Opinion | When the Mask You’re Wearing ‘Tastes Like Socialism’

The Covid-19 pandemic has divided Americans into two camps. To no one’s surprise, lockdown politics have joined the legion of issues that pit Democrats against Republicans.

Take Daniel Horowitz, senior editor of Conservative Voice.

Objecting to the lack of attention that has been paid to what he considers the relatively light impact of the coronavirus on nonurban — largely white — areas of the country, Horowitz writes: “We now know that geography played a large role. 54 percent of all U.S. deaths were in the 100 counties in or within 100 miles of NYC.”

The death rate, Horowitz claims, “doesn’t even climb above .1% until you reach over 70, with a steep and dangerous growth of risk over 75 and 80.”

To deal with a threat Horowitz sees as focused on “specific” groups, he writes,

We destroyed our entire country and sacked the Constitution all for a very narrow and specific problem that required a precise and balanced approach.

From the other end of the ideological spectrum, Laura McGann, editorial director of, wrote, in an article posted on April 22,

We do know that gatherings spread the virus. Again and again, when groups get together, attendees get sick. Some have died. And we don’t know the extent to which they’ve spread it to others, though we know it’s a terribly contagious virus.

Don’t “be fooled by Fox News, Donald Trump, or the same type of groups that produced the Tea Party a decade ago,” McGann warned.

The partisan fight over the lockdown has shown us, once again, how differently the choices government leaders make look to different constituencies of our society. Whether you emphasize the imperative to save lives or the consequences of economic devastation, with more than 36 million unemployed as of May 14, determines what you think the proper response to the outbreak should be, to a degree that is astonishing even in our deeply polarized society.

The accompanying chart, based on data posted on May 7 by Pew Research, reveals the depth of the growing division between Republicans and Democrats as 80 percent of U.S. counties were under some form of lockdown order, and a quarter of the economy had ground to a halt, by April, under guidelines issued by the Trump administration.

The chart — documenting findings from two Pew surveys, one conducted April 7-12, the other April 29-May 5 — shows that in a matter of three weeks, Republican voters shifted from a modest majority (51-48) concerned that the restrictions would be lifted too quickly, to a similarly modest majority (53-47) concerned that the restrictions will not be lifted quickly enough. Democrats, on the contrary, went from a decisive majority who feared (81-18) that restrictions would be lifted too quickly to an even stronger concern (87-13).

Robert Griffin, research director of the nonpartisan Democracy Fund Voter Study Group, provided The Times with demographic data from a May 7-13 survey describing voters who oppose lockdown policies. They are decisively Republican (at 55 percent) compared with 27 percent Democratic and 17 percent independent; majority male, at 58 percent; largely white (69 percent compared with 7 percent black and 17 percent Hispanic); and less well educated, 74 percent without college degrees, 24 percent with degrees.

What are some of the forces driving the split between those who prioritize the economy and those whose primary concern is the physical health of the population?

W. Bradford Wilcox, a sociologist at the University of Virginia, emailed in response to my inquiry:

Progressives have grown more likely to embrace a culture of “safetyism” in recent years. This safetyism seeks to protect them and those who are deemed the most vulnerable members of our society from threats to their emotional and physical well-being.

In the case of Covid-19, he continued,

progressives are willing to embrace the maximal measures to protect themselves, the public, and the most vulnerable among us from this threat.

In contrast, according to Wilcox,

many conservatives are most concerned about protecting the American way of life, a way of life they see as integrally bound up with liberty and the free market.

Because many on the political right see the lockdowns as impinging “on their liberty, the free market’s workings, and their financial well-being,” he continued, “many conservatives want the lockdowns ended as quickly as possible.”

In addition, Wilcox noted, “some (especially male) conservatives see the lockdowns and mask wearing as expressions of cowardice that they reject as unmanly.”

This last point touches on “the white male effect,” a theme that regularly emerges in studies of risk taking and risk aversion.

They found, for example, that 71.6 percent of white males conservatives who claim to understand global warming very well agreed that “recent temperature increases are not primarily due to human activities.” Among all conservative white men, the percentage in agreement fell to 58.5. Among everyone else, the percentage dropped to 31.5.

All of which brings to mind President Trump’s assessment of his own ability to understand the health issues surrounding the pandemic: “I like this stuff. I really get it,” he declared during a tour of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta on March 6. “People are surprised that I understand it. Every one of these doctors said ‘How do you know so much about this?’”

The McCright and Dunlap papers were written years before the current pandemic, but their analysis is directly relevant to the present. McCright emailed in response to my queries:

If you are a conservative, a key tenet of your ideology is that unregulated markets naturally produce good; they are the most efficient way that humans have ever seen for distributing goods, services, wealth, etc. Any attempts to regulate, intervene upon, steer, etc. an economic market will make it necessarily less efficient. A government driven by some sense of altruism — ‘dogooderism’ by ‘bleeding hearts’ — will only muck up the functioning of an efficient market.

Liberals, McCright continued,

do not hold nearly as much belief in the power of unregulated markets to necessarily produce good without substantial negative side effects. As such, liberals are more supportive of governmental intervention to protect public health, environmental quality, the poor, etc. In other words, liberals accept some degree of economic regulation, and perhaps slower growth, reduced profits, etc., if it means improving public health, environmental quality, etc.

I asked: Do liberals and conservatives value life in different ways? McCright replied, “Liberals and conservatives certainly value different things — and ‘life’ gets caught up in these different things in different ways.”

In general, he contended,

conservatives value economic growth; markets with little or no governmental intervention; little to no constraints on ‘individual liberty’ and private property rights; etc. Liberals value educational opportunities; support for the vulnerable; environmental protection; checks on economic power; the extension of rights to previously oppressed groups; etc.

In a separate email, Dunlap wrote that there was a clear link between “climate change denial and the mixed reaction to Covid19.”

Dunlap argued that “with the rise of ‘right-wing’ populism,” conservatives and Republicans have developed

a strong hostility toward expertise in general, as obvious in the Trump Administration. Both of these strands build upon a tradition of anti-intellectualism in the U.S., but have taken it to far greater lengths than ever before. We see this in the current dismissal of scientific evidence and expertise in dealing with Covid-19, and more recent outright attacks on the experts — because experts do not play along with the charade that the coronavirus does not represent a serious threat.

The “white male effect,” in turn, interacts with differing responses of men and women to the pandemic.

Peter Ditto, a psychologist at the University of California-Irvine, wrote me that

there is good evidence of sex differences in responses to the coronavirus; women are more likely to report favoring and practicing social distance measures than are men.

This, in turn, fits with “the general sense that liberals are the more ‘feminine’ of the two parties,” Ditto argues, which results in the following pattern:

While liberals adopt their nurturant role, bemoaning the climbing infection and death rates and are willing to accept economic carnage in favor of minimizing the loss of human life, conservatives are more likely to, in effect, tell the American people to “walk it off,” increasingly staking out the position that some loss of life must be endured for the greater economic good.

In addition, in Ditto’s view, there is a fundamental tension arising “from how the two sides view the value and integrity of scientists.” Conservatives, Ditto wrote, are

more likely to question conclusions of scientists because they are more likely to question their motives — seeing them as typical liberal pansies who just can’t accept the reality that people die. At the extreme, hard right conservative thinking manifests in conspiracy theories painting Fauci, the CDC and the WHO as malevolent agents whose hidden agendas having nothing to do with saving American lives.

In analyses of partisan divergence in response to the pandemic, two different outcomes emerge.

An extensive 2017 examination of research on threats, “The politics of fear: Is there an ideological asymmetry in existential motivation?,” by John Jost, Chadly Stern, Nicholas O. Rule and Joanna Sterling, of N.Y.U., the University of Illinois, the University of Toronto and Princeton, found, for example, that:

Exposure to objectively threatening circumstances, such as terrorist attacks, was associated with a “conservative shift” at individual and aggregate levels of analysis. Psychological reactions to fear and threat thus convey a small-to-moderate political advantage for conservative leaders, parties, policies, and ideas.

So far, however, the threat posed by the pandemic has not produced a shift to the right.

The current level of support for Joe Biden — as fragile as it may prove to be — remains relatively constant. In fact, polling in states like North Carolina, Montana and Colorado, Nathaniel Rakich of 538 writes, suggests that there might yet be “a Democratic wave of truly epic proportions,” although Rakich is quick to caution that “it’s hard to know at this point if these polls are outliers or early indicators of an overwhelming Democratic electoral environment.”

Recent work shows that voters tend to move in either a conservative or liberal direction depending on the specific source of the threat.

The authors argue that a health care threat of the kind the country now faces, along with threats of pollution and corporate corruption, produce “increased support for components of liberalism.”

The critical factor determining whether voters respond to threat by turning left or right, according to Eadeh and Chang, is the partisan “ownership” of the issue and which side “is best seen as ‘fixing’ that threat.”

In the United States, they write:

conservative parties (i.e., Republicans) are perceived as more effective dealing with terrorism, whereas liberal parties (Democrats) are perceived as better at handling health care and environmental issues.

The opposition among conservative Republicans to the lockdown — designed to protect American from contact with the coronavirus — presents an interesting corollary to the moral foundations theory developed by Jonathan Haidt of N.Y.U. and Jesse Graham of the University of Utah. In essence, the theory posits that conservatives are more preoccupied with notions of purity and disgust than liberals.

In an email, Ditto has deftly summarized the work of Haidt et al:

From the perspective of moral foundations theory, conservatives’ greater concern for purity and fear of contamination would suggest that they would respond more vigorously to a virus than would liberals. This was indeed the case with the Ebola crisis during the Obama Administration when conservative voices often expressed extreme concern about and even fear of Ebola spreading in the United States, while roundly criticizing President Obama’s more measured reaction.

Haidt, Graham and colleagues have deployed a “scale” to measure preoccupation with disgust. The battery includes 27 questions, for example, “how true about you is: ‘I might be willing to try eating monkey meat, under some circumstances’ or ‘I never let any part of my body touch the toilet seat in public restrooms,’ ” Other questions ask respondents to rank “How disgusting would you find the following experiences,” including “while you are walking through a tunnel under a railroad track, you smell urine” or “You discover that a friend of yours changes underwear only once a week.”

The Graham-Haidt study suggests that conservatives would show a higher level of fear of the pandemic and a readiness to comply with restrictions on interpersonal contact.

A group of four California-based scholars is exploring why this is not the case.

In an intriguing ongoing study, Colin Holbrook, a professor of cognitive science at the University of California-Merced, and Daniel M. T. Fessler, Theodore Samore and Adam Sparks, all of the anthropology department at U.C.L.A., find a sharp split in the behavior of conservative Democrats and conservative Republicans.

Holbrook wrote by email that he and his colleagues

assessed disgust sensitivity and found conservatism in our present sample predicted greater disgust-proneness. The emotion of disgust functions to curtail disease-transmission, suggesting that conservatives should, all else equal, be likely to take greater disease precautions.

They then “measured precautionary behaviors, such as hand-washing, mask-wearing, social distancing, seeking cleaning supplies, etc.” and found that

conservatism, measured in a number of distinct ways, positively and highly significantly predicts precautionary behaviors among the Democrats in our sample, but not among the Republicans.

Holbrook wrote that this apparent contradiction grows out of the responsiveness of the conservative Republicans

to authority messaging, from the president as well as other conservative political and media figures. There are theoretical reasons to expect that, had conservative authority figures encouraged them to do so, conservative Republicans would be as likely — perhaps even more likely — as conservative Democrats to engage in precautionary behaviors.

Put another way, loyalty to Trump and others on the right was more powerful than the strong inclination among these Republican voters to take steps to insulate themselves from the threat of the coronavirus.

Jesse Graham, in an email, wrote that “when people ask me the question ‘if conservatives are more concerned with purity, why are red states being so slow to act against a viral contagion?’” he replies:

I don’t think these political differences are due to any underlying values differences between liberals and conservatives. I think it’s due to the almost immediate politicization of the threat, with Trump and Fox News downplaying the seriousness of Covid-19, and ‘left-leaning’ reality-based sources issuing the more dire warnings.

Ditto puts the matter succinctly: “In 21st century American politics, truth is tribal.”

In other words, the pandemic has become another example of Trump’s mastery over his most loyal subjects, his ability to manipulate them into violating their own instincts. It is this power over a substantial bloc of the electorate that has put him in the White House — and continues to make him so dangerous.

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