Tracing political fault lines

Mark Hetherington

For people trying to wrap their minds around the my-way-or-the-highway mindset of American politics in the lead-up to the 2020 general election, political scientist Marc Hetherington likes to put it in sports terms.

During football season, you root for your team. You don’t want to read anything negative about your team, nor do you want to read anything positive about the opposition. There’s nothing anyone could say that would change your mind about your team. If someone calls your coach a crook or accuses your team of cheating, you can rationalize it away because of your die-hard devotion and dislike of your opponent.

“A key element to polarization is not how much they love their own side but how much they hate the other side,” said Hetherington. “In that environment, it’s very difficult to get people to change their minds. At this point, your self-esteem is so tied up in your own side it’s very hard to admit that your really hated opponent is right. How can you admit that they were right? That hurts a lot to do, and people just aren’t doing it. They’ll put up with just about anything from their side.”

For this reason, the election will likely hinge on swing voters with outside factors like the pandemic shaping the outcome, said Hetherington, who will talk about “Politics in a Pandemic” next Thursday in a YouTube lecture organized by the Thomas S. Foley Institute for Public Policy and Public Service at Washington State University, Pullman.

“When you really hate your opponent, you really think they are dangerous. We’ve gone from thinking of the other side as people with a different opinion, to people who we think are dangerous,” said Hetherington, a political science professor at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Political scientists often sit on the sidelines and watch history unfold; they’re not usually in the thick of public policy. But that’s the position Hetherington found himself in this spring when his department shifted its resources toward studying the impact of the pandemic on politics in an attempt to provide solutions.

“One thing that became clear pretty soon after the pandemic hit is that, just like every issue in our country, partisanship had a lot to do with how people were reacting,” he said.

During the first wave of the pandemic, most Republicans and Democrats were on board with whatever needed to be done, Hetherington said. Not long after, public opinion began to divide along a political fault line.

“What we know from decades of research is that most people aren’t experts and follow the cues political party leaders provide them with,” he said.

While Democratic leaders touted scientific evidence backing mask wearing, early this spring Trump and other Republican leaders took a different tack. They began minimizing and downplaying the threat of the virus, and they didn’t embrace mask wearing.

“What we would bet on is that polarization on these types of things would begin to occur and, in fact, that’s what happened,” Hetherington said.

His department worked with a local TV station to develop public service announcements intended to increase mask wearing and understanding. His department identified groups, outside of politics, that Republican viewers would respect, admire and have confidence in. They selected the military and recruited a retired general to deliver a message about the protection masks can provide. It was successful.

“That appeal might be less, although not unattractive, to Democrats, but it was really tasteful to our target audience,” Hetherington said. “Appealing to the two sides in different ways turns out to be really important.”

However, the latest research shows that not all Republicans are following the leader as it relates to mask wearing, Hetherington said. “We find this big dividing line between people who worry about getting really sick and those who don’t.”

Those who fear getting sick tend to act more like Democrats and wear masks, he said.

Recognizing this distinction is important for making predictions about what might happen in the presidential election, he said.

The types of people who feel most vulnerable to falling ill are disproportionately older people, because they are in more danger of a poor outcome if they contract the virus, Hetherington said. More older people tend to be Republican than Democrat, and many of the states with large populations of older people are swing states, where the two major political parties have similar levels of support among voters. Florida, for example, is a swing state with a large population of older people, and Trump’s approval ratings there are dipping.

“The cost to them of following their partisanship is pretty high,” he said. “For this to swing the election one way or the other, we’re such a 50-50 country these days, it won’t take a lot of people doing something different this time to have a different outcome.”

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