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On COVID-19, foreign policy elites are just as polarized as the public

On COVID-19, foreign policy elites are just as polarized as the public
© Bonnie Cash

New survey results suggest that President-elect Biden will have to work hard to cultivate bipartisan buy-in for efforts to rein in the spread of the coronavirus pandemic. This may not be an easy achievement, because the pandemic became politicized in the United States nearly as swiftly as it spread.

President Trump initially downplayed the urgency of COVID-19 and often contradicted public health experts’ warnings about the severity of the outbreak. Many other Republican leaders and conservative media outlets followed his lead. For example, after contracting the virus in October, Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) appeared on a conservative talk radio show and talked about “a level of unjustified hysteria” about the virus. On the other hand, the Democratic Party website states that “President Trump’s abject failure to respond forcefully and capably to the COVID-19 pandemic – his failure to lead – makes him responsible for the deaths of thousands of Americans.” Such statements and messaging have likely contributed to partisan differences in the attitudes of the American public (see here, here and here). But until now, we have not seen survey evidence that examines whether policy elites themselves are sensitive to partisan polarization on this topic.

To look into this question, we examined the effect of partisan signals around the pandemic among a sample of one elite group, foreign policy professionals (or foreign policy opinion leaders), the class of experts in the United States who move in and out of government positions and help drive political debate.

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It is generally assumed that because elites are better informed than the general public, their views are less susceptible to outside influence, including partisan posturing. In fact, we found that elites across the political spectrum continue to share support for an active U.S. role in the world, and internationalist positions on trade, immigration and alliances such as NATO.

We certainly expected this to be the case with foreign policy professionals’ opinion on the coronavirus. With data and warnings from the World Health Organization, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and local health institutions, and U.S. infections exceeding 14 million, we expected that U.S. foreign policy opinion leaders would be highly concerned about the pandemic. And on the whole, they are. But as is so often the case in surveys these days, partisan breakdowns reveal a divergent sense of urgency about the issue, much as it does among the public.

We looked at this question in a survey of U.S. foreign policy professionals, drawing on the results from the Chicago Council on Global Affairs-University of Texas at Austin survey of more than 800 U.S. executive branch officials, congressional staff, think tank scholars, professors, journalists and interest group representatives. We compared these elite results to identical questions asked in the July 2020 annual Chicago Council on Global Affairs Survey of the American public among a representative national sample of 2,111 adults.

In our past opinion leader surveys, elites generally agreed on the top threats facing the United States, and they more often diverged from the public than they did from other elites. But this year, we found something different. When asked whether they consider a series of potential threats to the United States critical, important but not critical, or not important, overall two thirds of both the foreign policy professionals (66 percent) and the U.S. public (67 percent) consider the COVID-19 pandemic a critical threat. But the partisan divides on this question are just as strong among the foreign policy professionals as they are among the public. Majorities of those who describe themselves as Democrats in both samples (70 percent among elites, 87 percent among public) and independents (64 percent elites, 60 percent public) rate the pandemic as a critical threat. But only 30 percent of Republican elites and 48 percent of the Republican public say the pandemic is a critical threat. For Democrats in both surveys, the virus and climate change were top threats. Republican elites rate the pandemic seventh out of 14 possible threats; Republicans among the public rated the pandemic ninth among 15 items.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  Partisan differences are also apparent in evaluations of how well the federal government is handling the pandemic. Very few Democrats among the foreign policy professionals (1 percent) or the public (20 percent) think the federal government has been effective; independent professionals (8 percent) and independents among the public (34 percent) are only slightly more likely to rate the government response as effective. But half of the Republican professionals (49 percent) and a majority of the Republicans among the public (58 percent) believe that the federal government response has been effective.

In late May, President Trump announced that the United States would withdraw from the World Health Organization (WHO), accusing it of being swayed by China and having misled the world about the virus. Trump received some criticism from both sides of the aisle in Congress, including from Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), who disagreed with the president’s decision to withdraw. But Republican opinion seems to agree with Trump in his criticisms of the WHO’s pandemic response. Very few Republican elites (11 percent) and few Republicans among the public (28 percent) say the WHO response has been effective. Only four in ten independents in both survey samples think the WHO has been effective (39 percent independent elites; 40 percent independent public). For their part, six in 10 Democrats among elites (59 percent) and the public (62 percent) consider the WHO response effective.

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These results suggest that politicization of the pandemic has impacted both public and expert attitudes toward the coronavirus crisis. As issues become divided along party lines, people take in information and messages from like-minded outlets and individuals, even to the exclusion of non-partisan expert opinion. This bifurcation of information can lead to mask shaming among one community and anti-mask protests among another. While it is difficult to identify the directionality of cue-taking (meaning which group is influencing the other), the results suggest that in this case – when there is objective scientific data showing the severity of the virus – some elites may not be immune from the effects of partisan cues.

If this polarization continues after Biden’s inauguration, these differences could pose significant challenges to public and elite receptivity to acceptance of the COVID vaccine, support for the planned 100 days of nation-wide mask wearing and the United States remaining in the World Health Organization. 

Dina Smeltz is senior fellow of public opinion and foreign policy at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. Jonathan Monten is associate professor of political science and director of the International Public Policy Program at University College London. Joshua Busby is associate professor of public affairs at the University of Texas at Austin.

The authors would like to thank Joshua Kertzer and Jordan Tama for their contributions to this piece.