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Will the coronavirus make conservatives love government spending?

People with conservative personalities are more open to such intervention than you might think.

The covid-19 pandemic is upending politics as usual. Very quickly, U.S. federal and state governments have found themselves managing not only a public health crisis but a growing economic crisis, as well. These linked crises have pushed many U.S. leaders to propose expansive government interventions, ranging from tighter restrictions on public activity to vast increases in public spending to cope with the economic fallout. On the economic front, some of these proposals are quite radical — and they are coming even from conservative political figures who typically call government intervention in the economy socialism.

These extreme steps raise important political questions. First, will conservative Republican voters accept proposals that involve heavy government intervention and spending? Second, will the current crisis shift citizens’ and leaders’ views about government intervention and spending, especially on the right? Our research suggests that the answer is yes — depending on whether conservative leaders signal that economic intervention is consistent with a broader conservative outlook.

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Many people want greater security and certainty. So what delivers security and certainty?

Political psychology research — including some of our own — finds that voters who prioritize safety and certainty are more likely to favor the order, stability, and traditionalism associated with conservatism. Given this, shouldn’t citizens who prefer security and certainty and a conservative approach to social life also prefer a “conservative” economic approach that involves keeping government spending low and leaving business unencumbered by regulations?

Not always. Decades of social-science research suggest many conservative-minded citizens want governments to deliver economic security by intervening aggressively in the economy. Public opinion research suggests that many voters hold views that are not consistently “liberal” or “conservative” as U.S. politics usually defines those. Some voters symbolically identify with the conservative label despite holding operationally liberal economic positions, favoring higher government spending.

In other words, many people with relatively strong needs for security and certainty — and an inclination toward conservatism and the Republican Party — do not seem to agree with the conservative economic program.

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Left versus right, or freedom versus protection?

Our research suggests that there is nothing “natural” about the tendency for conservatism in the sense of an emphasis on security, certainty and tradition to go along with support for minimal government. Though many people hold this pattern of beliefs in Western countries — especially if they are highly attentive to politics — it is relatively rare in the world at large. Survey data from 99 nations suggests that cultural conservatism and stronger needs for security and certainty often correlate only weakly with economic attitudes. In fact, they correlate with interventionist economic preferences more often than with right-wing free-market preferences.

In other words, for much of the world, politics is not exclusively organized around the usual left-right ideological divide but also around a freedom-versus-protection axis. On one end of this axis are libertarian views on both culture and economics, with people believing that everyone should be free to make their own choices; on the other end, people want the government to safeguard security and stability in both the cultural and economic domains. On this axis, government interventions in the economy are not indulgent liberal wastes of citizens’ tax dollars in order to pander to people who won’t help themselves but rather an essential means of protecting citizens from economic risks — one that is psychologically congruent with cultural conservatism.

So when can conservative-minded citizens accept government economic intervention?

In the United States, conservative dispositions and social views have been treated as paired with a desire to keep the government out of the economy. But this grouping isn’t as common as the Republican Party platform might suggest. Yes, conservative political leaders and conservative citizens who pay close attention to politics tend to hold these belief patterns. But among those who pay less attention to politics, our research finds that individuals with stronger needs for security and certainty — those usually most predisposed to identify as conservative — are actually more supportive of greater social welfare spending and regulations aimed at reining in the excesses of corporate power compared with those who are less worried about security and certainty. As attention to politics increases, this default tendency gets reversed: Citizens who want more security and certainty prefer less government if they are attentive to politics.

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Our work suggests that opposition to “big government” is part of the conservative worldview among politically engaged Americans mainly because conservative and Republican leaders have defined minimal government as the correct conservative view. In other words, an American who wants a world full of security and certainty and who is attentive to politics will likely gravitate toward the Republican Party for its cultural conservatism and then adopt its market economics.

Our crucial point is that opposition to government intervention in the economy is not a natural “conservative” outgrowth of stronger desires for security and certainty. It arises because cues from conservative leaders override the default tendency for those high in needs for security and certainty to prefer that governments economically protect citizens. If Republican leaders urge greater government spending and regulation to handle the covid-19 pandemic, they are likely to bring many conservative voters further toward a protection-oriented form of conservatism that combines cultural traditionalism with an emphasis on providing economic security.

Would such a shift last? That depends on whether enough Republican and conservative leaders adopt and continue to hold interventionist economic positions even after this crisis. That’s not a given. Many Republican leaders are not entirely happy with the intervention bills they’ve passed so far; they’ll likely return to market-oriented ideological cues if the crisis passes quickly. But if enough Republican leaders remain interventionist and the crisis lasts, conservative Americans’ outlook on economics may shift.

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Christopher M. Federico (@ChrisPolPsych) is professor of political science and psychology at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities and a co-author of “Open versus Closed: Personality, Identity, and the Politics of Redistribution” (Cambridge University Press, 2017).

Christopher D. Johnston (@johnstonCD) is associate professor of political science at Duke University and a co-author of “Open versus Closed: Personality, Identity, and the Politics of Redistribution” (Cambridge University Press, 2017).

Howard Lavine (@howard_lavine) is Arleen C. Carlson Professor of Political Science and Psychology at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities and a co-author of “Open versus Closed: Personality, Identity, and the Politics of Redistribution” (Cambridge University Press, 2017).

Yphtach Lelkes (@ylelkes) is assistant professor in the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania.

Ariel Malka is associate professor of psychology at Yeshiva University.

Christopher J. Soto (@cjsotomatic) is associate professor of psychology at Colby College.