Why Are Conservatives Less Worried About Coronavirus?

Political polarization changes everything.

Posted Mar 26, 2020

Previous research suggests that political conservatives should be more worried about the COVID-19 pandemic than political liberals. First, politically conservative individuals are more likely to feel disgusted by situations involving potentially threatening pathogens. Second, countries more exposed to parasite stress are more conservative, and they have more authoritarian voters and governments, on average.

It is therefore puzzling that political conservatives in the United States are significantly less worried about the COVID-19 pandemic than liberals. A Pew survey, reported on March 18, found that 59% of Democrats considered the virus a major threat to the health of the United States, but only 33% of Republicans agreed.

So why are conservatives less worried about COVID-19, if we know that conservatives are generally more sensitive to pathogen threats?

The answer is hiding in the phenomenon of political polarization, particularly partisan or political-party-based polarization. Partisan polarization has become so powerful in American politics that long-standing psychological and behavioral patterns — such as the correlation between conservatism and sensitivity to pathogen threat — are being turned on their heads.

The reason partisan polarization can effectively reverse otherwise robust correlations is that partisan polarization changes empirical reality itself — at least in the eyes of individuals perceiving it. For instance, one might think that partisan polarization makes Republican voters give extra credit to Republican presidents presiding over economic growth, while making Democratic voters give extra credit to Democratic presidents presiding over economic growth. But this would understate the case. Republican voters under Republican presidents are more likely than Democratic voters to perceive the economy as growing. We observe the same phenomenon among Democratic voters under Democratic presidents. In short, basic perceptions of economic reality are endogenous to partisanship.

The typically conservative pathogen-sensitivity of Republican voters is not being cued because “COVID-19” is not perceived as a pathogen threat at all. It’s just another blip of liberal noise circulated to discredit a Republican President.

If liberals and Democratic voters perceive COVID-19 as a major threat (in line with expert consensus at the moment), it is not because they are less subject to partisan bias. It is just because there happens to be a Republican President at the moment. If you doubt this, consider that the Ebola outbreak of 2013-14 produced a pattern of partisan pathogen-sensitivity opposite to the one we’re observing now.

At the beginning of October 2014, before the Ebola issue became salient in American politics, there was no statistically distinguishable difference between the concern reported by Republicans and Democrats. By the middle of October 2014, the percentage of worried Republicans increased 16 points, from 33% to 49%. As shown by Matthew Nisbet, the percentage of worried Democrats increased only 6 points, from 30% to 36%.

If even global pandemics are endogenous to partisanship, it is hard to imagine any event or phenomenon that will ever again be capable of calibrating America's ideologically polarized factions onto one shared reality. For global pandemics are arguably one of the most exogenous types of shock imaginable, precisely the type of empirical event one would expect to attune subjective perceptions. We are perhaps only beginning to appreciate the power of political polarization to upend social reality as we know it.


Badger, Emily, and Kevin Quealy. “Red vs. Blue on Coronavirus Concern: The Gap Is Still Big but Closing.” The New York Times, March 21, 2020, sec. The Upshot. https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/03/21/upshot/coronavirus-public-opinion.html.

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