Will the Pandemic Change Political Attitudes?
COVID-19 is obviously an unprecedented event—a new and potent type of threat to the stability and possibly the legitimacy of the existing social system. In just a few months, it has challenged our political and economic institutions as well as the health care system in the U.S. and all over the world. But what is less clear is how this event will affect our political attitudes. Will people become more politically conservative or more liberal? More environmentally conscious? More ethnocentric, intolerant, and xenophobic? More open to alternatives to the neoliberal “small government,” lower-taxes-on-corporations-and-the-rich paradigm that has dominated our political economy for the last 40 years? Although there is no way of knowing what the long term ideological consequences will be, psychological research provides some thought-provoking possibilities.
COVID-19 is not only threatening the health of our citizens but also the social, economic, and political institutions on which we depend. Businesses are shuttered, and many will not reopen. Daily life has changed in a thousand different ways. Economic policy changes have begun and are likely to intensify. The entire system in which we live and work has been altered in a multitude of small and large ways.
Previous research suggests that intensely system-threatening events frequently shift social and political attitudes, often in conservative directions (Jost et al., 2017). For example, terrorist attacks precipitated right-wing shifts after each of the following events: the Air India airplane bombing in 1985; French airline bombings in Nigeria in 1989; car bombings in Mumbai, India in 1993; the bombing of a federal office building in Oklahoma City in 1995; bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998; the terrorist attacks of September 11 on New York and Washington, D.C. in 2001; the Moscow Theater hostage-taking crisis in Russia in 2002; and a train bombing in London, England, 2005 (Economou & Kollias, 2015; see also Berrebi & Klor, 2008; Canetti-Nisim et al., 2009; Schüller, 2015). When people see their social systems threatened, they often cling to them defensively, seeking to return to and solidify the status quo—even if they had previously questioned some aspects of the system and were open to the possibility of change.
However, conservative shift is not the only possible outcome of this unprecedented crisis. Rutger Bregman (2020) has suggested that it could usher in the end of neoliberalism and a new embrace of progressive taxation, public investment, income redistribution, and pro-environmental policies. It might even increase preferences for socialism, which is increasingly looked upon favorably by young Americans. Indeed, an on-line experiment suggested that public health crises could contribute to a liberal shift—as long as people believe that liberal politicians are more capable of addressing such crises (Eadeh & Chang, 2020, Experiment 1). The authors of that study concluded that:
“The current research demonstrates the link between threat and political attitude change is context-specific and shows that threat is capable of pushing people to the political left. Although previous research finds threat increases support for political conservatism, the nature of these threats are almost always in contexts that conservatives own. What has been untested are threats in which liberals claim perceptual ownership (i.e., health care, environment)” (p. 95).
Thus, Eadeh and Chang argue that a public health care crisis could, at least in principle, lead people to embrace liberal-socialist policies that include expansions of affordable health care. The idea here is that people may behave rationally by determining which political leaders are most likely to solve a particular problem.
However, people living in areas that were most threatened by the Ebola outbreak in 2014 were found to have become more politically conservative—not more liberal (Beall et al., 2016; Schaller et al., 2017). We are still in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, but there is already evidence that it may have increased affinities for social conservatism in the U.S. and Poland (Karwowski et al., 2020; Rosenfeld & Tomiyama, 2020). Thus, people do not always behave rationally, at least in the way in which Eadeh and Chang suggested.
We are also seeing differences in how liberals and conservatives are responding to the threat. New research suggests that conservatives have tended to downplay the problem and violate social distancing guidelines compared to liberals (Rothgerber et al., 2020). Some researchers have suggested that this means that liberals are more “threatened” by the disease than conservatives. But it is more likely that liberals are following the recommendations made by epidemiologists and other scientists not because they are panicking more than other people but rather because they are more trusting of scientific experts. Although most Americans are simultaneously concerned about public health and the economic consequences of the pandemic, at this point in the crisis, it appears that liberals may be more attuned to potential costs in human lives if the country were to open too soon, whereas conservatives are more attuned to economic costs.
Finally, there is the disturbing possibility that the pandemic could produce an uptick in xenophobia and intolerance. There are data to suggest, for instance, that harassment of Asian people is on the rise in the U.S. According to one survey conducted since the coronavirus crisis began, 60% of Asian Americans have witnessed threats or intimidation of Asian Americans, which is up from only 9% in 2016. Some are beginning to worry that right-wing extremists in the U.S. will use the crisis as an opportunity to recruit people for “an armed insurrection against the American government, a race war, or both.”
On a global scale, there is a danger that hostility and violence directed at foreigners and immigrants, which was already increasingly stoked by far-right parties throughout Europe, will continue to increase, even as climate change and terrorist activity creates more and more displaced people.
The story of the effect of this pandemic on political attitudes, xenophobia, and intolerance is obviously still being written. At the end of the day, it will be written by us. Our treatment of others and the values we stand for will shape not only how our governments deal with this pandemic but the realities we will face if and when the dust finally settles. Anyone who wishes to see a new world take the place of the previous one will need to set an inspiring example for others now, when it counts the most.
For Further Reading
Beall, A. T., Hofer, M. K., & Schaller, M. (2016). Infections and elections: Did an Ebola outbreak influence the 2014 US federal elections (and if so, how)? Psychological Science, 27, 595-605.
Berrebi, C., & Klor, E. (2008). Are voters sensitive to terrorism? Direct evidence from the Israeli electorate. American Political Science Review, 102, 279-301.
Bregman (2020): https://bit.ly/2XOWU5W
Canetti-Nisim, D., Halperin, E., Sharvit, K., & Hobfoll, S. E. (2009). A new stress-based model of political extremism: Personal exposure to terrorism, psychological distress, and exclusionist political attitudes. Journal of Conflict Resolution, 53(3), 363-389.
Eadeh, F. R. & Chang, K. K. (2020). Can threat increase support for liberalism? New insights into the relationship between threat and political attitudes. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 11(1), 88-96.
Economou, A., & Kollias, C. (2015). Terrorism and political self-placement in European Union countries. Peace economics, Peace Science and Public Policy, 21(2), 217-238.
Jost, J. T., Stern, C., Rule, N. O., & Sterling, J. (2017). The politics of fear: Is there an ideological asymmetry in existential motivation? Social Cognition, 35(4), 324-353.
Karwowski, M., Kowal, M., Groyecka, A., Białek, M., Lebuda, I., Sorokowska, A., & Sorokowski, P. (2020). When in danger, turn right: Covid-19 threat promotes social conservatism and right-wing presidential candidates. https://psyarxiv.com/pjfhs/
Motta et al., 2020: https://bit.ly/2y94RKA
Rosenfeld & Tomiyama (2020). https://psyarxiv.com/zg7s4/
Rothgerber et al. (2020). https://bit.ly/3clUC3u
Schaller, M., Hofer, M. K., & Beall, A. T. (2017). Evidence that an Ebola outbreak influenced voting preferences, even after controlling (mindfully) for autocorrelation: Reply to Tiokhin and Hruschka (2017). Psychological Science, 28(9), 1361-1363.
Schüller, S. (2015). The 9/11 conservative shift. Economics Letters, 135, 80-84.
John T. Jost grew up in Cincinnati, Ohio, attended Duke University (A.B.) and Yale University (Ph.D.) and has been teaching at New York University since 2003. When there is no pandemic, he lives in Greenwich Village with his wife, who is a psychoanalyst, and their two daughters. He is the author of A Theory of System Justification (Harvard University Press, 2020).