We need the GOP to flatten the curve
We have come to accept deep partisanship and division as a feature of American political life, but the coronavirus pandemic shows us that this status quo is a central threat to public health.
There is still time to mitigate the impact of COVID-19 in the United States. Americans have taken unprecedented steps toward social distancing and staying at home, which health experts argue is essential to slowing the spread of COVID-19 and reducing the burden on our health infrastructure. But these efforts only work if everyone participates. And this is not happening. Viruses do not discriminate by political party, but political party is shaping how Americans are responding to COVID-19.
We are political scientists who study how partisanship and emotions shape public life in times of crisis, and our research has uncovered a stunning partisan divide in public responses to COVID-19. Our nationally-representative survey of 3,000 Americans shows that Democrats are statistically more likely to have taken the pandemic outbreak seriously, exhibiting a willingness to comply with a variety of distancing and pro-health behavior. For example, ordinary Democrats are twice as likely as Republicans to report that they have increased the frequency of washing their hands. Meanwhile, ordinary Republicans are only half as likely as Democrats to be avoiding crowds.
Relative to Republicans, Democrats are also more worried about the pandemic. Democrats believe that the death toll is higher, think spending on public health responses should be increased, and report an array of concerns about the consequences of COVID-19 for their lives. Republicans, by comparison, are less worried that COVID-19 will affect their friends or families.
These partisan differences are not simply a function of where Americans live or their identities other than partisanship. In fact, partisanship is a more consistent predictor of COVID-19 health behavior and attitudes than education, news consumption, and income — or geographic factors like state of residence or urban-rural divide.
We do find some evidence that Americans — regardless of partisanship — are changing their behaviors when local outbreaks of COVID-19 are present. This shows citizens are responding to the pandemic when it reaches them, but only reactively, leaving some local communities more protected than others.
That mass public health behavior is more consistently predicted by partisanship than by anything else we measured will have profound and distressing implications for public health in the coming days and months.
As Democrats report greater compliance with social distancing practices and exhibit the kinds of anxieties that suggest they are taking COVID-19 seriously, this puts the onus on the GOP to swiftly convey messages to the public and to their supporters that the party is also taking the pandemic seriously.
The epidemiological evidence is clear that COVID-19 may arrive more slowly in some parts of America than others, but it will arrive eventually, and when it does, it will not discriminate. COVID-19 does not care about your party affiliation or voting intentions.
Some Republican governors are leading the way. Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine moved quickly to issue a statewide lockdown, while Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan only issued stay-at-home orders on March 30. DeWine is an example of how strong action can yield political rewards: an otherwise divisive political figure, he currently enjoys a 79.9 percent job approval rating. This effect also holds for Democratic governors; New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s approval skyrocketed to 87 percent.
Meanwhile, Florida has recently issued a statewide stay-at-home order, with controversial exemptions for religious assembly. And nearly a fifth of the U.S. remains open — all states with Republican governors (Arkansas, Iowa, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Utah and Wyoming). This leaves cities and counties in their jurisdictions to chart their own courses in a landscape of uncoordinated uncertainty. And, short of banning inter-state travel, recklessness can have spillover effects to neighboring communities.
But all national GOP elites must lead, not just a handful of governors and mayors.
Republicans — alongside religious leaders, media personalities, and even nonpolitical public figures like celebrities — must endorse the guidelines for social distancing and stay at home measures. And Democrats must stand with the GOP in sending these messages of support for an aggressive and communal public health response.
The current COVID-19 public health campaign must display bipartisan solidarity, expressed through a common message. COVID-19 threatens all Americans, and all Americans must participate in the response.
We recognize that the public health response to COVID-19 will have substantial economic and social costs — as do participants in our survey from both parties. We must attend to these consequences as well. But Americans’ first priority must be to slow the spread of COVID-19.
This is an urgent call for national unity in a time of deep partisan rancor during an unprecedented national emergency. Partisanship is determining how citizens respond to COVID-19, and this divided response puts every American at risk. If America’s political elite cannot come together, the costs of COVID-19 will be disproportionately felt in those places where Republicans did not act. Without GOP support everywhere, we will be unable to effectively manage the threat of COVID-19 anywhere, and that will be a national tragedy.
Shana Kushner Gadarian is associate professor of political science at Syracuse University. Follow her on Twitter @sgadarian.
Sara Wallace Goodman is associate professor of political science and interim co-director of the Center for the Study of Democracy at University of California, Irvine. Follow her on Twitter @ThatSaraGoodman.
Thomas B. Pepinsky is professor of government at Cornell University and nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. Follow him on Twitter @TomPepinsky.
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