The Theory That Explains the Politicization of Coronavirus

Counterprotesters in North Carolina. Photo: Peter Zay/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

The national conversation about the coronavirus, you may have noticed, has rapidly become politicized. While there are some signs that the gap in how Democrats and Republicans understand the nature of this pandemic is slowly closing, that gap is still, by many measures, rather shocking: For example, the most recent polling from Civiqs shows that on the question of whether a given respondent is “extremely concerned” about the coronavirus, the divide between Democrats and Republicans, respectively, is 60 percent to 12 percent. By that same token, just 2 percent of Democrats are “not concerned at all,” while 33 percent of Republicans fit in that bucket.

Most of the discourse on coronavirus politicization focuses, for understandable reasons, on just how disheartening this is, and what it tells us about the present state of American politics: If Republicans and Democrats can’t even agree on as factual a question as whether a pandemic poses a major treat to the nation’s well-being, what can they agree on? But there’s a more practical point here worth understanding, one which may not have filtered down to most people: the specific, deeply deleterious ways in which people’s behavior and beliefs are affected by polarization.

Here one of the most useful frameworks is a theory — cultural cognition, which “refers to the tendency of individuals to conform their beliefs about disputed matters of fact (e.g., whether humans are causing global warming; whether the death penalty deters murder; whether gun control makes society more safe or less) to values that define their cultural identities.”

Climate change is indeed a paradigmatic example: There, “views toward the topic have become so entwined with people’s political identification that any information that sounds like it says that the effects of climate change are becoming more present and/or severe directly threatens political conservatives’ core beliefs,” explained Asheley R. Landrum, a psychologist at Texas Tech University, in an email. “Whereas, any information that sounds like it says that the effects of climate change are less obvious or less severe directly threatens political liberals’ core beliefs. When our beliefs are threatened, we find ways to minimize or dismiss that information. For example, we can question the source of that information (e.g., citing ‘fake news’).”

The distinction between neutral and politically charged facts is crucial here. Some facts are sterile — they don’t really have any connection to our sense of self. If a geologist says the estimate of a particular rock formation’s age needs to be revised from 25 million years to 30 million years, this is unlikely to collide with anyone’s political views (well, maybe with the exception of Young Earth creationists). People will shrug and accept an expert’s opinion, in most cases like this, because who really cares other than geologists? Debunking is more likely to fail in situations where facts have become politically charged, and cultural cognition offers an elegant explanation for why: Asking someone to change their mind about these subjects also entails a threat to their social and political identity. Their identity serves as something of an anchor, preventing their opinion from drifting too far from where it presently sits.

For this reason, experts familiar with cultural cognition get very concerned about the prospect of crucial issues becoming politicized over time. Back in 2015, for example, I wrote about how anti-vaccination beliefs aren’t, despite common claims to the contrary, politicized: Left-of-center and right-of-center communities appear equally susceptible. For that article I interviewed Dan Kahan, a Yale University researcher of the law and psychology and something of a founding father of cultural cognition. He cautioned against anti-anti-vaccination messaging that seemed to pin the blame on some specific group or another. “If you create the association between vaccines and identities in these groups, then you will make vaccination and vaccines [into this] very political conflict that doesn’t exist now,” said Kahan.

Clearly, we haven’t been so lucky with the coronavirus: It’s become rather politicized, when it comes to both beliefs about the virus and the behaviors people adopt — or fail to adopt — in response. “As the coronavirus now emerges as another front in the culture war, social distancing has come to be viewed in some quarters as a political act — a way to signal which side you’re on,” wrote McKay Coppins in The Atlantic.

That said, there might be some hope, because there’s reason to believe things could drift back in the other direction as things continued to unfold. As Landrum pointed out, for example, there’s a fair amount of political segregation in the United States, with liberals much more likely to live in urban areas and conservatives in exurban or rural ones. So when it comes to personal, anecdotal evidence — the sort of evidence our flawed brains tend to favor over evidence of a more abstract, statistical sort — the average liberal is much more likely to be inundated with scary and tragic stories than the average conservative. Which suggests that as the virus spreads to rural areas, it might have the effect of depoliticizing things a bit (not that anyone would trade that outcome for the tragedies which will also ensue).

Landrum also pointed out that the media situation is a bit complicated at the moment: “Political conservatives are getting mixed messages about the causes, consequences, and severity of COVID-19 from the White House briefings, Fox News, and OAN.” Yes, there’s Trump with his dishonest accounts of his own predictions and his bizarre fixations on what are likely sham “treatments.” But there’s also Anthony Fauci, standing behind the White House seal, meaning conservatives might heed his warnings because he will be seen as speaking from a trustworthy perch.

Kathleen Hall Jamieson, the Elizabeth Ware Packard Professor of Communication at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication, made a similar point: Sean Hannity has helped spread disinformation, but he also had Fauci on as a guest. “In that environment, Hannity has legitimized the authority of Fauci” in the eyes of conservatives, she said. “That’s potentially the way you depolarize that information.” For that reason, she argued, “Public-health professionals need to be putting their public-service information into all those venues that are problematic.”

Another reason not to abandon hope is that people can be fairly flexible with their rationalizations. There are many ways of resolving the cognitive dissonance spurred by “this figure I trust is saying something I don’t think is true” without taking the identity-threatening step of abandoning one’s trust in that figure. Jamieson suggested that, as things continued to unfold, Trump fans might rationalize their decision to disagree with the president by saying to themselves something like, Well, I like the guy, but he’s not an expert on this, so I’m going with Fauci. (Of course, when it comes to Trump’s claims on issues they agree with him on, like immigration, his lack of expertise never matters — but that’s just human nature.)

For journalists and public-health researchers writing about this particular facet of the coronavirus pandemic, it is important to understand that these dynamics are universal to the human species, and to resist the impulse to further politicize things. That doesn’t mean things aren’t political — of course having the most powerful man on the planet spouting nonsense to millions of people is the very definition of a political crisis — but it means that if the goal is getting people to follow the most appropriate, evidence-based cues when trying to make sense of things, presenting this as yet another left-right battlefield will have the opposite effect.

The Theory That Explains the Politicization of COVID-19