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Jan Hillard: We are all in this together, except for our partisan differences

It is expected that our political parties differ on many issues such as the economy, foreign affairs, and the role of government. These differences are reflected in public opinion and across political leaders. However, it would be reasonable to expect that partisan differences would significantly lessen during the current pandemic. Instead, the opposite is true.

During the pandemic, partisan differences have sharpened with Republicans and Democrats holding quite different views on social distancing, trust in scientists, and lifting community restrictions.

In part, these deep differences help explain recent “liberation” demonstrations and the President’s politicization of the pandemic. Wide differences are also seen across educational levels. Those with higher education levels tend to support containment efforts, have faith in scientists, and adhere to public safety measures. Some of these partisan differences can be explained by education level, but not all.

Two explorations of the differing views of Republicans and Democrats during COVID were published in late May. The first was completed on May 21, 2020 by Cary Funk, Brian Kennedy, and Courtney Johnson of the Pew Research Center. The second was published on May 15, 2020 by Frank Newport of Gallup. The findings for both studies are based upon a large, random sample of Americans.

Illustration from The Miller Center/UV

On many questions about the COVID 19 virus and how to respond to it, Democrats and Republicans are polarized.

Given the universal threat impact of virus, these differences may seem difficult to understand. After all, the virus does not discriminate along party lines. And it would be logical to assume that standards of care, scientific evidence, and policy would transcend party.

These factors do not; in fact, they are key components of the differences.

One might also expect that educational level, place of residence (urban vs. rural), age, or even gender could account for the partisan differences. Gallup finds that instead, partisan differences hold up after controlling for these demographics.

Differing viewpoints of Republicans and Democrats found in the recent Pew study (5/21/20):

▪ Concerned about catching the virus (53% of Republicans, 72% of Democrats)

▪ Confidence in medical doctors treating COVID (32% of Republicans, 58% of Democrats)

▪ Confidence in scientists (27% of Republicans, 52% of Democrats)

▪ Scientists should be active in framing policy (43% of Republicans, 75% of Democrats)

▪ Social distancing helping a lot (48% of Republicans, 69% of Democrats)
▪ Lack of testing reason for spread (37% of Republicans, 78% of Democrats)

▪ Infection is lower in the US than elsewhere (30% of Republicans, 9% of Democrats

▪ Concerned about lifting restrictions too early (47% of Republicans, 87% of Democrats)

▪ Good coverage of the virus by the media (54% of Republicans, 82% of Democrats)

The partisan divisions across these items appeared at the beginning of the pandemic.

This suggests that the pandemic aligned with previously held beliefs that have long distinguished Republicans and Democrats. These include the role of government, trust in bureaucracy, trust of science, and paramount importance of personal freedom at all costs.

It can be argued that the pandemic simply activated these beliefs, beyond “normal” levels, providing a lens through which Republicans and Democrats see their role and the role of government in controlling the virus. Belief systems our one of the most durable features of American public opinion. These systems distinguish Republicans and Democrats.

Many wonder why Republicans and Democrats can be so different in spite of a common enemy. They would be well-served to remember that our differing beliefs are part of our deep, political geology. And as we look back at these times, it may have been our inability to compromise with one another and not our partisan differences that were our chief difficulty.

Jan Hillard, Ph.D., is data editor for KyForward and retired Faculty Emeriti of Northern Kentucky University.

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