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Why are liberals more afraid of the coronavirus than conservatives?

Covid-19 and the complex politics of fear.

President Donald Trump tours a Honeywell International Inc. factory producing N95 masks in Phoenix, Arizona.
Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images

In recent years, there’s been an explosion of academic work on the psychological foundations of our politics. The basic theory goes like this: Some people are innately more suspicious of change, of outsiders, of novelty. That base orientation will nudge them toward living in the town where they grew up, eating the foods they know and love, worshipping in the church their parents attended. It will also nudge them toward political conservatism.

The reverse is true, too. Some people are naturally more oriented toward newness, toward diversity, toward disruption. That base orientation will push them to live in big cities, try exotic foods, travel widely, appreciate weird art, sample different spiritualities. It will also nudge them toward political liberalism.

In Predisposed: Liberals, Conservatives, and the Biology of Political Differences, John Alford, John Hibbing, and Kevin Smith summarize the evidence:

Numerous studies have linked these personality dimensions to differences in the mix of tastes and preferences that seem to reliably separate liberals and conservatives. People who score high on openness, for example, tend to like envelope-pushing music and abstract art. People who score high on conscientiousness are more likely to be organized, faithful, and loyal. One review of this large research literature finds these sorts of differences consistently cropping up across nearly 70 years of studies on personality research. The punch line, of course, is that this same literature also reports a consistent relationship between these dimensions of personality and political temperament. Those open to new experiences are not just hanging Jackson Pollock prints in disorganized bedrooms while listening to techno-pop reinterpretations of Bach by experimental jazz bands. They are also more likely to identify themselves as liberals.

Researchers have sliced, measured, and analyzed these psychologies through dozens of schemas. NYU’s Jon Haidt is known for moral foundations theory, which emphasizes the value structures underpinning our political beliefs. Political scientists Marc Hetherington and Jonathan Weiler study “fixed” and “fluid” personalities. Michele Gelfand tracks “tight” and “loose” societies. Some scales measure “openness.” Others measure “authoritarianism.”

But all of them converge on the same psychosocial cleavage. Put simply, conservatives are psychologically tuned to see threat, and so they fear change. Liberals are tuned to prize change, and so they downplay threat.

“Liberalism and conservatism are rooted in stable individual differences in the ways people perceive, interpret, and cope with threat and uncertainty,” write Christopher Johnston, Howard Lavine, and Christopher Federico in Open versus Closed.

“Of the many factors that make up your worldview, one is more fundamental than any other in determining which side of the divide you gravitate toward: your perception of how dangerous the world is,” write Hetherington and Weiler in Prius or Pickup.

“Conservatives react more strongly than liberals to signs of danger, including the threat of germs and contamination, and even low-level threats such as sudden blasts of white noise,” writes Haidt in The Righteous Mind.

If that’s true, though, why is it conservatives who are downplaying the coronavirus, and liberals who are sheltering in fear of it?

How infectious disease shaped human psychology, politics, and culture

A virus isn’t just any threat, some researchers say. It is the threat at the root of these psychological cleavages.

Infectious disease has, historically, been humanity’s most lethal foe. Our immune systems have evolved to protect us, but so, too, have our cultures, societies, and psychologies. As Haidt writes, “It’s a lot more effective to prevent infection by washing your food, casting out lepers, or simply avoiding dirty people than it is to let the microbes into your body and then hope that your biological immune system can kill every last one of them.”

To some researchers, much of human civilization is a lightly disguised effort at pathogen avoidance: The purity laws of the Old Testament are, from this perspective, a spiritually branded public health campaign. Spicy foods are more common in pathogen-rich areas because they kill bacteria.

How a society treats strangers is of particular importance. Strangers carry novel pathogens, diseases to which you and your community have amassed no immunity. A mix of psychologies helps strike the right balance between being overrun by outsiders spreading infection and reaping the benefits of trade and cooperation.

Dozens of studies have confirmed the relationship between the rate of disease and political attitudes. For example, in a 2008 paper titled “Pathogens, Personality, and Culture,” Mark Schaller and Damian Murray showed that worldwide, people were less open, less extroverted, and more sexually conservative in regions rich with disease. In another study, Randy Thornhill, Cory Fincher, and Devaraj Aran found that a “high prevalence of infectious disease” regionally predicted more conservative political values. Gelfand has looked at US states and found the “tightest” political cultures are in the states “with the most disasters and pathogen prevalence.”

But here we are, in the midst of a pandemic, and it’s conservatives seemingly dismissing the danger, opening states and counties prematurely, refusing to wear masks, waving off the deaths of older people as a small price to pay. “One day, it’s like a miracle, it will disappear,” said President Trump.

And, more often, it seems to be liberals who’re locked in their homes, who are warning the worst is yet to come, who are shaming anyone who dares step foot on a beach or forgets to don personal protective equipment. A recent Pew poll showed 61 percent of conservatives fear that state restrictions won’t be lifted quickly enough, while 91 percent of liberals worry they’ll be lifted too quickly.

This is the opposite of what a straightforward read of decades of political psychology research would predict. Early in the pandemic, it was plausible to argue that the divide reflected the virus hitting blue cities first, and sparing red counties its punishments. But Covid-19 has made its way into Trump country, and at any rate, studies show that political beliefs are a more powerful driver of views on the virus than personal experience.

So I asked political psychology researchers: Why are liberals more afraid of the coronavirus than conservatives? And what does that say about political psychology more broadly?

Why aren’t conservatives more afraid of the coronavirus?

In conversations with more than half a dozen political psychologists, three theories dominated.

One is that we aren’t seeing anything unexpected at all. John Jost, at New York University, suggested that my reading of the reaction was mistaking its psychological foundations. Liberals were acting out of care, not fear. And conservatives are panicked, he suggested, but showing it in odd ways.

“The fact that liberals are taking the scientific evidence and medical recommendations seriously does not, in itself, mean that they are more threat sensitive than conservatives,” he wrote over email. “All of the liberals I know have been self-sequestering to ‘flatten the curve’ — to save other people’s lives.”

As for the right, “some conservatives are denying and repressing fear, but that doesn’t mean they are cool cucumbers. Fears of economic devastation (and the anger by conservative activists in Michigan and elsewhere) may even reflect displacement of the fear. For all we know, Americans who are explicitly denying the problem are experiencing (even) more stress and anxiety than those who are not.”

A second camp argued that the tension is real, but it was being swamped by partisanship. Perhaps, in laboratory conditions, conservatives would be more afraid of the virus. But politics doesn’t play out in laboratory conditions. Trump is the leader of the Republican Party, and his decision to downplay the threat, his dismissal of masks, and his clear desire to reopen is the stronger signal.

“Yes, I would expect conservatives to be more worried about virus X coming in from abroad,” said Haidt. “When Obama was president and America was threatened by Ebola, it was conservatives freaking out, demanding a more vigorous government response to protect us, while Obama kept steady on following scientific advice.”

Trump, it’s worth noting, was at the forefront of the Ebola panic. “Ebola is much easier to transmit than the CDC and government representatives are admitting,” he tweeted in October 2014. “Spreading all over Africa — and fast. Stop flights.”

Here, though, it’s been the opposite. “Trump laid out his view of reality very early: This is nothing to worry about, it’s a plot to discredit me, and it will magically go away,” Haidt continued. Trump’s leadership “overwhelms the small average difference in disgust sensitivity which would, ceteris paribus, have Republicans more concerned about contagion.”

Federico made a similar point. “Chronic sensitivity to threat, disgust, and disease is one factor that should influence concern about Covid-19, [but] it is not the only one. Partisanship itself is perhaps the most important factor in shaping how people respond to issues or public concerns.”

Gelfand said much the same. “Even though groups tighten up under threat, that signal can be weakened. Groups follow their leaders.”

This would confirm what we’ve seen throughout the Trump presidency. A 2018 paper by Michael Barber and Jeremy Pope showed that the more conservative someone believed themselves to be, the more likely they were to follow Trump when he took an unexpectedly liberal position on an issue. Trump’s connection with his base has often, well, trumped his heterodoxies.

A third argument, which acts in some ways as a bridge for the first two, is that everyone was scared, but for conservatives, fear was coming out more through acts of xenophobia than epidemiology — in part because that’s where fear of the virus and Trump’s natural politics find harmony.

“I can’t resist noting that current events are perfectly consistent with my claim that those on the right, and especially the Trumpian right, are not generically more threatened but rather only more attentive to those threats they believe to be emanating from human outsiders (defined broadly to include welfare cheats, unpatriotic athletes, norm violators, non-English speakers, religious and racial minorities, and certainly people from other countries),” wrote Hibbing. “Thus, disembodied threats such as climate change, Covid-19, and economic inequality are not primary sources of concern for them.”

That would explain why Trump oscillates between downplaying the threat of the coronavirus and escalating tensions with China over its response to it. When Trump wants to bludgeon the Chinese, he plays up the threat of the virus; when it comes to domestic governance, he plays it down. More than 70 percent of Republicans now hold an “unfavorable” view of China, a doubling of anti-Chinese sentiment since George W. Bush’s presidency.

“In some ways, this pandemic was tailor-built for right-wing xenophobia, and we are fortunate (thus far, at least) that Trump’s response was to downplay it solely to keep the stock market from tanking completely,” said Jost.

And that “thus far” is ending quickly. “The National Republican Senatorial Committee has sent campaigns a detailed, 57-page memo authored by a top Republican strategist advising GOP candidates to address the coronavirus crisis by aggressively attacking China,” reported Politico, and Stephen Miller is using the coronavirus to push a broader anti-immigration agenda.

What political psychology can, and can’t, do

Here’s my view: Political psychology is like the soil in politics. There are differences in the liberal and conservative soil — particularly in how they view threat, change, tradition, outsiders, and diversity — so different kinds of politicians, tactics, and movements take root on the two sides.

Trump is, at his core, a suspicious, threat-oriented, traditionalist figure — he’s nostalgic for the way things were, hostile to outsiders, angry over demographic change (he’s even, in normal times, a germaphobe). There’s a reason he took root in conservative soil.

By contrast, former President Barack Obama is optimistic, cosmopolitan, and temperamentally progressive — he looks at change and sees hope, he looks at other countries and sees allies, he sees diversity as a strength. There’s a reason he took root in liberal soil.

But once a politician captures a party, other dynamics take over. For one thing, partisans trust their leaders and allied institutions. Very few of us have personally run experiments on the coronavirus, or gone around the world gathering surface temperature readings over the course of decades. We have to choose whom to believe, and once we do, we’re inclined to take their word when describing contested or faraway events.

For another, we all fall prey to motivated reasoning, in which we shape evidence, arguments, and values to align with our incentives. As Upton Sinclair said, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”

Many Republican officeholders, led by Trump, think the coronavirus threatens their reelection because the lockdown threatens the economy. As such, they’re motivated to believe that reopening the economy sooner is better, and attracted to evidence and arguments that support that position. Sometimes that means downplaying the coronavirus. Sometimes that means accepting its risk but suggesting the costs of reopening are worth it. In both cases, the argument is working backward from the desired conclusion.

The political tragedy for the Republican Party, and the actual tragedy for America, is that the politics and the substance here should have been aligned. If Trump had taken the disease seriously from the outset and mounted a competent and consistent response, his approval ratings would be higher today, and the country would be in a better position to reopen safely, and sooner. As it is, Trump has been denied the polling bounce other governors and world leaders have seen, and he’s split his own coalition, forcing them to choose between their fear of the disease and their trust in him.

“The thing people often miss about moral foundations theory is that the foundations are just foundations,” says Haidt. “People don’t live in the foundation of their house. A house must be built upon those foundations. Moral and political entrepreneurs build structures, over time, and invite people to live in them.”