Did COVID-19 Bring Americans Together?

By Matthew Gentzkow

Posted on October 6, 2021


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The scientific, economic, and social challenges of responding to the coronavirus pandemic have been compounded in the US by political divisions. Studies from the early days of the pandemic show that partisan divisions were among the most significant drivers of health behaviors, concern about the virus, support for specific policies, attributions of responsibility, and even beliefs about basic facts. This echoes similar divisions among politicians and the media. It seems possible that the pandemic has been yet another force pushing toward greater polarization.

 

This is not the only possible narrative, however. A different possibility is that the health crisis might have pulled Americans together (at least temporarily) — due to a “rally around the flag” effect as is often seen in times of war or natural disaster, or perhaps simply by giving Americans something to focus on other than politics.

 

A Plague on All Our Houses

 

In a recent paper (1), we turn to new data sources to see how polarization evolved during the pandemic. We focus on affective polarization — the extent to which partisans feel more negatively toward the opposing political party than toward their own (2).

 

Affective polarization in the US has been steadily increasing in recent decades (see Figure 1), and this has generated widespread concern about its impact on democratic institutions and representation, legislative gridlock, and partisan violence. This trend has been a source of alarm to both policymakers and academics, and one recent paper describes the study of its causes and consequences as “one of the most influential literatures in contemporary American politics scholarship” (3).

Figure 1, titled "USA the great divide", shows the long-term trend in polarization in partisan affect.

Figure 1: USA the great divide

 

We find no evidence that affective polarization rose during the health crisis. Our main measure suggests that affective polarization in fact fell significantly with the onset of the pandemic. Three of five other data sources display a similar downward trend, with the other two showing neither a decline nor an increase. A survey experiment adds further evidence, showing that priming respondents to think about the pandemic significantly reduces affective polarization. Taken together, our results suggest a cautiously optimistic conclusion that the coronavirus may have brought partisans together in the face of a common threat.

 

“Our main measure suggests affective polarization fell significantly with the onset of the pandemic. An additional survey experiment indicates that thinking about the pandemic reduces polarization.”

 

Party Politics

 

Measures of affective polarization vary in the type of attitudes elicited (e.g., feelings, trust, or behaviors) and the subject of those attitudes (e.g., voters, parties, or candidates). To avoid relying on a single measure or data source, we report trends across six different measures and data source combinations.

 

Figure 2 reports trends in affective polarization towards partisans or parties. Panel A uses our preferred large-scale survey data to show that, from July 2019 until the start of the pandemic in the US, the trend of affective polarization was relatively flat. After the first publicized coronavirus-related death in the US, however, affective polarization exhibits a significant decline before ticking back upward following the death of George Floyd.

 

Using questions about feelings towards partisan members of Congress, Panel B shows a smaller decrease in affective polarization during the onset of the pandemic. Using a separate panel of respondents from Druckman et al. (2020), Panel C shows little change in affective polarization between July 2019 and April 2020.

 
Figure 2, titled "Recent trends in affective polarization", shows the extent to which members of each party feel more negative toward the opposite party than their own.

Figure 2: Recent trends in affective polarization

 

The Trump Effect

 

Figure 3 turns from feelings toward parties to feelings toward Donald Trump, focusing on the difference between his favorability as reported by Democrats and Republicans.

 

Panel A reports a slight upward trend in this difference in feelings prior to the onset of the pandemic, but there is a significant subsequent decline. Panel B reports a similar decline in partisan differences in presidential approval ratings. Panel C uses a separate data source to show that the Trump approval gap between Republicans and Democrats is relatively constant in December 2018 and December 2019, but significantly smaller in April 2020, before returning close to pre-pandemic levels in August - November 2020.

 
Figure 3, titled "Recent trends in partisan feelings toward Trump", shows the difference between Democrats and Republicans in their feelings about Donald Trump.

Figure 3: Recent trends in partisan feelings toward Trump

 

Pandemic Priming

 

To supplement these results, we also conduct an experimental analysis to see if priming people to think about coronavirus leads people to express more or less polarized attitudes. This priming strategy follows previous work by our coauthor Jamie Druckman, among others.

 

“Our results show that a crisis may at once decrease affective polarization while simultaneously exacerbating its consequences, such as partisan divisions in behavioral responses.”

 

The experiment has three conditions. First, in the coronavirus treatment, respondents are asked to read two news article excerpts that cover the initial phases of the pandemic and to reflect on their own experiences and faith in the United States’ ability to respond.

 

Second, in the placebo treatment, subjects are asked to perform an analogous exercise where they reflect on news articles unrelated to coronavirus — specifically, articles about Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s separation from the UK royal family (which occurred just before the onset of the pandemic). Finally, in the control group, subjects are not asked to perform any exercise.

 

We then ask subjects standard questions about their feelings toward political parties and groups. The experimental results show that, relative to the control group, the coronavirus group displays significantly lower affective polarization. This is not true for the placebo group. The effect mainly reflects less negative sentiment toward the opposing party.

 

A Double-Edged Sword

 

Overall, combined with existing evidence on the polarized response to the pandemic, our results show that a crisis may at once decrease affective polarization while simultaneously exacerbating its consequences (for example, partisan divisions in behavioral responses to the pandemic).

 

Group attitudinal changes and related behavioral changes need not align. Scholars and practitioners who examine interventions to mitigate polarization may need to separately distinguish the size of attitudinal divisions from their consequences.

 

Key Takeaways

 
  • We find no evidence that affective polarization rose during the pandemic. Four of six data sources suggest it declined; the other two suggest neither a decline nor an increase.
     
  • Our survey experiment shows that priming respondents to think about the pandemic significantly reduces affective polarization.
     
  • Looking at this evidence together, we conclude that the pandemic is unlikely to have increased affective polarization and may well have decreased it.
     

References:

 

(1) Levi Boxell, Jacob Conway, James N. Druckman and Matthew Gentzkow, 2021, “Affective polarization did not increase during the coronavirus pandemic”. Quarterly Journal of Political Science (forthcoming). This article for TNIT News draws on material from the authors’ Stanford University working paper.

 

(2) Shanto Iyengar, Gaurav Sood, and Yphtach Lelkes, 2012, “Affect, not ideology: A social identity perspective on polarization”. Public Opinion Quarterly, 76(3): 405-431.

 

(3) David E. Broockman, Joshua L. Kalla and Sean J. Westwood, 2020, “Does affective polarization undermine democratic norms or accountability? Maybe not.” UC Berkeley working paper.

 

Matthew Gentzkow is the Landau Professor of Technology and the Economy at Stanford University. He studies applied microeconomics with a focus on media industries. He received the 2014 John Bates Clark Medal, given by the American Economic Association to the American economist under the age of 40 who has made the most significant contribution to economic thought and knowledge. Other awards include the 2016 Calvó-Armengol International Prize, the Alfred P. Sloan Research Fellowship, grants from the National Science Foundation, National Institutes for Health, Sloan Foundation, and a Faculty Excellence Award for teaching. He is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the Econometric Society, a senior fellow at the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research, and a former co-editor of American Economic Journal: Applied Economics. He earned his PhD from Harvard in 2004.

 

The preceding is republished on TAP with permission by its author, Professor Matthew Gentzkow, and by the Toulouse Network for Information Technology (TNIT). “Did COVID-19 Bring Americans Together?” was originally published in TNIT’s September 2021 newsletter.

 

Note: a previous version of this article was published on TAP in January 2021 as “Affective Polarization During the Coronavirus Pandemic”.


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