Why Republicans Are Less Likely to View the Coronavirus as a Serious Threat
Survey results demonstrate that the two parties view the pandemic differently.
Posted Mar 24, 2020
Recent survey data show that Republicans are significantly less likely than Democrats to view the coronavirus as a serious threat. This is surprising because Republicans are generally focused on fear and more concerned about contamination.
Conservatives generally see the world as a threatening place that requires constant vigilance and defensive action directed towards potential threats, whether they are foreign armies or pathogens. People with a conservative political orientation are not only more sensitive to threats from foreigners but also perceive disease as being a greater threat (1).
So the phenomenon of Republicans playing down the Covid-19 threat is a bit like a leopard appearing without its spots. Survey results showed that 68 percent of democrats fear infection of a family member versus 40 percent of Republicans. Twice as many Democrats as Republicans fear that the worse is yet to come (80 percent versus 40 percent).
The Leopard Without Its Spots
Political conservatives fear disease as more of a threat and are more fearful of dirt and contamination in a variety of contexts from using public restrooms to eating unfamiliar foods (1). They have greater disgust sensitivity. This phenomenon is interestingly demonstrated by the fact that conservatives are four times more likely to have a mudroom in their homes compared to liberals (2).
Conservatives manifest a high degree of submission to authority figures such as the head of state. They are deferential towards authoritarian leaders who tell them what they want to hear (according to research on Right Wing Authoritarianism, a personality trait very correlated with political conservatism (1). Perhaps the tendency to credit the views of authority figures in this instance is stronger than fear of infection.
The fact that this is a new threat may also be significant because conservatives are more closed to new experiences as they adhere to long-established social conventions (1).
The coronavirus may be interpreted differently by Republicans and Democrats because they belong to different demographic groups. Republicans tend to be rural, older, groups that may be less receptive to information on novel threats. The coronavirus is also more likely to strike in cities because they are travel hubs and reservoirs of infection.
But it is hard to avoid two probable explanations. The first is that liberals and conservatives are exposed to differing information pools. This is often because their social media news feeds, particularly those on popular sites such as Facebook, or Twitter, feed them with the sort of news that they enjoy reading.
Silos and Propaganda
Media analysts have long recognized that the atrophy of conventional media, such as local and national newspapers, means that conservatives and liberals inhabit different worlds so far as their exposure to political news is concerned. Indeed, the Internet age offers an ideal environment for propaganda whether from the Chinese Communist Party or right-wing authoritarians.
The current administration has a well-oiled media operation where TV channels like Fox and websites like Breitbart News offer an exclusively conservative slant on the news. This means that Presidential tweets, however weird, or wacky, are repeated and amplified until they become not only true, but the truth.
It is well known that the President underestimated the Covid-19 threat from the beginning, claiming that it was less of a threat than common seasonal flu. He suggested that it would be over in a few weeks.
The survey findings indicate that his Republican audience went along with him both in minimizing the threat to family members and shortening the expected period of threat.
Now that the President declared a state of emergency in order to free up funding to fight the virus, and Congress and the Federal Reserve are taking drastic and unprecedented steps to shore up the economy, the conservative public may do a rapid about-face along with the right-wing media outlets that provide them with information.
If this happens, one would expect Republicans to become as worried about this grave health threat as Democrats are – and probably more so.
1 Garcia, H. A. (2019). Sex, Power, and partisanship:How evolutionary science makes sense of our political divide. Amhderst, NY: Prometheus.
2 Garchick, L. (2000, November 5). Remodelers split along party lines. San Francisco Chronicle.