Lockdowns are back. To many of us, it would appear as if the entire human race has learned absolutely nothing in the past eight months. Despite the overwhelming evidence that the cost of lockdowns far outweighs the limited benefits, many policymakers lack the backbone or creativity to come up with any alternative. Internet memes have shrewdly asked: If a lockdown worked the first time, why are we doing it again? If a lockdown didn’t work the first time, why are we doing it again?
One of the most striking observations of the pandemic is that our society’s reactions have fallen almost completely along partisan lines. Conservatives tend to be anti-lockdown and anti-government mandates, while liberals take the opposite view. Conservatives seek to contextualize COVID-19 data on deaths and infections with additional considerations, such as age, risk factors, and proportionality (i.e. total numbers versus cases per 100,000). Liberals obsess over total deaths and case counts, but nothing else.
The initial explanation for such stark differences was a familiar one — whatever Trump favors, the left opposes. While this is often true, it doesn’t offer a full explanation. Over the past eight months, I have seen for myself who is truly frightened and who is not, and who is asking the government for more action and who is not. I have seen how the demeanor of New Yorkers and New Englanders differs to that of my fellow Texans. In Washington, D.C., I regularly see people wear masks while walking alone in a park. In Texas, I almost never observe this, probably because there is no scientific basis for it. I presume the well-educated population of D.C. also knows there is no scientific basis for wearing a mask outdoors with no-one around you (only to take it off when you’re finally seated at your favorite restaurant), and yet they do it anyway. Why?
The why is the more interesting question. Why do liberals favor lockdowns, aided by sensationalist headlines? Why are many genuinely more fearful of the virus? Opportunistic anti-Trump partisanship simply cannot explain many of the real and non-political reactions I have witnessed. This is more than just a childish symptom of Trump Derangement Syndrome. This is indicative of deeper cultural and psychological differences between the left and the right.
At the heart of the disparity regarding our attitudes to the COVID-19 response is the subject of risk assessment. The perception of risk differs widely between liberals and conservatives, as well as the decisions made when confronting risky situations. Research shows that Democrats and Republicans differ in the neural mechanisms activated during risk-taking exercises, specifically in the amygdala region. This demonstrates measurable physiological differences when confronted with risk.
But what about the actual choices we make? To assess risk tolerance, a better indication might be the careers that liberals and conservatives choose. Conservatives overwhelmingly fill the ranks of physically riskier jobs such as the military, law enforcement, and loggers.
This is all a lengthy way of explaining this simple observation: conservatives appear to be less risk averse to physical threats, and therefore far less likely to favor more extreme actions to mitigate that risk. This leads us to the next major cultural division, which is the extent to which government should involve itself in societal problem solving.
The essential disposition of the liberal mind is a belief that almost anything can be solved by government. Conservatives reject this as unmitigated hubris resulting in unrealistic goals and excessive costs. The liberal favors action, even at a high cost, and even better if that action is collective in nature. Rhetorically, everything becomes the moral equivalent of war — the war on poverty, the war on inequality, the war on COVID-19 — because only in war do we plan and execute with feverish collectivism.
This preference for collective action means that the need for proper cost-benefit analysis is cast aside. Rational questions about the effectiveness of lockdowns, or whether their benefit exceeds their cost, are ignored and even considered offensive. “If it saves one life!” is the battle cry of the left, because their language is the language of (assumed) morality and compassion, not proper risk analysis or rational decision-making.
And this surfaces yet another major difference between conservatives and liberals: our moral preferences. Performing hundreds of thousands of surveys across different countries, social psychologist Dr. Jonathan Haidt consistently found that liberals overemphasize “caring” and “fairness” above other moral considerations. Conservatives, on the other hand, favor all moral categories more equally, placing emphasis not just on compassion, but on fair processes, moral authority and tradition, liberty, and loyalty. Conservatives are more morally balanced, while liberals measure the worth of an action by its corresponding measurement of signaled compassion. So, it is no surprise that liberals routinely denigrate contextualized COVID-19 data — such as accounting for age and co-morbidities when assessing fatalities — as “downplaying the virus” or “covering for Trump’s failures.” After all, rational discussions become impossible with someone who views you as morally inferior.
Psychological dispositions matter. Cultural differences matter. They lead to vastly different policy outcomes. If we are to successfully persuade someone of our view, it behooves us to understand these differences and attempt to frame the debate accordingly. Only then can we answer the profound question of the internet memer we discussed earlier.
If lockdowns didn’t work the first time, why are many Americans calling for more? And why are so many “leaders” in government obliging?
Representative Dan Crenshaw is a former Navy SEAL who serves Texas’ Second Congressional District in Congress and sits on the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of The Daily Wire.