The Covid-19 emergency and the effects of political polarization across seven countries


Politicians polarize and experts depolarize public support for COVID-19 management policies across countries is the title of a recent study that analyzed the effect of political polarization on people's decision to adhere to pandemic containment measures. Published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS), the international research led by Leaf Van Boven of the University of Colorado Boulder includes work conducted by Enrico Rubaltelli of the University of Padua.

Conducted across seven countries (the United States, Italy, Great Britain, South Korea, Sweden, Brazil, and Israel) the research surveyed diverse national samples of almost 13,000 people. Results showed that political polarization is present and influences the public’s behavior in all seven countries, including Italy, despite the varying cultures, ideologies, and political systems. Results showed the effects of political elite cues and affective polarization in support of policies to manage the COVID-19 pandemic in all seven countries. Several works have identified feelings of animosity towards an individual’s political counterpart as one of the main reasons for the polarization. People tend to adhere to proposals from the party they feel closest by placing ‘party over policy’ without considering the contents of the proposal itself.

Political polarization poses a problem to many contemporary challenges, as is demonstrated by the hampering of public support for COVID-19 pandemic containment measures. “These results show the importance of maintaining trust among the experts,” says Rubaltelli. “Trust guarantees the impartiality needed to create cohesive support for suggested policy measures, allowing experts to offer effective solutions during crises, such as that of the COVID-19 pandemic. The results of this study show the politicization of experts may reduce their credibility, especially among conservative voters, much like we see happening in many countries.’