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Partisan Pandemic? How Politics Affects COVID Responses

Understanding partisanship helps unearth insights into public response to COVID.

Key points

  • Political partisanship and affective polarization are detrimental to social cohesion in times of crisis.
  • There exist partisan differences in response to the COVID-19 pandemic in countries like the U.S. and India.
  • In times of uncertainty, individuals are more likely to believe messages from their in-group, which leads to biased information processing.
  • The Social Identity and Self-Categorization Theory provides a basis for understanding the in-group and out-group biases held by partisans.

In his book, A History of Western Philosophy, Bertrand Russell writes, “Social cohesion is a necessity, and mankind has never yet succeeded in enforcing cohesion by merely rational arguments.” We witness this unfold before our eyes with the world in the perilous grips of a virus, in need of its people to unite to curb the spread of the virus and put an end to this unforgiving and, what seems like an endless pandemic.

 Ehimetalor Akhere Unuabona/Unsplash
Anti-vaccination protests were seen across countries opposing the launch/use of the COVID-19 vaccines
Source: Ehimetalor Akhere Unuabona/Unsplash

Social cohesion is required to manage a public health crisis like this one, but on one hand, you have the relentless anti-vaxers and on the other, you have protesters rallying against the wearing of face masks. Compliance with preventive health measures and response to the COVID-19 pandemic have political undercurrents that social and political scientists are now focusing on.

Partisan polarization is on the rise across many countries, including non-western societies, especially India. Given its multi-party system, the pluralistic nature of the country’s society has fostered the growth of various social and political groups. A recently published review explains how achieving social solidarity becomes even more challenging in highly diverse societies much like India’s, where intergroup social conflicts are common and where affective polarization is exploited at the hands of ascendent majoritarian politics. Affective polarization refers to the tendency for partisans to distrust and dislike members belonging or affiliated to another party. Research has demonstrated that the affective dimension of political polarization lends greater significance to sentiments attached to the in-group (the group the individual ascribes to) and one’s identity in relation to the ingroup, rather than actual facts and that party cues exert a powerful influence over nonpolitical judgments and behaviors. Putting this in the context of the current COVID-19 scenario, response to the pandemic could possibly be a profoundly partisan issue.

Social identity and self-categorization theory provide a strong foundation to understand partisanship and one’s political involvement. Social psychologist Henri Tajfel described "social identity" as an individual’s subjective sense of affiliation and belonging to a group, which the individual internalizes to varying degrees. This feeling of “oneness” leads to ingroup bias and the desire to positively distinguish one’s own group from others. The self-categorization theory is an extension of the social identity theory, which speaks about the cognitive process that underpins this ingroup bias. It includes the concept of depersonalization, the process by which an individual no longer sees themself as an independent and unique entity but a representation of the ingroup. Due to this rather strong affiliation to one’s group, it is likely that individuals are largely influenced by messages coming from one’s in-group than an out-group and this influence is likely to increase twofold in times of uncertainty―which would explain the biased processing of information by partisans in relation to COVID-19.

Tiffany Tertipes/Unsplash
Difference in responses to the COVID-19 pandemic were seen among the Democrats and Republicans
Source: Tiffany Tertipes/Unsplash

A recent study published in the International Journal of Cross-Cultural Management examined the public’s response to the pandemic in the U.S. and India through a cultural and social identity lens. The stark differences in the cognitive appraisals of the pandemic were seen amongst Republicans and Democrats in the U.S. and their subsequent behavior and compliance towards preventive health measures. The authors note the unprecedented nature of the current scenario could have induced a stronger in-group identification in the Democrats and Republicans and this potentially led to the distortions in processing information about the virus

The scene is slightly different in the Indian political arena. The underlying divide between Hindus and Muslims dominates Indian politics today. There has been a long‐standing conflict among the two communities, which has subsequently shaped the ingroup and outgroup feelings of the members of these two communities. It is likely that one’s religious identity and partisanship influence each other and this in-group/out-group divide could serve as a breeding ground for negative feelings towards the government and its policies that would then affect one’s compliance with these policies. The affective polarization existing among the citizens of India that is based on one’s membership in a religious community is also responsible for forming perceptions about who is to blame for the initial spread of COVID‐19 in the country.

Michael Marais/Unsplash
Social solidarity is required to curb the spread of the virus
Source: Michael Marais/Unsplash

In a large, densely populated, and diverse country like India, affective political polarization can exacerbate problems in times where social solidarity is needed. Partisan loyalties could be detrimental when they stand as a barrier towards more rational discussions surrounding serious matters regarding healthcare. Judgments pertaining to compliance towards preventive health measures in testing times, such as the one the world is currently in, should be made with references to sound scientific facts. However, the increasing role of partisanship and affective polarization in determining public response to the COVID-19 pandemic will continue to present a challenge for public health officials and the efforts to put an end to the disease.

This post was written by Sarah Rezaei. She works as a lecturer and a Junior Research Assistant at Monk Prayogshala. Her research interests lie in the area of Personality, Social, and Cognitive Psychology and Neuroaesthetics.