastation that they have advocated – not only in socio-economic terms due to the lockdowns and the ensuing inflation, but also in terms of destruction of public trust in official institutions due to the mask and vaccine mandates, and due also to their adamant refusal to acknowledge the adverse effects of the vaccine. As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie puts it, the liberal left now is, just like the right, paralyzed by a punitive tribal orthodoxy and by a massive decline in compassion and moral courage. As Timothy Snyder has shown in his book Our Malady on the example of the opioid crisis in the US, political fallback is inexorable: people who felt abandoned in the midst of a health crisis voted for Donald Trump in the following (2016) elections.

The failure to address the desperation of the poor which resulted from the pandemic measures has not been reflected upon. The moderate left has massively failed the “working class.” The contempt it expresses for what it calls the “Covidiots” will likely result in further pushing them into the arms of the only political side which still pretends to care for them: the populist and extreme right.

Perhaps it is time liberals realized they support a narrative which has served their narrow political interests rather than those of the public. Now that the first moment of panic has passed, it is urgent to look at what we see in the mirror: a liberal left which is at great risk of becoming fully illiberal.

Many thanks to Gérard-Daniel Cohen for his critical remarks, as well as to András Bozóki and the students of his seminar “Ideologies and Intellectuals” at Central European University, who generously took time to comment on this text. Last but not least, many thanks to Oliver Garner and Ferenc Laczó for their editorial work. A longer version of this text was published here.

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