PandemicWhy Certain Lifestyles and Interests May Have Influenced COVID-19 Decision-Making More than Others

By Zac Greene and Maarja Luhiste

Published 22 March 2021

Although little studied, U.K. cabinet members’ lived experiences and interests likely impact the decisions they make. Certain such experiences have probably been better represented in COVID-19 decisions than others due to the profile of prominent politicians. 

As the U.K. prepares to transition to the next stage of the COVID-19 pandemic, with declining infection rates and impressive vaccine uptake, discussion has turned to the relaxing of lockdown rules. Governments now weigh multiple trade-offs as they seek to reopen the country. Armed with substantially greater evidence from the 2020 lockdowns, cabinet ministers wrangle not only with difficult-to-interpret track-and-trace evidence that itself suffers from selection bias, but also with implementing policies consistent with their ideological positions.

The evidence available comes with substantial uncertainty, and even the choice to dogmatically follow a largely non-political scientific board’s advice is a political decision affecting the way governments implement scientists’ recommendations. And while representative democracy requires the ability for citizen deliberation, much of the rhetoric around what ‘‘following the science’‘ means has sought to suppress public discussion, limiting citizens’ ability to hold politicians accountable for their interpretations of scientists’ recommendations.

Based on our research explaining politicians’ preferences and policy decisions, we argue that linking substantive representation to descriptive representation by examining politicians’ backgrounds, life-style choices, and professed lived experiences provides grounds for citizen deliberation. While research focuses on fairly descriptive elements of politicians’ backgrounds including observed sex, race or ethnicity, their individual experiences derived from lifestyle choices likely matter as well. Earlier research presented compelling normative arguments for going beyond visible characteristics when discussing the link between descriptive and substantive representation. The assumption is that certain shared lived experiences will help a politician ‘react more or less the way the voter would have done, on the basis of descriptive similarity’. Empirical research supports this contention. Professional experiences and class background predict politicians’ selection to cabinet positions and policy priorities. As parenthood has been found to impact voters’ political attitudes, politicians likewise emphasize children and aspects of their personal lives in decision-making.

Shared lived experiences with the represented are of particular importance to politicians in uncertain and unusual times. Preferences have not yet been (re-)formulated, articulated or legitimated on a range of issues in response to the pandemic, a situation few of us could have foreseen. We argue that certain lived experiences and common lifestyle choices have probably been better represented than others due to the profile of prominent politicians. Understandably, parenthood and family considerations centre in many discussions of lockdown restrictions.