When the first U.S. case of COVID-19 was reported in January, most people would not have predicted this by Thanksgiving: 11 million Americans infected, more than 250,000 dead, and a fall surge of record-breaking daily cases as the virus runs rampant.
Yet even as COVID-19 cases pile up at a staggering rate, in a politically divided nation Republicans and Democrats remain in stark disagreement over the threat of the virus and the steps necessary to mitigate its spread.
That has surprised political scientists and public health experts who thought that if the pandemic worsened, if more people became infected and the virus touched red state skeptics and those they love, the partisan gap would begin to close. They believed the reality of what was happening in people’s cities and towns would trump political identity, unifying the nation in its fight against a deadly threat.
It hasn’t. And it may never.
“I thought at some point, reality would come back in for people and they would have a hard time balancing their motivations to stay consistent with their partisanship with what’s going on on the ground,” said Shana Gadarian a political psychologist at Syracuse University who has tracked American attitudes toward the pandemic since it began. “That was wholly optimistic on my part.”
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Gadarian and her colleagues have surveyed 3,000 American citizens five times between March and October. They found that as cases rose, Republicans’ positions remained fixed. Republicans were less worried about COVID-19 and less likely to practice social distancing or wear masks. The findings are bolstered by a paper published this month in the journal Nature Human Behaviour, which found the partisan gap between Democrats and Republicans grew as the pandemic worsened.
Jay Van Bavel, one of the paper’s co-authors, said he and his colleagues were shocked. While partisan cheerleading is common – people saying “my party is the best” or “my president is the best” – they suspected those sentiments would not hold when someone’s life or the lives of their family members, colleagues and friends were at risk.
“We thought once they saw more people in their states, their towns and their communities get sick with this, once they started hearing from doctors and nurses and those images started to show up in the local news, that the partisan gap would go away and they would take it more seriously,” Van Bavel said. “And if anything, we’ve seemed to find the opposite.”
Partisan divisions from the pandemic’s start
Josh Clinton, a political science professor at Vanderbilt University, also has explored how political differences influence attitudes toward the pandemic. Like Gadarian, he has found Republicans and Democrats have significantly different worldviews that do not appear to be changing amid the growing threat.
“Everyone is finding the same thing, which is reassuring from the social science perspective, but maybe not so reassuring from a societal perspective,” he said.
When the pandemic first hit in February, Clinton said there was little difference between Democrats and Republicans – everyone was concerned about COVID-19. But beliefs began to diverge dramatically when politicians grew louder than the health experts.
People began getting different messages from different leaders about the seriousness of the threat and the efficacy of wearing masks.
The partisanship was reinforced over time, especially by more conservative media, including FOX News, which Van Bavel’s study found was related to reduced physical distancing. The result is Republicans, who tend to downplay the virus and view its trajectory as inevitable, and Democrats, who view COVID-19 as a potent but controllable threat, are living in different realities.
They also have different interpretations about whether the pandemic is primarily an economic or public health issue, which has consequences for their ability to come together.
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Gadarian’s data shows how someone feels about COVID-19 and responds to it is less about where they live, their age or their education and more about their political identity.
When the pandemic began, it hit urban areas the hardest, places that tend to be more liberal, which led Gadarian to wonder if Democrats were more concerned about the threat simply because they were the ones experiencing it. But her survey data shows Republicans’ behaviors did not change over time as cases increased in their ZIP codes.
“These gaps that we see in March in terms of behaviors and attitudes and worries about COVID don’t get any smaller over time,” she said. “They don’t get any smaller even when you look at how much COVID is in their area.”
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The hypothesis that political identity would become less relevant as the crisis worn on is proving untrue.
Experts says partisanship is not just a political identity, it’s a social one. The views people express signal which political group they belong to. If what it means to be a Republican now is to not worry about COVID-19 and not wear a mask, then people who identify as Republican feel they must embrace that.
“The maintenance of that identity might mean that you have to discount all of that other information that you’re seeing,” Gadarian said. “It still kind of blows my mind. Our data showed that Republicans report … not washing their hands. But hand washing is a private behavior that other people aren’t seeing. And Republicans are saying that they’re doing that less. That’s a true belief. That’s not just performative.”
Complicating matters is that psychologists say humans have a tendency to want to perpetuate their own beliefs, which is why they accept explanations that fit what they already think. People who are not following the advice of health experts, those who don’t want to believe the threat is severe or at least don’t believe COVID-19 poses a threat to them specifically, seek out information that supports that, even if it’s not true.
“The problem is that there’s so many different data points, it’s kind of like a choose your own adventure story. And so people can construct their reality,” Clinton said. “In the world that we live in … you tell me what you want to believe about the coronavirus, and I can find you some sources, maybe not credible sources, but I can tell you the sources that are saying what you want to hear.”
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Where, then, is the hope?
Experts say leadership matters. President-elect Joe Biden, who wears face coverings and socially distances while in public, has a dramatically different plan for tackling the pandemic. He has pledged to put scientists behind the microphone and make coronavirus testing widely available and free.
But experts say one of the most crucial tasks ahead is unifying the nation. Biden will need Republican allies backing him and enforcing regulations, which can reduce identity markers that some people are sensitive to revealing. If every Wegmans, for example, demands customers where masks, it doesn’t matter if you’re Republican or Democrat – you have to wear one to shop.
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“You may still think it’s stupid to have to wear a mask, but it doesn’t really matter what you think or what your identity is if the rule is that you have to wear a mask in order to go into indoor places,” Gadarian said.
Biden also faces the task of depoliticizing a COVID-19 vaccine, which health experts say is the nation’s greatest hope for stopping the virus in its tracks. Moderna and Pfizer announced this month that their COVID-19 vaccines are proving highly effective in major trials.
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But in a Pew Research Center survey this September only half of U.S. adults said they would get a vaccine to prevent COVID-19 if it were available today, a drop from 72% in May. Experts worry that if trust in a vaccine continues to erode, then there will not be a level of vaccination that produces herd immunity – when enough people build up protection against a pathogen either through natural infection or a vaccine.
“Everyone has the same goal, yet there’s such a difference in terms of what people think we need to do to get there. Maybe we need to think of this not in terms of ‘herd immunity’ but in terms of ‘herd intelligence,'” Clinton said. “If we get enough people who are on the same page and working together as Americans, then maybe as a country we can get us out of this tunnel and back into the daylight.”
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