COVID-19 isn’t partisan. But it’s intensifying America’s red-blue divide.

Why We Wrote This

Divided by geography and culture, and relying on different media sources that often emphasize different facts, Americans are experiencing the pandemic through sharply divergent partisan lenses.  

Jake May/The Flint Journal/AP
Karl Manke wears a mask while cutting hair at his barbershop in Owosso, Mich., May 5, 2020. Mr. Manke re-opened his doors on Monday in defiance of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's executive order mandating salons, barbershops and other businesses stay closed. He says he has already given nearly 100 haircuts, and fields more calls than that each day.

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In some circles, wearing a mask is now seen as a liberal political statement while going maskless is a sign of “don’t tread on me” defiance.

In Texas, the debate over a salon owner jailed for reopening her shop early became so intense that Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick paid her $7,000 fine and offered to serve the rest of her sentence under house arrest.

At a time when a shared reliance on facts and science is absolutely critical, partisan polarization is splintering a national sense of resolve over how best to combat the virus. 

Two-thirds of Americans don’t think the official U.S. death toll – 76,600 as of Friday – is accurate, according to the latest Axios-Ipsos poll. But among Democrats, 63% say it’s an undercount, while a plurality of Republicans (40%) believes the figure is inflated. Some Republicans suspect the number is being overstated to hurt President Trump. 

“We can’t even bring ourselves to accept the same set of facts, and feel compelled to question the motivations of our leaders and of each other,” says Mo Elleithee, director of the Georgetown Institute of Politics and a former Democratic strategist. 

Mask or no mask? Reopen businesses or keep them closed? Trust Dr. Anthony Fauci’s expertise – or not so much? 

On question after question, the debates have grown heated. Even amid a pandemic, when a sense of common purpose and shared values are essential, the nation’s red-blue divide seems as sharp as ever. In some circles, wearing a mask is now seen as a liberal political statement while going maskless is a sign of “don’t tread on me” defiance.

In Texas, the debate over a salon owner jailed for reopening her shop early became so intense that Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick paid her $7,000 fine and offered to serve the rest of her sentence under house arrest.

Even the widely admired Dr. Fauci, the nation’s top epidemiologist, has not escaped the partisan buzzsaw. True, he enjoys strong support in both parties, but there’s still a 17-point partisan gap: 88% Democratic approval versus 71% among Republicans, according to Gallup. 

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

Polarization, building for decades, was already intense before COVID-19. Now it’s on steroids – especially with a presidential election just six months away. And at a time when a shared reliance on facts and science is absolutely critical, partisanship and a deficit of trust have made fighting the virus all the more challenging. 

“For 40 years, there’s been a growing anti-intellectualism or perhaps populist resentment toward the traditional sources of informational authority – the press, academia, the scientific community, nonpartisan government agencies,” says David Barker, director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University in Washington. “We’ve gotten to the point, egged on by the president for four years, where maybe one-third of the country just does not trust a single word they hear from any of the traditional sources.” 

It must be acknowledged that the “traditional sources” sometimes do get it wrong. The mainstream media make mistakes. In 2003, the United States went to war in Iraq based on faulty intelligence over weapons of mass destruction. 

But each side now has its own sources of information and its own perspective in interpreting that information – coupled with a healthy dose of distrust of the other side. 

On COVID-19, two-thirds of Americans don’t think the official U.S. death toll – 76,600 as of Friday – is accurate, and faith in that figure is declining, according to the latest Axios-Ipsos poll. But partisans disagree on how it’s wrong: Among Democrats, 63% say it’s an undercount, given that some people are dying with COVID-19-like symptoms without being tested. Among Republicans, on the other hand, a plurality (40%) says the figure is inflated. Some Republicans suspect the number is being overstated to hurt President Donald Trump. 

“It just shows how sadly tribal we have become in our politics that we can’t even bring ourselves to accept the same set of facts, and feel compelled to question the motivations of our leaders and of each other,” says Mo Elleithee, director of the Georgetown Institute of Politics and Public Service and a former Democratic strategist. 

Newt Gingrich sees a partisan hostility born of “deep differences in values, worldviews, goals, and definitions of reality,” the former Republican House speaker writes in an email. “The gap is now so large that each group sees its opponents as ‘the other.’”

“When the governor of Minnesota keeps open Planned Parenthood but closes churches, he is communicating a value set utterly alien to religiously committed people,” Speaker Gingrich continues. 

The rural-urban geographic divide is also shaping perceptions of the crisis, with Democratic-leaning regions hit harder by the virus than Republican-leaning areas. People who live in cities and suburbs, where population density and demographics have so far produced the highest case loads, are literally experiencing the pandemic differently from those in rural areas. 

That could soon shift: Coronavirus cases are now rising at a faster rate in rural America than in metropolitan areas, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. The spread to rural, redder areas brings its own challenges, given their older populations, more preexisting health conditions, and fewer hospitals. Rural areas also face economic problems even when the national economy is strong. 

Friday’s jobs report – 14.7% of Americans unemployed in April, the highest level since the Great Depression – brought home the shocking economic impact of the virus. 

Yet on the question of reopening businesses, partisan differences are again sharp, and vary depending on the type of business. Some 61% of Republicans support opening golf courses, while only 30% of Democrats agree, according to the latest Washington Post-University of Maryland poll. 

With barber shops and hair salons, 48% of Republicans support reopening versus 15% of Democrats. Regarding movie theaters, the survey reports 33% of Republicans support reopening versus 8% of Democrats. 

Then there’s the mask question, which has become a flashpoint for partisan sniping. A majority in both parties say they wear a mask when leaving home, but Democrats are more likely to wear one by a margin of 17 percentage points – 76% to 59%. 

When Vice President Mike Pence didn’t wear a mask on a visit last week to Minnesota’s Mayo Clinic, where mask usage is required, liberal outrage ensued. He said he didn’t feel the need to wear one, given he is regularly tested for COVID-19, but later he said he should have. 

President Trump has yet to wear a mask in public. On April 3, when the Centers for Disease Control changed its guidance and recommended that Americans wear masks when outside the home, the president said he preferred not to. 

His actions may have swayed some Americans’ actions. A March academic study shows that partisan affiliation – more than age, income, or education level – was a “huge divider” in people’s reported health behaviors, such as hand-washing and canceled trips, says Shana Kushner Gadarian, political scientist at Syracuse University and co-author of the study. 

“People are taking their cues from political leadership and from doctors, and to the extent that those are different, people will turn to their more trusted sources,” Professor Gadarian says. 

In other words, mixed messages – say, on mask-wearing – may be producing a mix of behaviors. 

Take Danielle Zaccagnino, a 30-something teacher in suburban Alexandria, Virginia, who says she leans liberal and has largely stayed inside since the virus outbreak started. When she does go out, she wears an N95 mask. She avoids the news, and keeps up with events via friends and social media.

“The assumption is that liberals are more panicked and conservatives are not,” Ms. Zaccagnino says. But “because I limit my exposure to the conversation, I think that’s the main factor in how not panicked I am.” 

In contrast, Stephen Hunt, a 50-something project manager in information technology, says he goes out in public all the time and doesn’t wear a mask or gloves. He watches Fox News, and thinks the official death toll from COVID-19 is “probably too high.” 

Mr. Hunt, who lives in exurban King George County, Virginia, says he identifies as “conservative” more than “Republican,” because the party has embraced big government. Most important, he says, he wants the freedom to make choices for himself and be treated by the government as an individual.

The virus, he says, “hasn’t changed the way we [he and his wife] go about our normal day-to-day business at all, other than social distancing, which we abide by of course.” 

Yet beneath these apparent divisions, certain bedrock American values are still shining through. 

“There’s plenty of evidence that on the ground, at the community level, we actually have become less polarized and have forged strong communities,” says Mr. Elleithee, former communications director at the Democratic National Committee. 

He cites stories of people delivering groceries to elderly neighbors and drives to help keep local businesses afloat.

In late March, the Next Door app added a feature that allows neighbors to help neighbors during the pandemic. Utility companies have features that allow people to round up their bill to help those who are struggling financially. Partisan affiliation doesn’t come up. 

“It’s happening all over the country, even in polarized communities and swing districts,” Mr. Elleithee says. 

Staff writer Noah Robertson contributed to this report.

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

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