Of all the issues that you would think would be non-partisan, Ebola should be at the top of the list. The disease is just a mindless germ that doesn’t check your race, gender, social class, sexual orientation or party identification before it strikes, suggesting both liberals and conservatives have a stake in treating people exposed to the disease with compassion and care. And yet, to flip on Fox News or turn on any conservative media at all, you’d think that ebola was some kind of plague designed by the Democratic party in order to wipe out Republicans.
Blowing the threat of ebola out of proportion and trying to link it to Obama has been a constant theme on the right in recent days. Elisabeth Hasselbeck of Fox News literally demanded that we put the country on lockdown, banning all travel in and out. In a bit of race-baiting, Andrea Tantaros of Fox suggested that people who travel to the country and show symptoms of ebola will “seek treatment from a witch doctor” instead of go to the hospital. Fox host Steve Doocy suggested the CDC is lying about ebola because they’re “part of the administration”. Fox also promoted a conspiracy theorist who is trying to claim the CDC is lying when they caution people not to panic.
Other right wing media joined in. Tammy Bruce blamed ebola on the “Obama legacy”. Laura Ingraham said Obama was prevented from doing more to stop the disease because of his “core ties to the African continent”. Rush Limbaugh even went as far as to accuse Obama of letting the disease spread because he supposes liberals believe “we kind of deserve a little bit of this”.
Even politicians are getting in on the act. Former South Carolina Republican Party executive director Todd Kincannon tweeted, “The protocol for a positive Ebola test should be immediate humane execution and sanitization of the whole area.” Republican presidential hopefuls stopped short of wishing death on people who have the disease, but are nonetheless crawling all over each other to make a bigger deal out of ebola than it really is. Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, Paul Ryan and Bobby Jindal have all suggested that we ban travel in and out of the country, at least some travel, in order to keep a lid on ebola.
None of this is even in the realm of reasonable, of course. There’s only been one case of ebola in the entire country and the CDC has a well-practiced strategy for tracking and containing the disease. PBS science correspondent Miles O'Brien denounced the coverage as “irresponsible” and asked people to “take a deep breath” before fear-mongering about ebola.
With the threat being so small, why are conservatives going crazy like this? Part of it is pure political opportunism, trying to hitch their anti-Obama obsession to whatever scary news story is making headlines. Part of it is cynical fear-mongering for its own sake, as conservative pundits know that when people are afraid, the are more open to reactionary ideas. But a large part of it might be that conservatives are just far more prone than liberals are both to getting wound up over the fear of disease and being compelled by the idea that people who are not themselves are undeserving of care.
Researcher Jonathan Haidt is the architect of the “moral foundations” theory that suggests that political inclinations, at least in modern times, are rooted in five different foundations: harm, fairness, ingroup, authority, and purity. Liberals and conservatives weigh these five considerations very differently. For instance, liberals are more likely than conservatives to factor in whether an action causes harm when deciding if it’s wrong or not. Liberals also worry more about fairness and have more regard for people that are outside of their “group” than conservatives. Conservatives, on the other hand, put far more trust in authority. Conservatives are also far more obsessed with “purity” and far more likely to get hung up on the idea that the body “is a temple which can be desecrated by immoral activities and contaminants,” as Haidt explains.
You can see these differences play out with the response to ebola. For liberals, the proper response to ebola patients is to reduce harm by caring for them and to treat the people who got it fairly, by understanding that they didn’t do anything wrong to get it.
But ebola touches, for conservatives, two big, red buttons. First, it’s a disease, so of course it’s going to set off the fears of contamination that Haidt demonstrates plague conservatives far more than liberals. Second of all, conservatives associate ebola with people who are different from them---from different countries, often of different races---and they have little regard for people in “out groups”, which is Haidt’s term for people who are different. And because conservatives are less worried about harming others or being fair, it becomes easy for them to demonize people with ebola, demand that they be left to die without care, and simply kept from “contaminating” the rest of us.
You see this tension with many other issues. Abortion? Conservatives are grossed out by women who gave up their “purity” by having sex, but liberals are more worried about the harm done women who lose abortion rights. Gay rights? Conservatives see gays as impure and different, but liberals are worried about treating them fairly. Ferguson protests and the Mike Brown shooting? Conservatives love authority and support the police, especially against black protesters that are seen as an “out” group. Liberals worry about the harm done to Brown and the protesters and are angry about the unfairness of a policeman shooting an unarmed man or attacking unarmed protesters. Indeed, the ebola panic quite resembles the way many conservatives reacted in the early days of AIDS, demonizing sufferers as disgusting peoplewho should be isolated and left to die.
Once you know these patterns, the conservative reaction to ebola---to panic, to treat the people who have it like pariahs, to demand that we shut off all contact with outsiders, and to even reject the idea of caring for the afflicted---was entirely predictable. Even if they didn’t have cynical political motivations, which many clearly do, their worldview makes it nearly impossible for them to react with compassion instead of fear.