Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

The Coronavirus and Political Ideology

Why did conservatives downplay the threat?

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

As an editorial in The New York Times put it, according to the prevailing theories of moral psychology “the supposed conservative mind is more attuned to external threat and internal contamination.” So why are conservatives and Republicans displaying less fear and greater resistance to quarantine, while liberals and Democrats are the ones who are advocating greater concern and broader social reactions?

Clearly the partisan contest is a big part of this. Anticipation about the 2020 presidential election are often dominant over other considerations. In this sense it is not mysterious 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 what we would expect, taking into account the specific nature of the pandemic. Two dynamics account for it: the reaction to abstract threats and the ideological nature of fear.

Viruses and the Lizard Brain

The deep-seated and evolutionarily-driven reactions responsible for immediate conservative responses to threat—the lizard brain—may not react to viruses like they do to other stimuli. Viruses are an abstract threat: Invisible. Surprising. Exponential growth seems difficult for our minds to comprehend (compared to the usual additive or multiplicative threats). So the quick, pre-cognitive political reactions driven by the usual moral psychology are likely blunted in this case, and replaced by the second-order effects.

The second-order considerations—the cognitive, easily processed aware thoughts that come to us very soon—predict the prevailing ideological reactions accurately.

The easiest ideology to comprehend and connect to seems to be the economic shutdown. Conservatives have been reacting viscerally against it (and hence also downplaying the threat of the virus itself) for a simple ideological reason: In the conservative worldview this is not a case of a clear threat and a simple defensive response, but instead is one threat balanced against another threat. It is a tragic trade-off (see Phil Tetlock), which causes hesitation and resistance.

If the economy is shut down and recession follows, all of the advantages of the strong economy evaporate. Conservatives are especially attuned to comparative advantage because of international threat perceptions; recession means falling military strength, especially against China. Conservatives see the economy and national defense as deeply intertwined in a way that means an economic threat is also a defense threat. For this reason, defending yourself by shutting down your economy sounds potentially absurd to conservatives; it is a last resort only.

Liberals do not favor economic shutdown, but the tradeoff is easier to accept because the external threats tied to economic decline do not loom as large for them. On the other hand, the second-order considerations do encourage several liberal policy agendas. The government reaction to the crisis—especially the stimulus package—increases perceptions of the positive role of government, promotes nationalized health care, promotes universal basic income (UBI), and in general accords with a communitarian rather than individualistic worldview.

So liberals are faced with a simpler option: React against the threat by shutting down the economy. Conservatives are stymied by a tragic tradeoff: 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 conservatives should have reacted more strongly against the coronavirus than liberals is grounded in the argument that cons are driven by fear, especially fear of external enemies. I have written about this myself and think it largely correct (see American Ideology).

But the reason it does not apply in the blunt way in this case is that the psychology of fear is really reaction to threat. And threat does not just come in one kind.

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

The conservative fear of people focuses on enemies, foreigners, and criminals. The liberal fear of things focuses on technology, pollution, and guns. Or in this case, viruses.

I first noticed this effect when I was a boy growing up in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania during the Three Mile Island nuclear reactor scare. The liberals were the ones who tended to evacuate in the immediate aftermath when things were uncertain, while the conservatives tended to remain and maintain that all would be well. (At least that is what happened in my anecdotal memory; I have no data on it. However, current attitudes toward nuclear energy still reflect this ideological division.) If the threat in Harrisburg at that time had been a possible outbreak from the local prison rather than the local nuclear plant, I believe the reactions would have been the reverse.

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

When it comes to viruses, there may be some ambiguity about whether they represent a threat from a person or a thing. One might guess that a virus was a hybrid thing/human (given the human transmission), but it seems to be read by most people psychologically as a thing (a non-human abstract oddity that hurts you, like radiation). The evidence about the ideological reaction to disgust backs this up. Moral or sexual disgust is connected to conservatism over liberalism, but pathogen disgust is not.

So the bottom line is that ideological reactions to the coronavirus are in keeping with psychological expectations if we account for the specific nature of the threat, grounded in reactions to the abstract and the ideological nature of fear.