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Pollution & HealthDoes Ideology Kill?

Does Ideology Kill?

Does Ideology Kill?

Interpreting the association between conservatism and COVID death rates.

There may be mounting evidence of an association between conservative politics and COVID impacts. Indeed, the upper death rate amongst Republicans may even have swung some close elections. A recent study sheds light on how ideology and death rates interact. Because the Washington Post reports, the outcomes were striking:  “Covid death rates were 11 percent higher in states with Republican-controlled governments and 26 percent higher in areas where voters lean conservative. Similar results emerged about hospital ICU capability when the concentration of political power in a state was conservative.”

A deeper dive into the study is required to totally understand these results. The researchers controlled for a bunch of variables, including demographic characteristics, and in some models for some health indicators (obesity and diabetes rates) and for COVID vaccination rate. The study will not be easy to interpret since the paper may be very terse and since the authors used multiple models testing quite a lot of interactions. Mainly, the study found that three separate political variables appeared to significant effects: (1) the partisan lean of a district’s voters, (2) the stance of their congressional representative (gauged by votes on COVID measures and by a measure of ideology), and (3) the degree of GOP control of state government.  The proven fact that the three variables appear to have somewhat independent connections with COVID outcomes is intriguing, since it suggests that there could also be different causal mechanisms at work.

To start out with partisan lean, one possibility is that ideology matters since it drives local public health decisions.  Being in a GOP-leaning congressional district makes it more likely that you just in live in a conservative county or town. Local-level health measures in turn could affect COVID outcomes. Alternatively, partisan lean might matter since it is tied with health behaviors. As an example, when you live in a district with loads of Republican voters, you’re more more likely to be Republican yourself. Chances are you’ll subsequently be less more likely to mask as a matter of tribal loyalty. Chances are you’ll even be surrounded by people who find themselves less more likely to mask.

If the politics of congressional representatives has a reference to health outcomes, it seems fairly unlikely that the link is direct.  Individual members of Congress don’t make policy for his or her districts. (They may conceivably have some influence on the distribution of federal COVID funding, so the opportunity of a direct link isn’t completely out of the questions, but that seems speculative.) Perhaps congressional representatives are sufficiently distinguished that their views influence those of residents about issues like masking. The politics of representatives could as a substitute be a signal of something else, like the character of local Republican politics. Even in districts which have equal partisan make-ups, some could have differ within the degree to which voters or representatives are conservative, resulting in different individual behaviors and native policies.

Assuming the outcomes are valid, the connection between Republican control of a state and COVID outcomes appears to be independent of the district-level findings. This seems to point that state level policies had a considerable impact beyond their correlation with differences in individual behavior or local policies.

Because the authors of the study say themselves, it’s perilous to attract conclusions about causation from evidence that various aspects are related to worse outcomes. One reason for taking the findings seriously that we all know conservatives have opposed health measures like masking and are more immune to vaccination despite clear evidence of safety and effectiveness.

Nevertheless, isolating the causal connections is more likely to be very difficult because there are such a lot of possible links between variables. Proving causation between individual ideology and health outcomes is hard, because ideology is expounded to many other aspects and tends to be persistent.  It could be easier to tease out the independent effect of state level and district level political variables on health outcomes.

If causation is actually at work, its implications may themselves be subject to ideological polarizations. Liberals will interpret the outcomes as evidence that conservatism harms society. Conservatives could also be more liable to think that a better death rate is a suitable price for greater personal liberty and smaller government. Researchers cannot change people’s minds about these deep normative issues, but not less than they could have the option to make the tradeoffs clearer.

It might even be worthwhile to have a look at the link between ideology and public health in other contexts. As an example, given similar city characteristics, it could be useful to see the extent to which differences in ideology on the state level impact pollution levels and subsequently illness and mortality rates.


conservative ideology, COVID-19, environmental politics, ideology, public health


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