The Partisan Divide on COVID-19 is Growing

Since March of this year, I have been working in collaboration with Shana Gadarian and Sara Goodman on a NSF-supported project to track how Americans are responding to COVID-19. We now have three rounds of survey data, having received the latest round just last night.

The first round of our survey took place very early in the pandemic. The second came at the height of the aggressive responses by the states in late April. And the third followed the mobilizations around #BlackLivesMatter in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, which also coincided with the gradual re-opening happening in most states. These three dates give us three nice snapshots of the state of American mass public opinion on COVID-19.

My previous posts (here, here, here) have focused on partisanship as one of the most important factors in explaining Americans’ public health behavior. I think that our expectation has always been that partisan differences would eventually disappear, as the pandemic spread beyond its first coastal hotspots to affect all Americans. Viruses do not respond to partisanship.

We are now four months into the COVID-19 pandemic, and there is no sign yet that partisan differences among Americans are disappearing. In some cases, they seem to be growing.

Look first at health behaviors. We’ve plotted below the average responses, by party and survey wave, to 10 questions about health behaviors (the last two we only added in Wave 2).

The first thing to note is that we do not see any instances of partisan convergence with the exception of our last item, on attending religious services. For all other behaviors, differences across parties are stable, or even growing. Look in particular at “Avoided Contact with Others” and “Avoided Gatherings,” where we see stability among Democrats and Others but declining rates of compliance among Republicans. These differences across waves by party—meaning that Democrats and Republicans have diverged over time—are highly statistically significant.*

We see a similar trend when we look at respondents’ worries. Although Americans of all partisan identities are getting less worried, this is particularly strong among Republicans.

Note in particular the growing divergence between Democrats and Republicans in how worried respondents are about getting sick, or about their friends getting sick. The only area of partisan convergence that we identify is when it comes to worrying about not being able to go back to school, where Democrats are converging towards Republicans.

Finally, a selection of items about policy responses. Partisan differences are stable and growing throughout, but differences about opening back up again (should we “Cancel Everything”) are now strikingly large.

One bright spot of partisan convergence is on elections. There have never been large differences across parties in whether or not respondents want to delay elections in response to COVID-19. But we can see here that Americans as a whole—regardless of partisanship—are steadily becoming much less willing to delay elections. It’s interesting to think why this might be: perhaps Republicans don’t want to delay elections because they don’t see a big public health concern, whereas Democrats don’t want to delay elections because they think that they will win them. Whatever the reason, it is good that there is not an emerging partisan divide on delaying elections in response to COVID-19.

What is ominous, in my view, is that we see growing partisan divides about whether or not people are worried about getting sick, whether or not they are staying away from social gatherings, and whether or not they want to open the economy back up again. These differences seem to me to have direct implications for public health in the United States.

Stay tuned for more.


* We test the significance of these differences by interacting party identity with survey wave in a difference-in-differences framework. Because this is a panel, we also include survey-respondent fixed effects in these models, which amounts to a very conservative empirical strategy.

Confronting Confederate Heritage

[This post on Confederate legacies has two parts. You can read the second, more comparative one, here.]

The current proposal to rename U.S. military installations that currently bear the names of Confederate soldiers is long overdue. It comes as a time when many of us are thinking very deeply about how we, as Americans, confront this part of American history. I have no answers.

Yet I cannot stop thinking about how I, as a white man who grew up in the north, learned about the Confederacy. I will note up front, because it will matter later, that roughly half of my ancestors come from Confederate states (it does not matter which ones). But I have never lived anywhere in the south.

As a child, I never, ever saw the Confederate flag flown. I never saw it displayed either. I was familiar with it from history books, from visits to Gettysburg, and from my favorite TV show, The Dukes of Hazzard. The General Lee was their cool car, but it never occurred to me to notice the flag or the name, I was more interested in the fact that Bo and Luke entered through the windows. And I know now that that show was basically one big joke, mocking a certain type of southern white.

There is privilege here, obviously, to be oblivious to what dark historical facts lay behind such cultural touchstones as the General Lee and Boss Hogg. Or to have not really understood what Ole Miss means until I was well into college.*

There is also privilege to not even think about the names of our U.S. military installations. I did know until yesterday who John Bell Hood was (“I was yesterday years old when…”). I did not know until recently—like, this week—that Fort Bragg or Fort Hood or any of the others were named after Confederate generals. It doesn’t surprise me in the slightest, but I never knew. Why would I think about the names of military bases? I’m not in the military, and I’m not curious about base histories or about American Civil War generals.** So I blithely move through my life just not knowing.

It is good that I think about these things now.

But still, growing up, I never heard any defense of the Confederacy or “the Southern Cause.” Once a cousin got frustrated with me and called me a Yankee. (Fact check: True.) My extended family has a sort of pride of origin from our “family town” (again, it doesn’t matter where this is). And I identified early on—by junior high—a sort of causal racism both in the south and the north, examples of which I need not provide. I also saw incidents of blatant and overt racism many times, in several northern states. I remember learning in high school about Stone Mountain and being shocked by it. But the Confederacy? No. Never.

I also have access to family letters from an ancestor who fought for the Confederacy. Those letters mostly detail, in abstract terms, that war is horrible and that it will all be better when the war is over. But they also briefly note the death of an enslaved man owned by that ancestor. I can only assume that that man was forced to support my ancestor in a fight to preserve slavery. When we are talking about chattel slavery, no one “chooses” anything.

In those letters, my ancestor expresses a kind of remorse or sadness for the death of that enslaved man. One might read this as a recognition of their mutual humanity, but today I read this as even more horrible. My ancestor knew that this was a person, recognized his humanity, and kept him as property anyway. And then he was killed in a war to preserve his enslavement.

Now I live in a very progressive small college town in the north. And I have seen the Confederate flag more times in the past year than I did in the first thirty years of my life.

The last time I saw one was about a month ago, when I visited the local Walmart to buy a new battery for a riding mower. The man who helped me pick out the replacement wore a Confederate flag hat. Seeing that hat filled me with disgust. But because I am who I am, because I was wearing an old baseball cap, my lawn-mowing jeans, and my lawn-mowing shirt,*** we transacted our business without comment.

I wrote above that my emotion was disgust at seeing that Confederate flag hat. But there were other emotions. Sadness, disdain. But also anger. Even rage. Knowing what the Confederacy stood for, the people it killed and the cause it sought to preserve, I cannot even imagine a defense of it. I cannot fathom wanting to display its symbols, although I know what they mean.

Growing up, I never saw the Confederate flag flown, and I never had cause to think of it. Today, my children do. So they learn something different than I learned. They learn that the Confederate flag is a symbol of treason, flown by a group of people who killed many Americans to support an evil and indefensible cause.

But of course, as we all know, today it’s more than just that.

[Read the previous post here.]


* In my defense, for family history reasons, I identify with Mississippi State and Auburn anyway.

** Ask me about the Soviet-era names of Russian cities, though…

*** This is my lawn-mowing shirt.