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The Politics of a Pandemic

A stethoscope is pulled on either side by red and blue ropes, meant to representing medical politics.

Like many, I have been surprised to see the response to the global coronavirus pandemic fall along partisan lines here in the United States. In June, a Pew research poll1 identified partisanship as the largest demographic factor affecting reported comfort with activities such as grocery shopping or eating at a restaurant. In the face of growing scientific evidence supporting the use of face masks2, as well as guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention3, 83% of Democrats/Democratic-leaning individuals surveyed believe a mask should be worn always or most of the time when going to a public place where they could be near others, compared to only 52% of Republicans/ Republican-leaning individuals. Perhaps most alarmingly, the two sides also disagreed on whether the actions of ordinary Americans affect how the coronavirus spreads in the U.S. (44% of Republicans surveyed believe they do, compared to 73% of Democrats).

It’s one thing for Democrats and Republicans to disagree on the details of an economic response to a global crisis (as, according to the same study, they do). But should it be surprising that seemingly nongovernmental issues such as mask wearing, individual impact and risk perception fall along the partisan divide as well? To answer this question, I looked for similar patterns in other countries. In the United Kingdom, which has also faced significant partisan division recently, a YouGov poll4 showed that citizens are divided across partisan lines over satisfaction with government response, but showed unity in their levels of worry about the impact the pandemic will have on them and their families’ health. In Germany, one of the nations in which response to the coronavirus has been praised5, political parties expressed a range of opinions on satisfaction with the government’s response to the virus, though attitudes toward social distancing measures were highly consistent between parties6.

Why is partisan division in the U.S. so drastic across such a wide range of issues? In one study, from January 20207, researchers from Stanford University evaluated affective polarization — the extent to which citizens feel more negatively toward other political parties than toward their own — in nine countries. They found that over the past four decades, affective polarization has grown faster and larger in the U.S. than in any of the other eight established democracies studied. The global crisis that has occurred since then has put this affective polarization in the spotlight.

Political disagreement is a healthy, essential component of any democratic society. However, the climate of affective partisanship currently in place in the United States has gone beyond healthy political debate. More than elsewhere in the world, partisanship currently divides U.S. public opinion not only on matters of government but also on issues such as risk perception, the impact of individual actions and even trust in scientific evidence. As members of a global scientific community and a democratic society, we must be aware of this divide and strive to close it with clear communication and active participation.



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