Covid-19 boosts appeal of right-wing authoritarianism

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Support for right-wing authoritarianism has increased following the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic in Poland, a study led by researchers at Goldsmiths, University of London suggests.

Two red and white Polish flags hang from a building

Surveys of nearly 900 individuals found that an increasing desire for national cohesion has led to further rejection of dissenters to traditional norms, such as those regulating gender and sexual relations. 

In a report published in the journal Psychology of Sexual Orientation and Gender Diversity, Dr Agnieszka Golec de Zavala and co-authors explain that their results are in line with prior research which shows that conventional attitudes and preference for authoritarian leaders grow in appeal as a response to threat. 

Their study supports research which shows that death anxiety and the threat of infectious disease increases support for authoritarianism, traditional worldviews, in-group cohesion and sexual restrictiveness. 

In April, an early analysis of survey findings indicated that people in Poland were becoming less susceptible to divisive populist messages as the Covid-19 crisis continued. But the study ultimately found that this desire for national cohesion meant a turn against social and political diversity. 

Nearly 900 people were surveyed three times between 28 February and 1 April 2020, and as the pandemic continued they became more likely to agree with statements such as “What our country needs most is discipline, with everyone following our leaders in unity”, “For the sake of the nation, men should control women”, and “Homosexuality is a threat to Poland.” 

Dr Golec de Zavala, Reader in Psychology at Goldsmiths, said: “In the midst of the pandemic, some authoritarian leaders tried to rally their electorates around prejudice toward non-traditional women and sexual minorities. Four weeks in, Poland’s government brought back propositions to tighten anti-abortion laws, which are already the strictest in Europe. Then in June, attacks on what was described as a ‘lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender ideology’ became a central feature of the presidential campaign of Andrzej Duda, candidate for the ruling ultraconservative populist party.” 

In a second paper based on data collected from the same participants and published in Social Psychological and Personality Science, the research team show how ‘national collective narcissism’ predicted a decrease in solidarity in the face of the pandemic.

Some Polish citizens believe that their national ‘in group’ is exceptional and entitled to privileged treatment but they think that this perceived uniqueness is not sufficiently recognised by others. This ‘national narcissism’ prevents them showing solidarity to people negatively impacted by the pandemic, the study found. 

Polish citizens who feel satisfied and happy being Polish (but do not believe at the same time that they are part of an exceptional in-group whose greatness is not recognised by others) exhibited much greater solidarity with those affected by the pandemic. 

Dr Golec de Zavala said: “Collective narcissism compensates for low self-esteem and reflects a desire for self-importance projected onto an in-group. Collective narcissism is motivated by a shared perception of threat to self-importance, rather than a sense of common fate conducive to social solidarity. This lack of concern for others is a defining feature of narcissism, whether it be at the individual or collective level. 

“Generalised feelings of national pride are associated with greater solidarity, but an exaggerated but fragile view of the national in-group’s worth appears to impede a willingness to unite and work together with others to face a global public-health challenge.”

The COVID-19 Pandemic, Authoritarianism, and Rejection of Sexual Dissenters in Poland by Agnieszka Golec de Zaval, Kinga Bierwiaczonek, Tomasz Baran, Oliver Keenan and Adrian Hase was published as an advance online publication by the journal Psychology of Sexual Orientation and Gender Diversity.

Collective Narcissism, In-Group Satisfaction, and Solidarity in the Face of COVID-19 by Christopher Federico, Agnieszka Golec de Zavala and Tomasz Baran was published in pre-print form on 3 September 2020 in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science and is available online.