The pandemic has seen unprecedented infringements in our civil liberties. Policies that would have been regarded with suspicion or even outrage if implemented by Britain’s ‘enemies’ – like confining people in their homes – have been par for the course.
Interestingly, in both Britain and the United States, support for lockdown measures has been greater on the political left, even though right-wing voters tend to be older (and hence at greater risk from Covid).
In a paper published this July, researchers found that Labour and SNP voters were much more likely than Conservatives to support closing schools and shops, and making people stay at home. Likewise, Democrat voters in the U.S. have been more supportive of lockdowns than Republicans.
There are several factors behind the left’s enthusiasm for lockdowns: skewed risk perceptions; the ideology of safetyism; a preference for prioritising health over the economy (including ‘our NHS’). However, one reason that hasn’t received much attention is the growing strain of left-wing authoritarianism.
In a paper published last December, Joseph Manson explored the influence of left and right-wing authoritarianism on people’s attitudes to lockdowns and other restrictions. ‘Right-wing authoritarianism’ is a well-known construct in psychology, but ‘left-wing authoritarianism’ is relatively new.
The latter phenomenon had not received much attention in psychology until recently, most likely because of the discipline’s left-wing skew.
Right-wing authoritarianism is measured via agreement with items such as, “What our country really needs is a strong, determined leader,” and “God’s laws about abortion, pornography and marriage must be strictly followed”.
By contrast, left-wing authoritarianism is measured via agreement with items such as, “This country would work a lot better if certain groups of Christian troublemakers would just shut up and accept their group’s proper place in society.”
Manson found that both of these constructs were positively associated with support for lockdowns and other restrictions. Those who scored high on right-wing authoritarianism were particularly likely to say that foreigners should be banned from entering the country.
Those who scored high on left-wing authoritarianism were particularly likely to say that governments should have the power to prohibit misinformation, and that politicians should be able to introduce new restrictions without consulting legislative bodies.
There were also areas of agreement. As Manson notes, both right and left-wing authoritarians favoured “restrictions on the right to protest, punishment without the right to trial by jury, and surveillance via a mandatory tracking app”.
Regardless of one’s view on the pandemic restrictions, there can be no doubt that many of them have an authoritarian character. And even if their impact in the short run was positive (something of which I am doubtful), the possibility that they will be misused by governments in the future remains troubling.