The coronavirus and political ideology


Conservatives and liberals seem to have exchanged their usual reactions when it comes to COVID-19.

As an editorial in The New York Times In other words, according to dominant theories of moral psychology, “the supposed conservative mind is more sensitive to external threats and internal contamination.” So why are Conservatives and Republicans showing less fear and greater resistance to quarantine, while Liberals and Democrats are the ones advocating greater concern and broader social backlash?

Obviously, partisan competition is a big part of it. The anticipation of the 2020 presidential election often trumps other considerations. In that sense, it’s no mystery that Trump supporters downplayed the possibilities of a medical crisis and the need for an economic shutdown. But is that all there is to it? Has partisan cheerleading dominated the usual ideological reactions that political psychologists believe to be so deeply ingrained?

No. The ideological reactions are those one would expect, given the specificity of the pandemic. Two dynamics explain this: the reaction to abstract threats and the ideological nature of fear.

Viruses and the lizard brain

The deep, evolutionary reactions responsible for the immediate conservative responses to the threat – the lizard’s brain – may not respond to viruses the way they do to other stimuli. Viruses are an abstract threat: Invisible. Surprising. Exponential growth seems difficult for our minds to grasp (compared to the usual additive or multiplicative threats). Thus, the rapid and precognitive political reactions driven by usual moral psychology are probably blunted in this case and replaced by second-order effects.

Second-order considerations – cognitive, easily processed conscious thoughts that come to us very quickly – accurately predict dominant ideological reactions.

The easiest ideology to understand and connect with seems to be economic shutdown. Conservatives reacted viscerally against him (and therefore downplayed the threat of the virus itself) for a simple ideological reason: one threat counterbalanced by another threat. It is a tragic compromise (see Phil Tetlock), which causes hesitation and resistance.

If the economy is shut down and a recession ensues, all the benefits of a strong economy evaporate. Conservatives are particularly sensitive to comparative advantage due to international perceptions of the threat; the recession means a decline in military strength, especially against China. Conservatives consider the economy and national defense to be deeply linked, so that an economic threat is also a threat to defense. For this reason, defending yourself by shutting down your economy seems potentially absurd to conservatives; it is a last resort only.

Liberals do to favor economic shutdown, but the trade-off is easier to accept because the external threats associated with economic decline are not as important to them. Second-order considerations, on the other hand, encourage several liberal political agendas. The government’s response to the crisis – in particular the stimulus package – increases the perception of the government’s positive role, promotes nationalized health care, promotes universal basic income (RBI), and generally aligns with a vision of the government. community rather than individualist world.

The Liberals are therefore faced with a simpler option: respond to the threat by shutting down the economy. The Conservatives are stuck with a tragic compromise: Which is worse, the threat of the virus or the threat of economic weakness? These second-order effects, rather than reactions to the virus itself, are in line with ideological expectations.

The ideological nature of fear

The view that the conservatives should have reacted more strongly against the coronavirus than the liberals is based on the argument that the cons are motivated by fear, especially fear of outside enemies. I wrote about this myself and think it is largely correct (see American ideology).

But the reason why this does not apply directly in this case is that the psychology of fear is really a reaction to threatens. And the threat does not come of one kind.

A common definition of threat is “a person or thing likely to cause harm or danger”. Conservatives are more likely to see threats of people, while liberals are more likely to perceive threats of things.

People’s conservative fear centers on enemies, strangers, and criminals. The liberal fear of things centers on technology, pollution and guns. Or in this case, viruses.

I first noticed this effect when I was a boy growing up in Harrisburg, Pa., During the Three Mile Island nuclear reactor scare. The Liberals were the ones who tended to evacuate immediately after things were uncertain, while the Tories tended to stick around and maintain that everything would be fine. (At least that’s what happened in my anecdotal memory; I have no data on it. However, current attitudes toward nuclear power still reflect this ideological divide.) If the threat at Harrisburg to that time had been a possible outbreak of the local prison rather than the local nuclear power plant, I think the reactions would have been the opposite.

One of the important things to note about studies that illustrate the link between conservatism and fear (see Jost et al 2003, 2017) is that they focus on threats to people, especially terrorism. Lambert et al. 2019 points out that “of the 55 ‘conservative change’ tests reported by Jost et al. (2017), the vast majority (over 80 percent) were affected by aggressive attacks by terrorists. The remaining samples focused primarily on xenophobic threats or the threat of physical harm from assault or burglary. People, not things.

When it comes to viruses, there may be some ambiguity as to whether they pose a threat from a person or thing. You might guess that a virus was a hybrid / human thing (given human transmission), but it seems to be interpreted by most people psychologically as a thing (a non-human abstract quirk that hurts you, like radiation). The evidence for the ideological reaction to disgust confirms this. Moral or sexual disgust is related to conservatism rather than liberalism, but disgust with pathogens is not.

The bottom line, then, is that ideological reactions to the coronavirus conform to psychological expectations when one takes into account the specific nature of the threat, which is based on reactions to the abstract and ideological nature of fear.


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