The Jury Is In: Yes, the Pandemic is Polarizing Us.

Meg Saunders • August 3, 2020 • 9 min read

“While we all agree that wearing a mask is effective, I’m confident that Georgians don’t need a mandate to do the right thing,” said Georgia Governor Brian Kemp, shortly after bringing a lawsuit against Atlanta’s Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms. She had recently mandated that masks be worn in public.

The Republican governor sued the Democratic mayor for overstepping her office, by imposing regulations stricter than those issued by his office.

The point of dispute was not whether wearing a face mask would help control the spread of the virus, but whether it was appropriate for the government to mandate mask-wearing. The lawsuit is indicative of how the disputes over the handling of the pandemic appear to be growing more and more politicized – and polarized.

As America confronts coronavirus, are we becoming more or less polarized?

In a recent blog post, we reviewed early findings on Covid-19’s polarizing (or depolarizing) impact across America. We identified two contrasting narratives:

  • In the first narrative, Covid-19 had prompted Americans to overlook partisan identities and unite against a common enemy: the deadly virus.
  • In the second narrative, Democrats and Republicans were at odds in their perception of the seriousness of the virus, and the most appropriate course of action in tackling it.

Nearly two months, millions of cases, and thousands of deaths later, much more data is available to assess whether Covid-19 has caused America to become more or less polarized.

In this article, we refer to two distinct types of polarization:

  • The first type is issue polarization, i.e. the extent to which Democrats and Republicans disagree on issues. Take mask mandates, for instance. The greater the difference in percentages of Republicans versus Democrats who believe that masks should be mandated by the government, the more polarized these two groups are on that issue.
  • The second type is affective polarization, i.e. the extent to which Republicans and Democrats dislike and distrust each other, regardless of how much they may agree or disagree on issues.

How our political identities shape our understanding of Covid-19 and proposed remedies

So, have Democrats’ and Republicans’ positions on issues shifted further apart during the course of the pandemic? In some areas, yes. For instance:

  • The percentage of Republicans who believe that they will catch the virus and become hospitalized has dropped from 47% to 35%, and the percentage who feel they might unknowingly spread the virus to others has also dropped from 58% to 45%. These same measures have increased slightly for democrats from 62% to 64%, and 74% to 77% respectively.
  • 76% of Democrats surveyed at the end of June agreed that Covid-19 is “a very big problem;” only 37% of Republicans said the same.
  • That said, 95% of Democrats and 72% of Republicans surveyed agreed that the virus is at least “a big problem.”

Given these partisan discrepancies in Covid-19’s perceived threat levels, it is not surprising that discrepancies have also emerged regarding how best to control the spread of the disease.

Issues being hotly contested include whether or not schools should reopen, how long to maintain stringent social distancing measures, and whether or not face masks should be mandated in public spaces. According to mid-July surveys:

  • Only 3% of Democrats, but 33% of Republicans, believe K-12 schools should start completely in person in the Fall.
  • Conversely, 41% of Democrats, but only 15% of Republicans, favor completely online education when school gets underway.
  • 75% of Democrats, but only 36% of Republicans, favor mandatory mask policies.
  • Only 2% of Democrats, but 28% of Republicans, strongly oppose mandatory mask policies.
  • Only 10% of Democrats, but 39% of Republicans, feel it would be safe to replace social distancing with “business as usual” within a month’s time; it is worth noting, however, that majorities in both parties favor maintaining measures to some degree, or are simply unsure.

In terms of actual behavior versus attitudes, recent evidence suggests that Democrats wear masks more frequently than Republicans, but that behavioral differences are actually much less pronounced than discrepancies regarding support for mandatory mask policy. According to recent studies:

  • 96% of Democrats and 90% of Republicans report having worn a mask in public
  • 76% of Democrats and 53% of Republicans report wearing masks in public “all or most of the time”

Even allowing that red and blue regions may be experiencing Covid-19 differently, and along different timeframes, studies that control for these factors still find visible partisan fault lines. A recent study that examined locational data — controlling for factors such as the level of restrictions, population density, and the number of local Covid-19 cases and deaths — found that differing attitudes with respect to the severity of the pandemic could be significantly attributed to party affiliation.

Overall, then, recent studies suggest that Americans’ differing attitudes about the pandemic are driven at least partly by political affiliation.

How different opinions on Covid-19 tilt into negative feelings towards one another

Unfortunately, these shifts in attitudes may bring with them an increase in partisan animosity — or affective polarization — between Democrats and Republicans. This may manifest itself in distrust, anger, or feelings of disunity across the political divide.  Ironically, the intensity of these negative feelings can be disproportionately strong compared to the actual level of disagreement on issues or policies.

Governor Kemp and Mayor Bottoms, for example, both agreed that face coverings would be effective in slowing the spread of the virus, but disagreed on whether mandatory mask policies should be implemented.

Beyond merely disagreeing, the dispute between the mayor and the governor tilted into affective polarization when each made statements suggesting that they suspected foul play from the other party.

“I don’t think it was happenstance that this lawsuit was filed the day after Donald Trump visited Atlanta…What I see happening is that the governor is putting politics over people,” said Mayor Bottoms in a CNN interview. She referenced the fact that Kemp had not taken legal action in response to other Georgia cities issuing mask mandates, including Savannah and Athens. “I do believe it’s personal retaliation,” she said.

Governor Kemp expressed similar distrust towards the Mayor, saying he believed that certain local leaders had “decided to play politics by exploiting these difficult, emotional moments for political gain.”

What about the rest of us? According to recent survey results published by More in Common:

  • 64% of survey respondents considered the U.S. to be either more or much more divided since the outbreak of the pandemic.
  • In contrast, only 5% of participants were optimistic that the country had become more or much more united.
  • 82% said that the United States felt either somewhat divided or very divided today.
  • 55% said they felt either somewhat or much more frustrated toward people living in the United States. Only 9% were more grateful. The remaining 36% reported no change in attitude.
  • On a more hopeful note, 94% favored “treat[ing] each other with respect regardless of political differences,” indicating that many Americans do not have an appetite for division in spite of difference.
  • Moreover, that same proportion of participants (94%) also agreed that “more than ever, we need leaders who can bring Americans back together.”

Recently, Georgia’s governor and Atlanta’s mayor appear to have identified a path forward, with the governor agreeing to cancel a hearing for his lawsuit following a period of mediation. Perhaps those who are calling for leaders to bring Americans back together can take some comfort in this de-escalation process.

But the larger picture that emerges, upon review of all the latest research findings, is of a country in which our political affiliations heavily define — and drive apart — both our understanding of Covid-19 and our feelings towards one another as the pandemic grinds on.  The jury is in, and the ascendant narrative is that Covid-19 represents yet another “polarizing lens” through which each of us views our present reality.


Image Credit:

  • REUTERS/Alyson McClaran. Health care workers stand in the street in counter-protest to hundreds of people who gathered at the State Capitol to demand the stay-at-home order be lifted in Denver, Colorado, U.S. April 19, 2020.