As America Confronts Coronavirus, We Are More / Less Polarized Than Ever. (Huh?)

Ann Reidy • June 12, 2020 • 9 min read

America entered the current pandemic in the grip of hyper-partisan politics. In January 2020, as coronavirus began landing stealthily on American shores, President Trump’s impeachment trial was wrapping up in the Senate. Democratic primary candidates were jostling for delegates in Iowa, New Hampshire, and beyond. Media engines began revving to serve up a 24/7 diet of Election 2020 drama. America’s inexorable descent into a bruising, bloody general election season stretched out before us.

Coronavirus jolted all of us – our politicians, our media, ourselves – off this predictable path. But onto what new path? Regarding our partisan tendencies, two alternate narratives are emerging.

In the first narrative, Americans are shedding our partisan identities and uniting as a country. We are #InThisTogether and #TogetherApart as we endure #QuarantineLife together. We are confronting a common foe and rallying to support those in need. Our doctors, nurses, teachers, and other essential workers are the heroic protagonists in a unified story that casts the rest of us in helpful supporting roles. We see and embrace our shared identity as Americans, a warm feeling that will linger even after the crisis has passed.

In the second narrative, because we obtain our coronavirus information from disparate, partisan-leaning sources, “blue” and “red” Americans are experiencing two completely different pandemics. The “blue” pandemic calls for prolonged social distancing, while the “red” pandemic allows for reopening the economy quickly. The “blue” pandemic requires vigorous government intervention at the federal, state, and local levels. The “red” pandemic will be conquered by private sector initiative. “Red” America perceives coronavirus as a health risk confined to sprawling urban centers, while an anxious “Blue” America sees risk everywhere.

Which narrative is correct?
In defense of Narrative One, the research firm More In Common shared recent survey results suggesting that coronavirus is replacing political tribalism with common spirit. Specifically, according to the survey:

  • 90% of Americans believe that “we’re all in it together,” compared to just 63% in the fall of 2018.
  • The total share of Americans who describe the country as unified has grown from 4% in 2018 to 32% today, while the percentage of Americans who regard the country as “very divided” has dropped from 62% to just 22%.
  • Almost half of Americans (46%) say that America now feels more united than before the pandemic and 82% say that we have “more in common than what divides us”.

In a related vein, a recent survey by Public Agenda suggests that Democrats and Republicans favor similar policy prescriptions for abating coronavirus and restoring the economy to health. Specifically:

  • Majorities of both Democrats and Republicans agree the main priority of the government should be preventing the virus from spreading further.
  • There is strong agreement among Americans overall (83%) that “we should reboot the economy slowly and carefully to avoid spreading the virus and endangering lives,” including 81% of Republicans and 90% of Democrats who agree.

Additionally, FiveThirtyEight just published a “survey of surveys” roundup of public polls taken in the wake of coronavirus, finding that:

  • 96% of Republicans and 95% of Democrats said that they are washing their hands more frequently, according to a Selzer & Company survey conducted last weekend.
  • 93% of Democrats and 89% of Republicans said they would be “uncomfortable” at a crowded party, per a recent Pew Research Center poll.
  • 83% of Democrats and 71% of Republicans said they would be uncomfortable eating out in a restaurant right now.
  • 85% of Republicans and 91% of Democrats support giving cash payments to people who make less than $100,000 amid the virus outbreak, according to recent ABC News/Washington Post poll.
  • Republicans and Democrats are also both strongly supportive of aid to small businesses (90% of Democrats, 93% of Republicans) and somewhat wary of aid to large corporations (38% of Republicans and 54% of Democrats oppose it)

With all this survey data suggesting that coronavirus is prompting Americans to unite and align across party lines, who is making the alternative case for Narrative Two? Where is the evidence suggesting that our partisan identities shape our individual and collective responses to coronavirus?

One such case is brought forth by researchers from Syracuse University, UC Irvine, and Cornell, who found that, in the wake of the outbreak:

  • Relative to Republicans, Democrats are more significantly likely to report having adopted a number of health behaviors in response to COVID-19. These behaviors collectively reflect a practice of “social distancing” and align with CDC recommendations for preventing spread.
  • Relative to Republicans, Democrats exhibit more worrying attitudes about the pandemic. Democrats believe that the death toll is higher, that spending on public health responses should be increased, and are more likely to report an array of worries about the consequences of COVID-19 for their lives, including getting sick and resource scarcity.

Similarly, researchers from the University of St. Louis and the University of Kentucky used geolocation data to support their findings that:

  • Political beliefs present a significant limitation to the effectiveness of state-level social distancing orders.
  • Residents in Republican counties are less likely to completely stay at home after a state order has been implemented relative to those in Democratic counties.
  • Democrats are less likely to respond to a state-level order when it is issued by a Republican governor relative to one issued by a Democratic governor.
  • Republican counties respond less to social distancing orders relative to Democratic counties.

Even some of the studies cited in support of Narrative One acknowledge continuing rifts. For example, the More in Common survey cites the following:

  • Progressive Activists are three times as likely (59%) as Devoted Conservatives (17%) to think it is “likely” that they will “become ill with the coronavirus” and twice as likely (80%) as Devoted Conservatives (40%) to say that it’s “likely” that someone they know “becomes ill with the coronavirus”.Democrats (52%), Progressive Activists (52%), and Traditional Liberals (49%) express far more gratitude for journalists and reporters than do Republicans (12%) and Devoted Conservatives (1%).
  • Conversely, two-thirds of Traditional Conservatives (67%) and Devoted Conservatives (65%) are feeling more grateful to live in the United States, while only 4% of Progressive Activists say the same.

Perhaps even more revealing is what the More In Common survey finds hasn’t changed since 2018, especially around Americans’ willingness to consider different perspectives, and our perceptions of whether we can become more unified as a country. Specifically:

  • In Fall 2018, 23% of Americans responded that, “The differences between Americans are too big for us to work together anymore.” In Spring 2020, that result has actually increased slightly, to 24%.
  • In Fall 2018, 39% of Americans responded that, “The people who I agree with politically need to stick to their beliefs and fight.” In Spring 2020, More In Common once again cites a slight uptick, to 40% of Americans sharing this view.

And the Public Agenda survey points out that:

  • Significantly more Democrats (80%) say the main priority of the government should be preventing the virus from spreading further, compared to 64% of Republicans.
  • A greater share of Republicans (29%) than Democrats (14%) say that the government’s main priority should be protecting the economy and avoiding a recession.
  • Many more Republicans (74%) than Democrats (33%) say the federal government is doing everything it can to address the coronavirus crisis.
    Only time will tell which of these narratives prevail. It is even possible that — in a self-fulfilling, recursive loop — lopsided media coverage of one narrative or the other will help determine which one becomes “dominant” in our understanding of ourselves.

In our next blog installment, we’ll explore the media’s role in determining whether our partisan tendencies become more attenuated — or more insistent — during and beyond the coronavirus outbreak. Stay tuned!

COVID-19: Polarization and the Pandemic, More in Common, April 2020

America’s Hidden Common Ground on the Coronavirus: Results from a Public Agenda/USA TODAY/Ipsos Snapshot Survey, Public Agenda, April 2020

Are Democrats And Republicans Reacting Differently To Coronavirus? It Depends What You’re Asking Them, FiveThirtyEight, April 2020

Partisanship, Health Behavior, and Policy Attitudes in the Early Stages of the COVID-19 Pandemic, Gadarian, Goodman, and Pepinsky, March 2020

Political Beliefs affect Compliance with COVID-19 Social Distancing Orders, Painter and Qiu, April 2020