To put it mildly, many Americans are worried about the coronavirus pandemic. In recent polling, 60 percent of people worry that they or someone in their family will be exposed, while 70 percent of Americans see the pandemic as a major threat to the U.S. economy.
How will these anxieties affect U.S. politics? In our book “Anxious Politics: Democratic Citizenship in a Threatening World,” we examined how political anxiety affects learning, trust and policy support in various situations, including public health crises. Here’s what we found.
People who are anxious about health usually put their trust in experts
Our research studied two public health crises: H1N1 and smallpox in the United States. We wanted to find out whether, when confronted with medical crises, Americans trust organizations or individuals with relevant expertise, such as the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), or those without such expertise, such as the president or non-health agencies such as the Internal Revenue Service.
In 2011, we worked together with YouGov to run an experiment with a representative sample of 600 Americans. Respondents were randomly assigned to read a news article that was either a (fictional) smallpox outbreak that occurred 25 years ago in Cleveland or an ongoing (fictional) smallpox outbreak in Cleveland. Reading about a current smallpox threat significantly increased respondents’ feelings of anxiety compared to reading about a past outbreak.
In 2010, to study anxiety about H1N1, we ran a lab experiment at the University of Texas with 156 students. To induce anxiety about H1N1, we asked half of respondents to write about what made them worried about H1N1, which raised their anxiety, and the other half to write about their thoughts about H1N1. We then asked all of them to rate how confident they were in the federal government and then-president Barack Obama to handle the threat, using a three-point scale from “not at all confident” to “very confident.” Anxiety over the H1N1 flu significantly increased ratings of the federal government’s ability to handle a health crisis, but not ratings of Obama.
In both studies, we asked people to rate, on a four-point scale, how much they trusted more than a dozen individuals and groups. Some were medical experts, like the CDC or “doctors”; others were more random, like the IRS and Oprah. When people were more anxious about H1N1 and smallpox, they were more likely to trust the experts. For example, in the smallpox study, those who read about the fictional current outbreak were 9 percentage points more likely to say they highly trusted the FDA (Food and Drug Administration), 10 points more likely to trust the Health and Human Services agency, and 12 points more likely to trust the CDC. Their trust in irrelevant sources, like the IRS or the president, wasn’t affected.
Anxiety also affected what policies they supported. When anxious, people were more likely to support policies that would protect the public but also that threaten others’ liberties, like requiring quarantine or confiscating individuals’ property — as we’ve been seeing, for instance, when cruise passengers are detained on ships.
Coronavirus has become a partisan issue
However, these findings depended on a key condition that has now changed. Coronavirus is being treated as a political and partisan issue — and that changes the response.
Let’s consider two kinds of threats: partisan and nonpartisan. In a “partisan” threat — one that’s been politicized, like immigration or climate change — people look to their preferred political party to decide how much they ought to worry. A “nonpartisan” threat causes widespread anxiety regardless of what political parties say. For instance, when two planes crashed into the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, Americans were almost universally anxious, whether Democrats or Republicans.
But now, Republicans and conservative news media outlets have undercut health experts’ messages about how seriously to take the coronavirus pandemic. Even since the Trump administration has declared a national emergency and begun taking extraordinary measures, Republicans are still more likely than Democrats to believe the pandemic isn’t a real threat, with their responses depending on cues from partisan leaders.
Democratic leaders typically describe the pandemic as a crisis. In contrast, Trump’s early comments described the coronavirus in a partisan way, routinely downplaying its risks. Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) encouraged people to dine out last weekend, against CDC recommendations. Until recently, conservative media sources were telling audiences that the pandemic was a hoax or a plot by Democrats to hurt Trump; not until this week did many Fox News personalities take the threat seriously.
This probably helps explains why a recent poll found 72 percent of people who pay the most attention to national newspapers, like the New York Times or The Washington Post, are worried about the coronavirus, in contrast to 38 percent of those who pay the most attention to Fox News.
This probably has consequences
The partisan framing probably means Republicans are less likely to seek out and follow expert health advice to help “flatten the curve” of transmission. In a March 8-10 poll, Republicans were less likely than Democrats to say they taking precautions such as canceling travel or working from home.
This may change as the Trump administration continues treating the pandemic as a national emergency. A move away from partisan communication may increase public trust more broadly.
The weekend before last, rather than sending out infectious disease specialists to communicate to the public, the administration sent Vice President Pence and Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar to news programs. Our research suggests that when people are worried, they want to hear from doctors, not appointees whose job is to depict the administration’s response in the best light. Actual experts like Anthony S. Fauci are likely both to deliver greater insight and reassure the public more than overtly partisan figures.
Bethany Albertson (@AlbertsonB2) is an associate professor at University of Texas, Austin, and co-author of Anxious Politics: Democratic Citizenship in a Threatening World (Cambridge University Press, 2015).
Shana Kushner Gadarian (@sgadarian) is an associate professor at Syracuse University and co-author of Anxious Politics: Democratic Citizenship in a Threatening World (Cambridge University Press, 2015).