We are reaping what has been sown. This is no mistake. Partisanship will kill us all. Multiple reports have shown that partisanship is the leading factor in affecting people’s attitude and behaviors around this COVID-19 health crisis. It’s not where they live. It’s not how old they are. It’s not how much media they consume. It’s their political partisanship. Let me explain how we got here.
Political partisanship creating different realities we live in has been happening in the U.S. well before Trump started running for president. Check out Chris Mooney’s the Republican Brain from 2012. Or George Lakoff’s The Political Mind from 2008. Or Drew Westen’s The Political Brain from 2007. Or go back even further to the 1960s and 70s to the foundational studies of political psychology. They will all show similar findings – that our political leanings have an out-sized influence on our attitudes and behaviors.
Democrats will more often forgive Democratic politicians for the same thing they bash Republican politicians for (see: Joe Biden, #MeToo). Republicans care about increasing the size of government if Democrats are doing it, but not if it’s supported by GOP presidents (see: George W Bush , the Patriot Act and Donald Trump, ICE and Stimulus packages). But this effect extends far beyond the world of politics. Partisan politics becomes part of one’s own identity – who you see yourself as. This identity colors everything about how you see the world – how the world should work, how the world around us does work and each of our role’s within our world.
Our identity, highly influenced by our political partisan leanings, determines what kind of information we seek (see: confirmation bias), who we trust or don’t trust and which in-groups we identify with and which out-groups are seen as our enemy. Republicans will seek out information that confirms their worldview. That’s why Republicans watch Fox News, listen to Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity, follow conservative politicians and talk show hosts on social media. Democrats seek out information that confirms their worldviews too. That’s why Democrats watch MSNBC, follow Democratic or liberal media personalities on social media, read the NY Times or Mother Jones. We are all seeking out information that confirms what we already believe. We are seeking out our in-groups and shunning our out-groups. We trust our in-groups. We distrust our out-groups.
Who to trust
A recent poll came out asking Americans who they trust on the Coronavirus pandemic. The CBS/YouGov poll asked Americans about several different groups of people to see how much Americans trusted them.
Americans widely trust medical and healthcare professionals generally (88% trust) and in particular, the CDC (82% trust), for information on the virus and what to do. But a large number also trust friends and family (73%.) Slightly fewer trust their state’s governor (66%). Comparably fewer, 44%, trust President Trump, and 43% trust the national media, but the partisan splits both elicit are especially notable. Republicans trust the president for accurate information on the virus (90%) as much as or more than they trust medical professionals (90%) and the CDC (84%). While Democrats do trust the media, most Republicans don’t and think they are overreacting to the outbreak. Democrats, on the other hand, don’t trust the president to give accurate information.
Basically, Republicans trust Trump. Democrats don’t. While Democrats trust the media, Republicans don’t. To partisans – the accuracy of the information doesn’t matter as much as the source. While Republicans trust Trump as much as the say they trust medical professionals (90% with each), what happens when one source (Trump) directly contradicts another trusted source (the CDC)? Well, it seems like this inaccuracy of information doesn’t make Trump and less trusted. Despite Trump’s inaccurate claims, Republicans are still supporting and trusting him. And that makes sense in the context of the partisan brain we’ve been discussing. Trump is not just a part of Republican’s in-group, but he is the leader of their in-group, the figurehead of a group which they closely identify with. To reject him would be to reject themselves, to distrust everything they know, everything they believe. It would be a complete rejection of how they see the world. That’s almost impossible for any of us to do.
We can easily see why Republicans, despite inaccuracies/dithering/personal vendettas, continue to trust their President. Why then do the distrust the media so much? I wonder why.
Yeah. It’s not hard to see why Republicans distrust the media. Trump just sent this out today, March 29th, 2020. Complaining about the “Lamestream Media” coverage. Applauding that people (Re: Republicans) don’t trust the media coverage of the Coronavirus. “The Media” is certainly the out-group when it comes to Republicans. They are certainly seen as the enemy. Granted – not all media (#notallmedia) are intrinsically included in the conservative idea of “Lamestream Media”. Trump regularly watches and participates in conservative media – Fox News, right wing radio talk shows, interviews with alt-right and conservative print/online platforms. Trump’s followers know who he’s really talking about – CNN, MSNBC, CBS, the NY Times, Washington Post, etc. This is the ‘liberal media’ that conservatives have been attacking for decades.
Sorry Grandma, but you have to die so I can buy shit
Fox News gets the conservative message out to its followers. That’s why on Monday night, Texas Lt. Governor Dan Patrick went on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show to test out this message: grandma would gladly die for our economy to live. After that appearance, conservative pieces started showing up with the phrase “cure may be worse the disease.” They seem to be testing out the spin around easing restrictions that we all need in place to survive so that businesses succeed. The message is clear: “don’t trust mainstream media, only trust us. And what the mainstream media is telling you is lies. They want to kill our economy. They are happy to blame Trump because they always hated him and want him defeated in November. The cure is worse than the disease.”
Sometimes this messaging gets tested and pulled back – just like Trump testing out nicknames for political rivals, finding out which one sticks – like “Crooked Hillary”. Sometimes this message gets more widely disseminated. Either way, it impacts what partisans believe. One reason this messaging sticks – even if the messenger gets vilified originally for it – is source confusion. This is the principle that people will not remember where they heard or read information – but still they will believe it. Source confusion is amplified through social media. Think about it – what do you know about the coronavirus? How do you know that? Where did you read that information? How accurate is that information? Did you read the CDC guidelines and reports? Or the WHO reports? Most likely you stumbled across news like we all do – from friends or random people on your news feed posting stories or just commenting on something they saw, from your preferred news source – CNN, Fox News, Glenn Beck, Townhall, NY Times. But do you remember what the source of information is for each of the things you know about the virus? Probably not. I don’t. That’s source confusion.
Source confusion can allow disinformation to spread rapidly because people forget where they got the information from – and if that information confirms their beliefs – that information is assumed to be accurate, trusted information. It hardly matters anymore that we can trace where the information comes from – from recorded press conferences or sourced news stories. Once disinformation is out there, there’s really no completely reversing it. When politicians benefit from this kind of disinformation or even message testing, they will use it to their advantage.
“People are saying..” is an easy way to spread a message. Some conservative jackass like Charlie Kirk or convicted criminal Dinesh D’Souza can start spreading the message that grandma wants to die for our economy. Fox News can bring them on to spread such message. Trump can say “people are saying” that the cure shouldn’t be worse than the disease. CNN can broadcast his message on live television and millions of people at home watch it. Where did the message come from? Studies of source confusion often conclude within a couple days, we mostly forget where that message came from. So millions of people at home could be thinking it came from CNN or their neighbor or whoever. If the message resonates and works, the original messenger will continue to push it. If not, just move on to the next deplorable message that may work. People will still listen to them.
In this hour of need, everyone’s decisions affect everyone’s lives. Whether you decide to go out in a group setting (to the beach, to restaurants, to parties) has an immediate impact on everyone you interact with, everyone they interact with and so forth. People who aren’t taking this seriously are endangering the lives not just of those around them, but of all of us. The decisions we make -whether to take this seriously, to go about our business as normal, to call this a ‘hoax’ – will have devastating impacts on all of our lives, our healthcare capacity, our economy, our world. And the overwhelming basis for that decision making seems to be partisanship.
As the above graph points out, Democrats are more likely to be ‘extremely concerned’ about a Coronavirus outbreak than Republicans. If Republicans are not be concerned about this outbreak and act accordingly, everyone around them – Republicans, Democrats, Independents, non-partisans – are at risk. As you can see from the graph, Democrats should be concerned more about this outbreak than they are. By March 20, half of Democrats in most states were not yet ‘extremely concerned’ about the Coronavirus outbreak. But that pails in comparison to Republicans, where no states have even hit the 25% mark for Republican ‘extreme concern’.
What you believe is based on partisanship,
You act based on what you believe,
Your actions around Coronavirus affect my life,
Then your partisan beliefs affect my life.
As we all watch heroic healthcare workers attempt to save millions of lives over the course of the next few weeks and months, there will be plenty of blame to go around for why they need to do so. Blame Trump for not taking this seriously, calling it a hoax and refusing to help states with Democratic governors while helping states with GOP governors he likes. Blame Chinese officials, the WHO or others for letting the virus spread without properly preparing the world for its potential for pandemic. Blame the corporations laying off employees, taking away their healthcare at the time they need it most. Blame our politicians for cutting budgets of our public health departments like the CDC and pandemic response teams. But really, our unwillingness to change our beliefs, our unwillingness to adjust our actions, our continued world shaping lens of partisanship may be most to blame for unnecessary lives lost.