Existential insecurity and deference to authority: the pandemic as a natural experiment

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Introduction: The global coronavirus pandemic offers a quasi-experimental setting for understanding the impact of sudden exposure to heightened existential risk upon both individual and societal values. Methods: We examined the effect of the pandemic on political attitudes by comparing data from eight countries surveyed before and after the worldwide spread of COVID-19 in March 2020 with continuous weekly polling tracker data from the United Kingdom from 2019 to 2021. Multilevel models were used to explore the drivers of change, and the results indicated that reported emotions of fear and stress were positively associated with institutional approval during periods of greater pathogen risk. Results: Our findings revealed that support for political and technocratic authority, as well as satisfaction with political institutions, rose significantly above long-term historical baselines during the pandemic. Discussion: The results support the hypothesis that exposure to existential risk results in greater support for authority and that individual feelings of insecurity may be linked to less critical citizen orientations.

Original languageEnglish
Article number1117550
JournalFrontiers in Political Science
Number of pages12
Publication statusPublished - 19.05.2023

Bibliographical note

We acknowledge support by the German Research Foundation (DFG) and the Open Access Publication Fund of Leuphana University Lüneburg.

Publisher Copyright:
Copyright © 2023 Foa and Welzel.

    Research areas

  • authoritarianism, COVID-19, existential security, pandemic, pathogen risk, populism
  • Politics