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Marc Hetherington

Political scientist Marc Hetherington returns to the podcast to discuss his ongoing research on people’s views on the pandemic and the ways in which their political views are tied.

Hetherington is the Raymond Dawson Distinguished Bicentennial Professor of Political Science at UNC-Chapel Hill, and is an expert in polarization in American politics.



Marc Hetherington: When our social identities are so connected to our partisanship, it’s really really hard, you know, to overcome the sort of knee-jerk partisanship that is occurring in the country, employing our partisanship is so cost-free. We don’t have to be accurate about things when we’re answering public opinion polls or you know, whatever. We can just cheerlead. You know, we can be on our team’s side. But how about this? What if the costs of following your partisanship end up increasing? There’s actually something going on in the world, where following one’s partisanship is getting more costly, and that is it following your partisanship might make you sick, or might cause you to die?

Jonathan Weiler: Welcome to another episode of COVID Conversations. My name is Jonathan Weiler. I’m a teaching professor in the curriculum in global studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Matthew Andrews: My name is Matt Andrews. I am a professor in the department of history here at UNC-Chapel Hill. We are so pleased to be joined today by Marc Hetherington from the UNC Department of Political Science. Marc is the Raymond Dawson Professor of Political Science here at UNC, and Marc is an expert on polarization in American politics. His two most recent books are “Prius or Pickup? How the Answers to Four Simple Questions Explain America’s Great Divide” and “Authoritarianism and Polarization in American Politics.” And full disclosure, both of these books were co-authored by my co host, Jonathan Weiler.

JW: This is our second conversation with him. We spoke to him back in April, when he and colleagues had begun a panel survey of 2400 people to find out how they were responding to efforts to combat the coronavirus pandemic. And we heard from him today about their ongoing research, which continues to yield really fascinating findings.

MA: Jonathan, I gotta be honest, that I find these two issues of COVID and American politics — when you combine them — to be absolutely suffocating at times. When I’m reading about these things, and about the politicization of the pandemic, I just need to shut down sometimes. But I found it so, both helpful and a little bit… there’s a little bit of optimism in what in what Marc was saying today. But he so skillfully laid out the issues–

JW: Not to… the point you made a minute ago, when Marc first spoke to us in April, most Americans across the board, were pretty worried about coronavirus. And so they were quite similar, whether they were Democrat or Republican and supporting mask-wearing and other measures being taken. But what has reasserted itself in the subsequent month is just the imperviousness of polarization, this divide to even the most extraordinary new realities, including the fact that we now have 200,000 people having died of COVID in the last six months. So it’s striking, to hear that. And at the same time, I think Marc was a… I don’t want to say optimistic, because he was not optimistic. But he provided us with some interesting fodder for thinking about what might break the impasse eventually.

MA: And by far, I thought the most interesting part of our conversation was hearing what Marc is doing with this information and how he’s taking this information. And it’s really using that information to make a difference and the specific type of difference. I will mention right now, but we’ll let people hear about it in the podcast. (music) Marc, welcome back to our show.

Marc Hetherington: Thanks for having me on again.

MA: Well, last time, we had such a great conversation about the links between COVID and political polarization, we wanted to bring you back and see what has stayed the same, what has changed. So let’s jump right in and talk about this poll that you and other political scientists here at UNC, have put into the field and receive responses to it. It’s a poll about attitudes about government policies enacted in response to the COVID pandemic. Can you just start us off today by talking generally about this poll?

MC: Yeah, I think that’s a really useful place to start. So the way that you do survey research, especially in this day and age is you hire a survey firm, and you provide a questionnaire to them that you’ve, you know, put together yourself. And they provide a link to a cross section of Americans that meet different population benchmarks. So our samples, you know, are just like the population of the United States in terms of gender, and income, and race and education, and all of those different types of things. And what we’ve done is we’ve gone into the field three times now; first time in the middle of April, right when things were, you know, really seeming out of control; then in June, a couple of months after that; and we’re just getting our third wave of data back right now here in mid-September. And the way that we’ve set up our sample is, I think, kind of unique and interesting. We asked 2400 people our survey questions in each of those things. However, in each of the surveys, about half of the people took the survey before, in addition to the one that they’re taking at present. And what this creates is what’s called a panel design, where we can actually trace specific people’s opinions and attitudes and behaviors about various things over the course of time. We don’t have to guess about you know, who’s people…  which people’s opinions and behaviors are changing. What we can do is actually see, specific people’s opinions and behaviors changing. And what this allows us to do is to kind of develop really strong theories and tests about causation. What specifically is causing people to change their opinions and behaviors over time? It’s been the most exciting and interesting thing I’ve ever been involved with, in the study of American politics.

MA: And so when you put that poll into the field the first time, can you talk about what findings you had or which conclusions you drew?

MC: Well, we had a number of different outcomes. But you know, Matt, the thing that was, I think most surprising to us, was the fact that there was kind of a minimum of polarization. And just remember, you know, what it was like, back in April. I don’t know about you, but I was having a hard time going to the gas station and touching the gas pumps. You know, it just felt like anything could give you COVID at that point, because we just didn’t know. And with that kind of fear gripping the country, and also, both political parties’ leaders were providing pretty similar signals about the fact that it was important to close businesses, important for people to stay at home. And what we found was that there was almost no polarization, no difference in opinions between Republicans and Democrats. And it was kind of shocking. Now, Democrats were slightly more supportive of things like staying home and closing businesses and doing those things than Republicans, but even Republicans were overwhelmingly supportive. So that was, you know, one of the especially surprising things from that, from that first survey.

JW: So, Marc, to follow up on that. Things have changed since that first survey. So can you talk a little bit about what has changed in your data, in panel two, and panel one.

MC: Yeah. Have they ever. Oh, my gosh. And it’s exactly, you know, what we’ve been seeing in terms of the reporting on television, and so forth. And that is that the opinions of Democrats about how to deal with a pandemic have mostly stayed pretty constant over time. You know, of course, everybody’s getting a little bit tired of dealing with COVID. So even Democrats are slightly less supportive of some of the measures that were put in place to deal with COVID. But Republicans are, you know, as they say in both life and in my profession, they’re following the leader. The leadership that they’re getting, in terms of their opinions from the Republicans in government are saying, “this is overblown. This is not something that we need to overreact to” and so forth. And so what we see is a huge deterioration in support among Republicans for mask-wearing mandates, business closures, or just a whole range of different things. So we’ve gone from not being polarized to being polarized in a way that we are about pretty much everything in American life.

JW: Marc, can you could you could you give us maybe one example of just a numerical gap chart between Republicans and Democrats on mask-wearing or some other key issue related to dealing with the pandemic?

MC: Yeah. so just to give one example of that, at the… in our first wave of the data, the Republicans and Democrats were about 10 percentage points apart as related to mask-wearing mandates, with both sides being overwhelmingly supportive. That gap is now about 50 points. Another thing that we asked people about was trade-offs: Do you think it’s more important to deal with helping the economy? We’re dealing with a health crisis. You know, just a simple question like that. Back in April, the country was united behind the fact that the key thing was for us dealing with the health crisis, both Republicans and Democrats no more than five or 10 percentage points apart on saying the health crisis was the thing we had to deal with now. And again, we’re about 40, or 50 percentage points apart on that right now, too. So again, just like… and this is this is the thing that is so shocking to me, is how in the world, you know, can we be polarized on a pandemic? No other country in the world seems to be, but our country is exceptional in this particular regard.

MA: To use a loaded term.

MC: Yes, to say the least.

JW: Marc…. and just to… I’ll make a statement. And you can either confirm or disconfirm. These gaps you’re describing, just for some context, 40 to 50 points. Until a few years ago, we saw gaps like this almost no public opinion questions between Democrats and Republicans. And now these have become the norm. So just to be clear, about how extraordinary, it’s not just that they’re far apart, is that they’re apart to an extent that we’ve rarely seen until recently in politics.

MC: Yeah, that’s right. Of course, we didn’t have a pandemic, back in the 1980s, so it’s hard to compare in that sense. But in general, Republicans and Democrats are simply seeing even objective reality in ways that are completely different from each other. And in ways that are a real departure from how they were before. So just an example, back in 1988, when George HW Bush was running against Michael Dukakis for the presidency, people were asked, over the past year, did the economy get better or worse or stayed the same over the past year? And there’s an answer to that question that’s right, of course. And Democrats and Republicans were about 20 points different on that. So, you know, of course, Republicans want to see it as better when their guys are in office. And you know, Democrats want to see it as worse. But if you fast forward to today, those differences are about 50 percentage points. So in other words, we’re twice as motivated to reason with bias in this day and age than we were back when the three of us were in college.

MA: Well, then, Marc, could I ask you to interrogate one of the things you said just a minute ago. You’re saying that, Republicans, I mean… those are the numbers that have changed in this in this poll. And you said that, and I think you were painting in broad strokes here, but Republicans follow the the leader.

MC: Yep.

MA: What you just pointed out there suggest to me that there’s been there has been sort of complicated, complex change over time. But you also seem to be saying that if Donald Trump would just say, this is serious, everyone should wear masks, then the difference would not, would not be there. I guess I asked you two questions. Could you comment on that?

MC: Well, the last of them is, yes. I think that if Republican officeholders provided the leadership on the issue, that masks are important, social distancing is important, all of these types of things are important. Those differences in partisanship in terms of those attitudes, they wouldn’t go away completely, right. Because, you know, Republicans are more likely to live in less densely populated areas and the viruses, objectively speaking,  not that, not as dangerous there. Because, you know, the gatherings are not as tight together. There are no subways there. You know, there’s just natural distancing. So, yes, everything that we know about public opinion tells us that on something that people are unfamiliar with, like a pandemic, the cues that political party leaders provide are going to be largely determinative of how people behave. And we see evidence of it, you know, at the beginning of the pandemic, when both sides were providing basically the same messages. The public was following, you know, there was consensus. When polarization occurs, it almost always happens because of parties taking opposite positions on things. And then the second part of it, Matt, is that the tendency for people to follow our leaders or their leaders has increased over time as partisanship, our party identities have become a more important part of our social identities. And that’s happened because politics has just become so contentious. And Republicans and Democrats have move so far apart in so many different ways. And as a result of that, it’s shaping all sorts of opinions and behaviors in a way that it just simply didn’t do in the same way 30 or 40 years ago.

MA: So Marc — a quick follow up. Is there any reason to believe that the downplaying of the pandemic coming from the White House, that this is, and I’m just thinking about this in sort of naked political terms here, that this is a shrewd political move from the President?

MC: Well, it depends on you know, how you measure shrewd. You know….

MA: I mean, is it going to help him win the election?

MC: Yeah, you know, I was gonna say, it’s almost certainly lead to more deaths, and more spread of the virus and a slower reopening of the economy than it would have otherwise. But you know, here’s the thing, Matt, that’s so interesting about what we’ve been finding. And that is, at least among Republicans, even with moving from 100,000 deaths in June — which is about what we had when we were in the field last time — to now 200,000 deaths in September. And this is, you know, of course, where we’re gathering data now. I’ve looked at the preliminary data, Republicans’ views of President Trump’s performance on COVID has not changed a bit, not at all. It is zero, exactly the same rating. And, you know, Independents, his ratings on that have deteriorated. And with Democrats, of course, deteriorated to near zero at this point. But the thing that is just so interesting is how divorced from the reality of things his core constituency is. I honestly have never seen anything like it in my 25 years studying public opinion.

JW: So Marc, one of the things that you and your co-researchers have used this data for is to create a series of public service ads about COVID. And we would love to hear about the construction of those ads, and what kind of impact you can say they’ve had?

MC: Well, Jonathan, I’m glad you asked about that. Because this has to be the most exciting thing that I’ve ever actually been involved with as a professional. I mean, of course, the birth of my kids way more so.

JW:  And Marc, obviously, other than working with me.

MA:  I was gonna say, Marc, come on.  That should go with that side.

MC:  OK, it’s kind of a toss up, you know, right there. (laughs) Maybe the Capitals winning the Stanley Cup, also very exciting. But other than those things… because, you know, let’s face it, as social scientists, it’s very rare for us to be able to have an impact on the world, at least a direct impact. We teach and we try to inspire, and we try to cause our students to want to change the world, but as social scientists, we’re unlikely to be able to do that ourselves. So COVID actually provided a very unique opportunity. So we’re gathering these data, and we’re learning about the people who are, say, wearing masks, and the people who aren’t. They’re telling us in answers to survey questions, whether we’re doing it. Now what this gives us is the opportunity to do is to look at what are the attitudes that people who aren’t wearing masks have? And as a result, we can maybe craft some ideas for messaging that might be persuasive to them. And we know exactly what groups they like, what groups they don’t like, and we got together through a mutual friend at WRAL down in Raleigh, to be able to craft along with their creative team using our data and some of the ideas that we were coming up with, combined with their creative team to put together two PSAs. I’ll tell you about one of them, because I think it’s the most interesting. So what we learned was people who are not complying love the military, and not it’s not surprising because most people who are conservative like the military, and most people who weren’t complying were conservative. So, we found a retired general, General Shelton, who used to be the Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who we put together a script for about the dangers of COVID and that we’re in the fight of our lives, and you know that it was patriotic in a sense to wear a mask. And then we also did a cartoon-based ad that, you know, sort of explained the mechanics of how COVID can spread. So then the interesting thing is… and so they ran. They ran for three weeks. The general manager at WRAL was enthusiastic about this whole process; creative team did a great job. And then, you know, what we wanted to know is, did it work? So we hired a survey firm, to put a survey into the field in the Raleigh DMA, you know, the area that could potentially see those ads. And some people said that they saw the ad, some people said, I might have seen the ads. And some people said, I’ve never seen that ad. And what we found was among people who said that they saw the ads, their attitudes about masks were about 10 percentage points more favorable than people who either weren’t sure, or said that they hadn’t seen the masks at all. So that was a pretty good indication that what we had done had actually made a difference that it worked. And, you know, the folks at WRAL shared their PSAs, with the North Carolina Broadcasters Association, they can run all over the state at this point. I suspect that they have. But as social scientists, not only you know, were we happy with that, we also in our third wave of our survey, actually showed people the PSA, so we were sure that they saw them, versus if we didn’t show either of those ads. And what we’re finding among people who have a moderate level of belief in science — they don’t have a lot of confidence in science, but they have some — but among people who have a lot of belief in science, they’re probably already wearing masks anyway. But about half of the people only have some confidence in science, and what we’re finding for them is, those ads are having about again, a 10 percentage point impact on their attitudes about the importance of masks, whether masks stop the spread, and whether they stop you from contracting the virus itself. It’s been awesome.

MA:  Wow. For the record, I’m on the fence about science.

MC: Well, you’re exactly who we’re targeting here, Matt. I’m going to have to show you these ads. (laughs)

MA: Well, I, I don’t want to get too too into the weeds about this. But if you’re trying to target a particular — and maybe this isn’t your part of this endeavor — but if you’re trying to target this particular audience, a more conservative, Republican-leaning pro-military audience, do you pick particular… So for example, the only TV I watch is NBA basketball these days, and I have not seen these these ads. I’m guessing…what shows do you show this, do you broadcast this to?

MC: Well, it’s a great question. Those were not our decisions. But the folks at WRAL had a sense of what, who we were talking about here. The news, the local news, both that 6 and 11 was the main place. But it was also on all of the daytime shows during the course of the day, they showed it, basically, throughout the day. More often on the news, but it was like on Wheel of Fortune, and, you know, all of those types of programs as well.

MA: I’m thinking Matlock for for some reason, that’s what’s coming to mind.

MC: You know, I don’t…. you know, we probably should put a dummy variable in for Matlock, [laughs] to see whether that would make a an especially big difference. But, you know, it’s funny, Matt. We actually have the data about what shows the people watch, we could we could actually dig that out.

JW: And, Marc, do you have any idea… you just asked people, whether they’ve seen the ad or not, not how many times they’ve seen the ad. So I’m just wondering if repetition would have any added benefit?

MC: You know, that’s also something we asked about how often did you see the ad. We haven’t dug any more deeply into the data to get a sense about it. But it is interesting. I’ve talked with people and it’s mostly people who are older, as you know, I think Matt was sort of nodding toward because you know, people who are older watch you know, regular TV a whole lot more than people who are younger. And you know, I’ve just been you know, chatting about this with people here and there and everywhere, and their reaction is, “I’ve seen that ad I’ve seen that a million times.” So they must be tuned into  WRAL/NBC and their slate of shows. [music]

JW: You’re listening to COVID Conversations and we’re speaking today with Marc Hetherington, the Raymond Dawson Professor of political science at UNC-Chapel Hill.


JW: So Marc, another very interesting piece of research related to this larger panel you’ve done has to do with mask-wearing and race. So can you tell us a little bit about that part of the study?

MC: Yeah, I think this might be the neatest thing that we did, even more so than the WRAL piece. So, you know, I was connected among a bunch of scholars at UNC, to the Department of Health and Human Services at the very beginning of the pandemic. And we were providing some ideas to HHS about messaging, and so forth, based on again, the survey data that we’re collecting and such. And one of the things that came up –because remember, at the beginning, you know, we didn’t know whether masks were a good idea or a bad idea, or whatever. And one of the things that one of the officials at HHS raised was the idea that masks may actually increase health disparities, because African Americans in particular, were concerned about wearing masks. Whether that would cause people who were not African American, to view them with more suspicion than they might otherwise view African Americans with. And of course, there’s a long running, you know, set of stereotypes that, especially Americans seem to have about criminality and African Americans. And let’s think about it. I mean, when you think about mask-wearing, it’s usually done by criminals, so the combination of those two things, you know, there were some real concern about the degree to which that the African American community was being asked to make a decision that nobody else was having to make. Does wearing a mask actually, in danger me more than COVID does, you know, in that respect. So we were really concerned about that and wanted to know, well, is it true? So we put together an experiment where we took an African American model, and outfitted him in three different types of masks and with no mask, and we took a picture, four different pictures — well, we actually took about 4 million different pictures of him in the Food Lion parking lot. And, you know, came up with, you know, four pictures that we were happy with: one with him with no mask, one with a surgical mask, one with a cloth mask, and then finally one with a bandana-type mask. And then in our next survey, we provided people, chosen at random, a story about in a meeting this African American male who is probably in his late 20s, in the parking lot and talking or just seeing him. And the idea then after this vignette, we asked people how threatening they saw the person, how comfortable they would might be talking with him, how trustworthy they found him. And what we found was that there was a statistically significant difference, you know, somewhere between eight and 12 percentage points, depending upon the question of people’s assessments of that same person, depending upon which mask they got. All right. And what we found was that bandana masks and cloth masks — regular just sort of cloth masks — increased the ratings of threateningness and trustworthiness and lack of comfort, whereas surgical masks did not. So it made no difference between the perceptions that the people had of that person, whether he was wearing a surgical mask or no mask at all. So what this told us was the best way to keep African American males at least — because that was the model in our experiment — the best way to keep people safe and from harassment or worse is for that group to be provided with at least, you know, a lot of access to surgical masks, because that is going to blunt, you know, seems to disconnect these criminal stereotypes, these mask-wearing stereotypes. And think about it, it makes sense: you know, whenever we watch a movie and there’s a bank robber, that person’s not wearing a surgical mask. So this was pretty exciting. You know, we were able to share you know, these results with Secretary Cohen at HHS and, you know, tried to get them into hands pretty widely provided us with a great platform, national platform to share this. Our pre-print of the paper was shared and downloaded thousands of times. It was, it was pretty awesome, again.

MA: I’m not surprised to hear that that was the the result. I’m wondering, do you do the same test using a white model?

MC: Yeah, it’s great question, Matt. And we did. And what we found was the…. all of the masks on the white model made the person actually seem more trustworthy and less threatening, and so forth. So there were these massive differences in how people perceive the white model versus the African American model, depending upon masks.

MA: Even though every image I have of someone wearing a bandana to rob a bank is a white guy out in the Old West, right?

MC: Exactly.

MA: I mean, it’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, I’m not surprised to hear this. I’m disheartened to hear it. And it’s such an interesting study, because it combines these two pandemics that we’ve been talking about all summer.

MC: Exactly. And that’s something that I should add too. Our study started out very much focusing on COVID alone. But of course, you know, in the middle of it George Floyd’s killing took place, and you know, the issues involving Breonna Taylor now. And, you know, we’ve really also started to add a racial attitudes, racial politics component to the survey, as well. We haven’t learned quite as much because, you know, this is stuff that we started to add later on. But the intersection of COVID and the racial unrest in the United States, I think is probably the most important thing to be studying right now.

MA: Marc, I think we’d like to start looking ahead a little bit, but I want to keep talking about the findings of your poll at the same time. I’m listening to you speak and hearing about the data of the divisiveness. I’m getting the same feeling that I get every time I get on Twitter, which is just sort of this feeling of hopelessness. And I guess I mean that in a number of ways, but one of the ways is just the the extreme partisanship out there. How divided everyone seems. How everyone seems to see see the world in a either this way or that way? Is there any information coming from your poll that suggests a way out of the partisanship, or perhaps suggests that we’re not as divided as we might first seem to be?

MC: Well, that’s a great question. And let me just preface the answer by saying, you know, when our social identities are so connected to our partisanship, it’s really, really hard, you know, to overcome the sort of knee-jerk partisanship that is occurring in in the country. And part of the reason for that is because partisanship, you know, employing our partisanship is so cost free. What is the cost, you know, of saying, oh, everything’s fine, you know, or everything’s terrible? It’s cost free, you know, we don’t have to be accurate about things when we’re answering public opinion polls or whatever. We can just cheerlead, you know, we can be on our team’s side. But: how about this? What if the costs of following your partisanship end up increasing? And there’s actually something going on in the world where following one’s partisanship is getting more costly. And that is, if following your partisanship might make you sick, or might cause you to die, for instance, that’s a pretty big increase in the cost associated with following your partisanship. So what we found in our, you know, panel design, and this is, again, really important, because we can track the opinions of the same people over time. What we find is that among Republicans who are not afraid of getting sick, or have gotten less afraid of getting sick over time, that they are the specific Republicans who are moving away from the consensus on mask-wearing and closing of businesses and restaurants and things like that. It’s specifically those people but…. and that’s most Republicans, okay. But there’s a significant chunk of Republicans who are in fact concerned about becoming seriously ill, and among those people — or who have gotten more so over time — and among that group of people, what we’re seeing is they look like Democrats actually, when it comes to, you know, supporting mask-wearing or mask-wearing themselves, or any number of other sort of mitigation techniques. So it’s funny. What we talk about is kind of a healthy dose of fear might be something that can blunt the impact of partisanship. And we have, you know, sort of the data to prove it that that happens. And I think that this could have political implications. One thing that we find in our collection is that older people, not surprisingly, are more concerned about becoming seriously ill than younger people are, right. I mean, because the health outcomes for older people are much worse, that’s just reality. But think about what older people also are. Well, they also tend to be Republican. So to the extent that there is a significant chunk of older people, in places like Florida, which is an older state, people like Pennsylvania, people like Michigan, people like Wisconsin. These are all places with high percentages of older folks. If they’re more concerned about getting sick, the costs of following their say, Republican partisanship, is going to be much higher. So you know, we see in some surveys, Trump leaking some support in especially among older people in Florida, and maybe some of these other swing states — I suspect, that’s why. For them, you know, just going along with things carries quite a cost, they might be dead. Many of them, you know, probably have friends, or who have become at least seriously ill, if not have died. So, you know, is weird. Fear has the strange ability to oddly bring us together.

MA: And I guess the $64,000 question is, is that really going to make a difference come November?

MC: Well, Matt, we don’t know. But here’s what I usually answer to that notion, and it’s this. We’re so, and have been for the last 20 years, so evenly divided, that even small marginal changes can have an outsized impact on winners and losers. If you think about these elections, in terms of the electoral college and popular vote in 2000, it was basically a tie. 2004, the map looked almost exactly the same, almost an electoral college tie. And we’ve had, you know, the series of elections decided by, you know, basically three percentage points or fewer, with the exception of 2008. And under those circumstances, anything can matter. Anything can and it doesn’t even have to be, it doesn’t have to have a big impact for it to have a decisive impact.

JW: So Marc, just thinking ahead. Perhaps beyond November, although it’s hard to think beyond November. We’re recording this less than six weeks from Election Day. But trying to think ahead beyond November, based on what you’ve told us about the PSA that you did. And this sort of component of fear and the cost of partisanship. What about this work, sort of allows you to perhaps envision a different future in terms of how divided we are?

MC: None of what I’ve done, causes me to be especially optimistic. And, you know, obviously, Jonathan and I have known each other for over 20 years now. And I think one of the things that, you know, Jonathan would probably convey about me is I’m a pretty optimistic and hopeful guy. It’s not my disposition to think, you know, the sky is falling. But, you know, one of the things that we lead off an article — Jonathan wrote, the first paragraph of this article, for a publication in France, this last month — was about how Republicans and Democrats are, you know, seeing the COVID world and whether the number of deaths is acceptable in the United States. And of course, now we’re at that point, we’re about 170,000, which, you know, strikes me and probably pretty much anybody as unacceptable, given the lack of, you know, similar numbers in other parts of the world. And, you know, how do you overcome the fact that Republicans, a majority of Republicans find those losses acceptable? Now, I think we’re in a really bad place when fear is one of the only things that gives us hope. You know, and that worse yet is that the percentage of Republicans who are seriously concerned about becoming ill is actually dropping as time goes by. I thought when the when the virus got into the red states and started to have, you know, terrible health outcomes there, not just in places like in New York and Boston and and major Eastern cities, I thought we would see, you know, a huge increase in concern among Republicans because they would be living closer to people who were either getting very sick or dying. But again, you know, our attitudes, our predispositions seem to be overwhelming reality right now. And, you know, under those circumstances, I don’t know what you can do to overcome that.

JW: Marc, I’m just thinking as you’re describing this arc, and also thinking back to our earlier conversation in April, when that first wave of results, as you suggested, as you said, looked very different than the picture we’re seeing now that this has turned out to be an extraordinary test of the power of polarization in the United States. And it’s astonishing, as you’ve conveyed to us, I think, that polarization has won in this contest, with a pandemic, the likes of which we haven’t seen in 100 years. I’m just observing, with renewed astonishment at that, at the outcome of that collision.

MC: Yeah, it’s really a jaw dropper, Jonathan. And you know, of course, as the fall moves forward, at least some of the models are suggesting that deaths will actually start to increase at a higher rate. That there may be as many as 100,000 more deaths between now and Election Day. And people seem to think, well, that could make a difference. And my response is: really? What’s made a difference, you know, really up until now? Now, if people did become more fearful — this is specifically Republicans became more fearful — it would. But what we’re seeing here is that in the fight between, you know, reality and our partisanship and the messaging coming from one specific political party right now, that the messaging is winning. And it’s winning by a landslide, you know, in this particular moment, I mean, one of the things that I answered a thing for Ezra Klein on, — you know, who I think is a terrific journalist — and he pointed out all of these different things that had happened, and what now we’re thinking about the political ramifications of all of this. All of the things that had happened between April of last year, and this year — the stock market had reached a high point 150,000 people when Ezra interviewed me and died, and, you know, go on and on and on. And the president’s approval rating has not moved a inch. You know, it’s as though nothing has happened. I mean, you know, the trend is a flat line.

JW: Marc, let’s just add to that: and impeachment.

MC: Impeachment, you know, would be another piece of that. Add all of those different elements, both positive and negative. Because there was a lot of good economic news, and, you know, so forth as well. But it doesn’t move anybody’s opinion at this point. You know, reality is not intervening on our world — our view of the President and the two major parties.

MA: Well, I’m both repeating and stealing your line, but it is a troubling state of affairs, when you find yourself hoping for more fear out there.

MC: Yeah, it’s it’s really true. And I can’t think of really anything else that would short circuit things. You know, when we look forward, you know, will this ever change? Will we ever, you know, get out of this? And I think the answer to that is, it’s going to be really hard. Because, you know, we have been essentially tied between Republicans and Democrats since 1994 at the congressional level; in 2000, at the presidential level. Either side can win the next election. It’s not like it was in the 70s, or the 80s. So there’s no incentive for the two sides to cooperate as a result. And all of this is to say that, how do you break the cycle? I don’t know. Because why would anybody stop doing what they’re doing? Because they know that if they keep doing what they’re doing, it’s going to be at least a tie or close to a tie. You know, it’d be a real risk for Republicans or Democrats to start to do something different. Maybe they do better, but maybe they do worse. So I think we’re just — as long as nobody gets just absolutely crushed in a series of elections. It can’t just be one. We’re going to be stuck with this for the foreseeable future.

JW: Marc, thanks so much for joining us today. Again, this was not uplifting but incredibly enlightening and, and also just congratulations sincerely, on this fantastic work you’ve been doing with the PSAs, with the work on race and masking. It’s, as you said, this is making a real contribution to the wider world. So it’s really great to hear about that.

MC: Thank you guys so much. It’s been as I said, you know, the headiest and most exciting, you know, part of my career and I’m sure that there won’t be one that’s more so.

JW: This has been another episode of COVID Conversations. We want to thank Klaus Mayr, our great producer; Rudy Colloredo-Mansfeld, Senior Associate Dean for Social Sciences and Global in the College of Arts & Sciences, for conceiving of this series. And this series COVID Conversations is now part of a linked group of classes, COVID Investigations. And we also want to thank Kristen Chavez, in the communications office in the College of Arts & Sciences for all her great work publicizing the podcast and also for making a transcript of the podcast available at our website for those who prefer to consume the podcast that way. And until next time, take care.


Original transcript provided by and edited by College of Arts & Sciences staff. It may contain errors.

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