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Political polarization did not increase with COVID-19, Stanford research finds

A potential reason could stem from the creation of a new sense of unity in response to a national threat, says SIEPR's Matthew Gentzkow.

“We’re all in this together.” That was an early mantra as COVID-19 spread. But then what happened?

Despite signs of a culture war and differences in social distancing behaviors between Republicans and Democrats during the pandemic, new research indicates COVID-19 did not drive the nation’s partisan wedge deeper.

Instead, negative sentiment between Republicans and Democrats decreased significantly after the onset of the pandemic, according to research by Stanford economist Matthew Gentzkow and his colleagues. Political polarization then picked back up, nearly to pre-COVID levels following the death of George Floyd in May.

"There were a lot of reasons to think the pandemic may have exacerbated political polarization in the U.S.," said Gentzkow, a senior fellow at the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research (SIEPR). "The public discussion has been highly politicized, and evidence suggests Republicans and Democrats differ on things like social distancing responses. It's striking that polarization actually fell during this period."

The research, detailed in this working paper, assesses several surveys spanning from July 2019 to October 4, 2020 to document the trends in political polarization for a before-and-after look. In addition to Gentzkow, the co-authors are Stanford PhD students Levi Boxell and Jacob Conway, and professor James Druckman of Northwestern University.

A potential reason for the reduction in polarization could stem from the creation of a new sense of unity in response to a national threat, the study stated. Also, coverage from the media — which Gentzkow and others have shown to play a role in influencing political rifts — started to focus more on the pandemic than on other political issues. 

But attention paid to partisan differences in behavioral responses — such as social distancing or wearing masks — obscures the overwhelming unity in the early stage of the pandemic, the study stated.

"There has been a lot of talk about partisan differences in mask wearing and so on, but actually the size of those differences is pretty small,” Gentzkow said. “Whether in red America or blue America the first-order thing is people view this as a huge crisis and responded to it with dramatic changes in their behavior. We know from lots of other settings that collective threats – wars, disasters, and so on – tend to pull people together. It's heartening that that may be true of COVID as well."

Earlier research by Gentzkow and others show an already deeply divided America. For instance, studies show that over the past four decades, the political rift in the United States has grown faster and larger than other established democracies, and that during the COVID-19 pandemic, partisan-related differences are playing out in social distancing behaviors.

According to this latest analysis on the coronavirus effect, polarization levels in the U.S. were relatively flat before the pandemic. But after the nation’s first COVID-19 death was reported, polarization started to decline.

One of the study’s main measures — based on a nationwide weekly survey by Nationscape — showed a significant drop in polarization, while two other surveys — from the American National Election Studies and Druckman’s research — showed no increase around the coronavirus outbreak. However, in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death — a police killing that ignited protests over racial injustices — polarization began to rise again, nearly returning to pre-pandemic levels, the study found.

The researchers also conducted their own experiment, surveying about 1,000 respondents, and found that when people were purposefully set up to read and then think about the pandemic, then their feelings of partisanship significantly dropped.

"This is a reminder that the trend toward ever deeper political divides isn't inevitable,” Gentzkow said. “I think most people in this country are well-meaning and intelligent and a lot of the deep division is stoked by political elites and portrayals in the media rather than reflecting the reality of who we are."

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