Why does a person's response to COVID-19 often correlate to their position on the political spectrum?

Thanks for the question.

There are a few factors in play I think. First, there is a fair amount of research that shows differences in right-leaning an left-leaning people — both in terms of the values (or “virtues”) that are most important to them, and in the emotions with which they most frequently operate and are motivated. I’ll leave it to you to figure out which is which from the lists below. Of course, there are also folks who are closer to the middle, sharing characteristics of both groups. But in times of crisis, polarization tends to be even greater, so for now we’ll just look at the two extremes….

Characteristics of Group A:

1. More closed-minded and reactive to things that are new or “different”
2. Strong fear-based reasoning, often centered around losing status (both personally and for their group)
3. High tolerance of cognitive dissonance (when facts don’t match beliefs) and rejection of evidence that contradicts their beliefs — sometimes to the point of rather stubborn stupidity
4. Strong sense of loyalty to own tribe and traditions, resulting in reflexive “Us vs. Them” reasoning
5. Highly skeptical of science, government institutions, genuine altruism, collective concerns, leveling the economic playing field for everyone, and the importance of civil society itself
6. Insists that private enterprise is “more efficient” than government in providing public goods (healthcare, utilities, etc.)

Characteristics of Group B:

1. More open-minded and accepting of things that are new or “different”
2. Strong inclusive and compassion-centered reasoning, sometimes to the detriment of their own status and the status of their group
3. Low tolerance for cognitive dissonance, and fairly frequent updating of position based on new evidence
4. Hardly any loyalty to own tribe and traditions, and so sometimes creating “circular firing squads” within leadership
5. Strongly motivated to embrace science and justify positions and policies with scientific evidence; more trusting of government institutions; confident that altruism is real and important; and generally more invested in collective concerns, leveling the economic playing field for everyone, and the importance of civil society itself
6. Is skeptical of the profit motive’s efficacy in navigating or providing public goods

Now inject a new crisis into the situation: a previously unknown and highly contagious virus that requires close coordination between all governmental institutions; demands reliance on scientific data to plan an effective response; is indifferent to status and partisanship (i.e. doesn’t favor one group over another); and reveals profound weaknesses in privatization of public goods, where the profit motive simply doesn’t work for the scale of response required.

I think when we break down the political spectrum to these kinds of characteristics, it quickly becomes evident why left-leaning folks tend to respond one way, while right-leaning folks tend to respond in an opposite fashion.

My 2 cents.


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