When it became clear, in March of 2020, just how severe the COVID-19 pandemic was going to be, the emergency sparked a series of urgent conversations, all over the world, about how much expansion of government power was necessary to mitigate the crisis, and what forms this added authority should take.
In the United States, the media, along with most scholars, focused on Americans’ disagreements about the need for government-mandated social distancing. Liberals favored stricter restrictions than conservatives. But restrictions on travel weren’t the only extraordinary policies up for debate. Censorship (in the form of removing allegedly misleading material from social media platforms), intrusive surveillance, expanded powers to detain criminal suspects, and rule by decree rather than legislation were among the other measures implemented around the world. Some commentators worried that authoritarian leaders around the world would take advantage of the crisis to seize even more power and that even leaders who had hitherto adhered (mostly) to liberal democratic norms would refuse to relinquish “temporary” new powers, and would use them to harass or neutralize their political opponents.
The pandemic offered a strange sort of natural experiment to test one of the more controversial ideas in political psychology: left-wing authoritarianism, or LWA. Its right-wing counterpart, RWA, has been an entrenched concept in the field since Bob Altemeyer’s 1981 book by that title, but some researchers have been slower to accept the idea of a left-wing version, and in recent years, the debate has heated up about whether this is a useful and valid concept.
Theoretically, the two constructs share certain core traits, in that they measure respondents’ levels of dogmatism, punitive attitudes toward dissenters, and desire for strong authority figures. People high on LWA, some psychologists argue, would simply mobilize these traits on behalf of left-wing values such as anti-racism, anti-sexism, and wealth redistribution, rather than right-wing ones such as suppression of antiwar protest and maintenance of the status quo. Much of the ensuing debate has focused on measurement issues. A major advance was the recent development of a valid, reliable LWA questionnaire by Thomas Costello, a graduate student at Emory University, and his mentor Prof. Scott Lilienfeld. Questionnaire items include Bigots that must be taught to shut-up and stay in their place and I would prefer a far-left leader with absolute authority over a right-wing leader with limited power.
To better understand how LWA might illuminate the debate over how governments should respond to the pandemic, in late April, as most of the U.S. remained under lockdown and COVID-19 case numbers were near their peaks in hotspots such as the New York City area, I asked 550 adult U.S. residents to complete questionnaires measuring RWA, LWA, and levels of endorsement (on seven-point Likert scales) of 19 potentially pandemic-mitigating, and putatively authoritarian, policies and practices (see the table below). I chose these policies to reflect a wide range of clashing American views regarding what constitutes “authoritarianism.” How strongly, I wanted to know, was the approval of these items correlated with each of the two flavors of authoritarianism?
|I would report it to the police if I saw someone violating social distancing rules.|
|Government policies to reduce the spread of COVID-19 should rely more on persuasion than on enforcing rules about social distancing [a contra-authoritarian item]|
|People can’t be trusted to follow social distancing guidelines unless they are threatened with punishment.|
|I support the idea of an official federal government certificate that would be issued to people with proven immunity to COVID-19.|
|I support the idea of requiring all smartphones to run an app that tracks a person’s movements and notifies them when they are near a person infected with COVID-19.|
|For as long as the COVID-19 pandemic continues…|
|…Americans need to follow government orders about social distancing, even if they disagree with them.|
|…governments should have the power to prohibit the spread of misinformation about COVID-19 that could endanger people if it were widely believed.|
|…government officials should put churches under surveillance to make sure that they’re not holding services that violate social distancing rules.|
|…the constitutional right to protest against government actions should be restricted.|
|…sales of firearms should be banned.|
|…sales of non-essential goods should be banned.|
|…abortion clinics should be closed.|
|…governments will need to run the economy by deciding what goods are to be produced, and in what quantities.|
|…illegal activities that increase the spread of the virus should be punished directly by government officials, without the right to trial by jury.|
|…heads of national, state, and local governments should be able to order new restrictions on activities that could spread the virus, without needing to consult legislative bodies (such as Congress or state legislatures).|
|…crimes that take advantage of the pandemic (like stealing masks) should be punished much more severely than the same crimes when committed under normal conditions.|
|…public health experts should be given more authority than elected politicians.|
|…public health authorities should test people for the virus, even if they don’t want to be tested, to obtain data that the authorities have decided they need to get the pandemic under control.|
|…citizens of foreign countries should be banned from entering the United States.|
To better isolate the effects of ideology and authoritarianism per se, I included a number of control variables, most notably demographic factors linked to COVID-19 mortality risk: age, current county-level COVID-19 cases per capita (calculated from participants’ reported ZIP codes), and race/ethnicity (specifically African-American identity, because African-Americans have suffered a substantially higher COVID-19 mortality rate than other Americans). None of these factors, it turned out, was consistently associated with policy endorsements, with a few exceptions: People living in counties with higher COVID-19 rates were more strongly in favor of banning firearms sales, older participants were more opposed to five of the policies than younger participants, and African-Americans were more opposed than other Americans to three of them.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, respondents’ levels of authoritarianism seemed to matter much more than their demographic characteristics. Of the 19 proposed policies, 18 of them were strongly associated with RWA, LWA, or both. Most interestingly, those scoring highly on right-wing or left-wing authoritarianism were more likely to agree with the items would report to police, need the threat of punishment, certificate of immunity, mandatory tracking app, restrict the right to protest, ban nonessential items, government-run economy, restrict the right to trial by jury, restrictions by executive decree, emergency-enhanced punishment, and mandatory COVID-19 testing. In other words, people high in RWA and people high in LWA agreed that these measures were warranted.
Where there was disagreement between the left-wing and right-wing authoritarians, it centered mostly on the specific hot-button issues that tend to divide the American left from the American right. These included abortion and immigration (only RWA was positively associated with endorsement of close abortion clinics and ban foreigners from entering), and gun control and traditional organized religion (only LWA was positively associated with endorsement of ban firearm sales and surveillance of churches). LWA was positively associated, whereas RWA was negatively associated, which must follow distancing orders and prohibit misinformation.
Broadly speaking, these results support the recent work of Costello and Lilienfeld, which has documented numerous similarities in the psychological and attitudinal correlates of RWA and LWA. Two of these similarities are belief in a dangerous world and preference for state control. It is therefore unsurprising that in response to the danger posed by a deadly pandemic, people high in RWA and people high in LWA agreed on the need for enhanced state control in several domains.
Both the course of the pandemic and the U.S. political scene, have changed considerably since I collected these data. For example, the policy item restricts the right to protest, which in late April was probably interpreted to refer to protests against lockdown orders, would today be interpreted to refer to anti-racism protests. As another example, Americans appear to be less worried about shortages of consumer goods, and this would probably reduce endorsement of the item government-run economy.
Either way, this first round of LWA/pandemic research does strongly bolster the case that LWA is a useful construct that should be applied more broadly — and the hypothesis that deep down, all authoritarians, whatever their political stripe, share certain core similarities.
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