One question for Sara Constantino, a psychologist and public policy researcher at Northeastern University, where she focuses on understanding the interplay between individual, institutional, and ecological factors on perceptions, policy preferences, and resilience to extreme events or shocks.

Photo courtesy of Sara Constantino

Is COVID-19 becoming less polarizing?

Yes, I would say my impression is it’s less of a polarizing issue. This might be because more people have experienced it, or because it’s been around for a while and people are less worried, and have habituated. Or it could be because we don’t have Trump in office. We do see for COVID-19 that worry has decreased over the course of our sampling, which now goes back about two years, across partisan lines.

In our new study, we found that as people have higher levels of negative experience with COVID—what we call “self-reported hardship,” which can include impacts on job, personal health, and the health of friends and family—there’s a narrowing of the partisan gap around various outcome measures. Republicans and Democrats look very similar at high levels of negative experience. They’re both concerned about COVID. They support mitigative policies. And they are willing to take personal actions, like wearing masks.

Of course, our findings aren’t causal; they’re correlational. But they’re suggestive: The people who report negative experiences with COVID are much more concerned about COVID. They’re much more supportive of policies to mitigate COVID. They’re much more willing to take personal action. And that’s true across the political spectrum. At low levels of experience, Democrats and Republicans look very different. Democrats are still concerned, still willing to support mitigative policies, still willing to take personal actions, whereas Republicans are much less willing. And so we find a stronger increase in concern and support for policies among Republicans as experience with COVID grows.

When we look over time, though—that is, at the respondents who were with us through multiple waves of the survey—at how changes in reported negative experience relate to worry, policy support, and behaviors, the results are mixed. Importantly, we don’t find that the effect of change in experience over time is stronger for Republicans than Democrats. So this weakens the causal interpretation because we do not find a consistent significant effect of change in experience over time on our various outcome measures.

The other possible story is that there are certain types of Republicans who have more experience with COVID and are also more worried about COVID or supportive of mitigative policies, but that this support is not because of having experienced COVID. For example, there might be Republicans who live in urban areas, and so are more likely to be exposed but also interact more with Democrats. They might be Republicans who are more vulnerable to COVID. It could be older or younger Republicans, or Republicans who are in essential-work positions, who are more concerned about COVID and are more likely to have greater experience with COVID.

Still, our findings are suggestive that experience may play a role in shaping behaviors and policy support even on polarizing issues. And we are continuing to collect data. We haven’t looked across the six waves yet, but we’ll be able to say more about how concern looks now, and how partisanship on COVID looks like two years in. We have also added more questions about the role of government. Like, “How much authority should the government have during moments of crisis, like a pandemic, or extreme weather?” That’ll be exciting.

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