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Pandemic Political Psychology

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“If public health officials recommended that everyone stay at home for a month because of a serious outbreak of coronavirus in your community, how likely are you to stay home for a month?”

 

When Gallup recently put this question to Americans, 76 percent of Democrats and 47 percent of Republicans answered “Very likely.” This partisan gap coheres with an earlier YouGov survey finding (replicated by NPR/Marist😞 By a 2 to 1 margin (58 percent versus 29 percent), Republicans more than Democrats believed “the threat of coronavirus has been exaggerated.”

 

The gap extends to mask wearing, with mostly maskless shut-down protestors storming my state’s capitol. Politico headlined that wearing a mask is for smug liberals,” adding “For progressives, masks have become a sign that you take the pandemic seriously.”

 

Given how right George W. Bush was to remind us “how small our differences are in the face of this shared threat,” my social scientist curiosity is tickled:  Why the gap? What is it about being a Democrat that makes one more accepting of disruptive sheltering-in-place and mask-wearing?

 

It’s not because kindred-spirited Democrats control the White House bully pulpit and the federal agencies that recommended sheltering-in-place.

 

It’s likely not because Democrats are more submissively docile and obedient of authority.

 

It’s not because Democrats are more fearful of threatening diseases, or have had more COVID-19-related experiences.

 

And no, it’s seemingly not because Democrats are more knowledgeable about basic science. When Pew in 2019 gave Americans a science knowledge test, Republicans and Democrats were about equally likely to know, for example, that the tilt of the Earth’s axis determines the seasons, that antibiotic overuse produces antibiotic resistance, and that a control group helps determine the effectiveness of a new drug.

 

So what gives? And why, in another Gallup survey, is there an even greater political gap in concerns about climate change—with 77 percent of Democrats and only 16 percent of Republicans being “concerned believers”: people who believe that climate warming will pose a serious threat, that it’s human-caused, and that news reports about it are accurate or underestimate the problem.

 

As one who grew up Republican—my beloved business-owning father was Washington State treasurer of Nixon for President—I scratch my head. Why has the conservative party I associate with family values, low taxes, and business-supportive policies become so unsupportive of people’s right to life under a pandemic and of our conserving the environment for our grandchildren?

 

One answer, reports University of Montana psychologist Luke Conway, is that conservatives are small government folks. They resist government intervention in their lives.

 

A second answer comes from another Pew survey. Although telling me your political affiliation won’t clue me to your basic science knowledge, it will clue me to your science attitudes. Should scientists take “an active role in public policy debates?” Yes, say 73 percent of Democrats and 43 percent of Republicans. Even among those with high science knowledge, Republicans (64 percent) are much more likely than Democrats (39 percent) to “say scientists are just as likely to be biased as other people.”

 

Speaking to protestors here in Michigan’s state capitol, David Clarke, a former Milwaukee County, Wisconsin, sheriff, reportedly mocked “bending the curve,” scorned “so-called experts” who created the six-foot social distancing recommendation “out of their rear ends,” and declared the coronavirus death count phony. (Actually, excess mortality data indicate the death count underestimates the toll.)

 

Conservative commentator Yuval Levin, a former science adviser to President George W. Bush, also notes how social media and the Internet diminish respect for scientific expertise: “People tend to think that the expert is just a person. And so now information is available anywhere. And so anyone can be an expert.” If Levin is right, this is the Dunning-Krueger effect writ large (the least competent people most overestimating their knowledge).

 

Another source of science skepticism may be the reversal of Republicans being the party of college graduates (as were 54 percent in 1994 versus only 39 percent of Democrats). By 2017 those numbers had exactly flipped. More education used to predict Republican voting. Now it predicts Democratic voting. Highly educated scientists, for example, now identify as Democratic rather than Republican by a 10 to 1 margin (55 to 6 percent).

 

Does a Democratic-leaning academia—with 6 in 10 college professors identifying as “liberal”—explain why only one-third of Republicans (but two-thirds of Democrats) now perceive colleges and universities having a positive effect “on the way things are going in the country”? And, in addition to valid concerns for jobs and the economy, does Republicans’ suspicion of higher education and the role of scientists in public policy feed their push to reopen the country?

 

Despite scientists’ progressive leanings, we can credit them with listening to their data and then letting the chips fall. Yes, I know, science is not an utterly neutral, value-free enterprise. But credit science with the pursuit of truth—with giving us research findings that sometimes affirm progressive views (about climate risk, sexual orientation, and socially toxic inequality), but also sometimes affirm conservative views (about the contribution of marriage to human flourishing, the association of religiosity with health and well-being, and growth mindsets that power individual initiative).  

 

And take note of the rising voices within academia who, in the words of the Heterodox Academy movement, believe that “diverse viewpoints & open inquiry are critical to research and learning.” As psychologist Scott Lilienfeld declares in a forthcoming special issue of Archives of Scientific Psychology, the welcome mat is now out even for “unpopular ideas.”

 

If we educators can help people appreciate both the nonpartisan nature of scientific findings and academia’s openness to a free marketplace of ideas, then might we enable tomorrow’s citizens—whether Democrat or Republican—to welcome the wisdom of science?

 

(For David Myers’ other essays on psychological science and everyday life, visit TalkPsych.com.)

About the Author
David Myers has spent his entire teaching career at Hope College, Michigan, where he has been voted “outstanding professor” and has been selected by students to deliver the commencement address. His award-winning research and writings have appeared in over three dozen scientific periodicals and numerous publications for the general public. He also has authored five general audience books, including The Pursuit of Happiness and Intuition: Its Powers and Perils. David Myers has chaired his city's Human Relations Commission, helped found a thriving assistance center for families in poverty, and spoken to hundreds of college and community groups. Drawing on his experience, he also has written articles and a book (A Quiet World) about hearing loss, and he is advocating a transformation in American assistive listening technology (see www.hearingloop.org).