Stupidity in the Age of Coronavirus
An interview with research expert Tony Cardinale
Photo by Andrej Lišakov on Unsplash
“I’m not a scientist, but…”
… I know that we’re in the midst of a f**king pandemic. And the scientists are the ones who saw it coming. The scientists are the ones who can save us.
Unfortunately, the Electoral College doesn’t believe in math, and so we somehow ended up with a President who views science and “known facts” with an unhealthy dose of skepticism.
To survive this Trump Plague, we’re going to need expertise, professionalism and a basic level of competence. We’re also going to need citizens who are willing to take this deadly virus seriously. Because — NEWSFLASH: Going to church is not the answer right now. If you don’t believe me, stay the F home for five minutes and read the news in the Christian Post.
Last month, I wrote about how Trump and his pals at Fox News had actually made Americans more stupider as the COVID-19 virus spread across America. And then some of them even started suggesting that we kill off all the grandparents so we can all get back to work quicker.
“How can we be this stupid in an age when our phones are so smart,” I asked myself? For answers, I turned to research expert Tony Cardinale, who I recently noticed tweeting some interesting new research that addresses this very issue.
Here’s what he told me:
Tell us about yourself and what you’re doing related to the 2020 election.
I run American Insight & Strategy. We conduct research on the emotional needs of Americans, and we use the new insights from that work to help media companies, brands and political leaders understand better how to change minds and behavior. We’re completing our second annual VoterDNA study right now, which we use to identify the emotional fault lines that decide elections.
What does your research show about the different attitudes between the parties regarding science and fact-based information as it relates to COVID-19?
I think many liberals would be surprised to learn there’s a lot of belief in pseudoscience at both ends of the political spectrum. Anti-vaxxers, for example, are pretty evenly spread among conservatives and liberals. What’s different is that political leaders and news organizations on the right often exploit that vulnerability to hokum, more than on the left.
So, in the case of views on vaccines, if you look at the political distribution of anti-vaxxers, there’d be no reason to believe they’d be concentrated in Fox News’ audience. But they are. There are more anti-vaxxers in the Fox News audience, proportionately, than CNN or MSNBC. Hannity viewers have the highest anti-vax profile among the nine primetime shows on the three cable news networks. They’re almost twice as likely as the average American to have strong anti-vaccine feelings (19% vs 11%).
Why would that be, if it isn’t explained simply by right versus left?
Well, there are sub-segments of right and left, and those sub-segments have different “emotional genes” if you will. There’s an emotional segment that we’ve been studying closely that has a “follower” profile that Fox News specializes in. Our working title for it is “Obedients.”
In each survey we ask Americans a fundamental question about democracy. We ask them to choose between two options: “The citizens’ role is to act as the president’s boss” and “It’s the president who should act as the boss.” Most Americans, including half of conservatives, choose the people. As Lincoln said, this is a nation of the people, by the people, for the people.
But Fox News viewers more often choose the president. They want to be led, not to think of themselves as the leader. What does that have to do with science? It happens that the same conservative sub-segment is skeptical of academic types, and their own educational attainment is not as high.
Most of the major news organizations’ audiences have an above-average college graduate profile. For Fox News it’s below the national average. So Fox News’ business model is to consolidate and own a conservative sub-segment that is less educated, more skeptical of science, and has a followers’ mentality. Donald Trump owns this sub-segment as well, in politics.
So how does all of that manifest during a pandemic?
Television networks are designed to press the buttons of their audience, in order to gratify them and keep them from changing the channel. If the Fox News viewers are distrustful of science and like leaders who project power, that will be reflected back by the network, or the network will lose loyalty. And that was reflected in Fox’s editorial tone, often, especially early in the crisis.
When [Fox & Friends Host] Ainsley Earhardt said it was a good time to fly, in mid-March, thousands of her viewers, given their profile, would have accepted her words without seeking a second, more science-based opinion.
So at a time like this, especially, Fox News has an out-sized social responsibility to bring the science, not contradict or dismiss science. Misusing that power can have grave consequences. And Fox News has millions of viewers.
What impact do you think the pandemic—Trump’s handling of it, the personal losses people have suffered, and the economic impact of it all—will play into the election?
The human brain’s ability to rationalize is incredibly powerful. And the Trump campaign will give voters brains’ the tool kits they need – in the form of information that history tells us will often be false – to rationalize continuing to support him. His approval rating right now is up, after all.
But there’s no telling what the impact will be when the people of Wisconsin, Iowa and Pennsylvania have friends, neighbors and family die from COVID-19. This event is historically unique. It may be enough to cause 2% more Trump voters to rethink their choice. Or it may cement their support for the president, as times of intense stress have often done, historically.
What advice do you have for Democratic candidates at every level and those looking to help them win in November?
Experts tell us this health crisis will likely continue into the Fall. Focus 100% of your messaging on your constituents and what you’re going to do for them right now. How are you going to keep them safe? How can you make them feel economically secure? How will you get them food safely? People are scared. Show confidence and be positive. If they pray, pray with them.
Don’t spend too much time criticizing Trump. Plenty of others will do that work. Right now voters want leadership.
Focus intensely on solutions that increase access to healthcare, regardless of work status. This was already a winning issue among moderates, before this pandemic. Coronavirus highlights this American blind spot.
Don’t talk about the stock market. Don’t talk about trading away inconveniences now in the belief that it will help avoid a bad economic situation 18 months from now. It’s always been true that kitchen table issues win elections. Coronavirus intensifies that short-term focus for voters. People just want to hear that we will get through this.
Tony Cardinale is the President and Chief Insights Officer at American Insight & Strategy, and the former corporate head of Strategic Insights at NBCUniversal. Follow him on Twitter at @TonyatAIS or at americaninsightandstrategy.com
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