How Affective Polarization Shapes Americans’ Political Beliefs A Study of Response to the COVID-19 Pandemic

James Druckman, Samara Klar, Yanna Krupnikov, Matthew Levendusky, and John Ryan

Speaking in a field in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania last year, President Biden noted that “The country is in a dangerous place…Too many Americans see our public life not as an arena for mediation of our difference but, rather, they see it as an occasion for total, unrelenting partisan warfare. Instead of treating each other’s party as the opposition, we treat them as the enemy.”

Data from the Pew Research Center back up President Biden’s claims: Americans increasingly view those from the other party in starkly negative terms, describing them with unflattering terms like closed-minded, unpatriotic, and immoral. Previous research shows a surprising number of consequences of this animosity, mostly on apolitical things like how and with whom we work, shop, and date. But, paradoxically, we know much less about how animosity toward people from the opposing political party actually affects our politics. Here, we focus on one dimension of this puzzle: how does affective polarization—that is, personal dislike and distrust toward members of the other party–shape voters’ policy attitudes?

We argue that negative feelings toward the out-party politicize issues: Americans who hold the most animus towards the other party politicize even seemingly apolitical topics. They view the world through a stronger partisan-colored lens and hence make even apolitical issues all about politics.

We test this with an experiment in the context of COVID-19. Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, we had measured of affective polarization for a different study, so we knew how a large sample of Americans felt about members of the other party before the public health crisis emerged. We could thus be sure that feelings toward the out-party were not influenced by the pandemic itself. Last spring, shortly after COVID began spreading throughout the country, we asked our respondents to evaluate the ongoing governmental response to COVID-19; but we randomly assigned our respondents into two groups.  For one group, we specifically attributed the governmental response to the Trump administration. The other group instead saw the response as being attributed to the United States generally. We expect everyone to evaluate Trump through partisan-colored glasses. But we expect only those who are highly affectively polarized to evaluate the U.S. that way.

This is exactly what we find. While everyone polarizes in response to the Trump framing, only those who view the out-party with the most animus interpret the “United States” as a partisan entity, making it synonymous to the Trump administration.

This supports our hypothesis that partisan animus generates divides in how people feel about the country overall – the very entity that ideally should bring partisans together. Partisan animosity appears to be tearing us apart at precisely the moment we all need to be coming together–disturbingly echoing President Biden’s warning from Gettysburg.

This has important implications for both our pandemic response, as well as for our understanding of political issues more generally. Sadly, our results suggest that even neutral framing has become politicized, given the way elites have handled the pandemic. In order to remedy this troubling situation, policymakers and communicators need to find ways to depolarize the issue, such as through bipartisan endorsements. This will be critical as the country begins to ramp up mass vaccinations of all adults this spring. Beyond the pandemic, our results speak more to the power of affective polarization to politicize novel issues and ongoing political debates. This suggests that the pernicious consequences of affective polarization are unlikely to end any time soon, unfortunately.

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