Image: Gayatri Malhotra (Unsplash)

The Fake News Media and their partner, the Democrat Party, is doing everything within its semi-considerable power […] to inflame the CoronaVirus situation.

– Donald Trump (@realdonaldtrump), March 9, 2020

On December 31, 2019, the Chinese government announced the discovery of an unknown virus, symptomatic of pneumonia, that was affecting locals in Wuhan City in the Hubei province (WHO, 2020). At that time, there was no indication of its spreading through human contact, but China continued to monitor the situation. On January 11, 2020, China reported its first death related to the new virus, which started to infect dozens of people throughout Asia, including South Korea, Japan and Thailand (WHO, 2020). On January 12, the United States announced its first case in Washington, D.C., from a passenger who had been traveling from China (Taylor, 2020). As cases started to climb at unprecedented rates, a global health emergency was declared by the World Health Organization on January 30 (WHO, 2020); by January 31, U.S. President Donald Trump suspended entry to individuals traveling from China for up to 14 days (Corkery & Karni, 2020). By February, this inscrutable disease received a name, known as COVID-19, an acronym for Coronavirus 2019 (WHO, 2020). The death toll in China reached 1,113 by February 13, with 44,653 cases in 24 countries (Taylor, 2020).

Despite the alarming surge in global cases, an alternative narrative was spreading across the United States. During a campaign rally in South Carolina, President Trump claimed the Coronavirus to be “a new hoax” created by the Democrats who “are politicizing the coronavirus” in order to damage his image and the administration (Trump, D., February 28, 2020). The ambiguity of the source of COVID-19 further fuelled competition between fact and opinion, including the emergence of conspiracy theories and diverging perceptions of ongoing partisan debates between the country’s political parties. On April 14, President Trump threatened to cease funding to the World Health Organization and three days later, started encouraging right-wing protests against lockdown measures ordered in Democratic-leaning states (Shear & Mervosh, 2020; Taylor, 2020). As cases continued to rise, President Trump refused to issue a lockdown for the United States (Reuters, 2020), while discouraging Americans from wearing face masks as a preventative measure from contracting the virus (BBC, 2020).

Global pandemics are not an inherently partisan issue, yet the handling of the coronavirus by the current United States federal government have led to a hyper-polarized political climate. While affective polarization is not the only variable to consider as a mediator for perceived legitimacy of a government’s performance, the lack of literature to measure such a relationship points to a gap that this present research intends to fulfill. This study thus intends to explore how one’s political party identification affects perceptions of legitimacy of the U.S. federal government’s handling of COVID-19, and whether affective polarization, or the strength of one’s in-group favouritism and out-group hostility (Wager, 2009), acts as a mediator in this relationship.

Sample population

Data was collected from May 26, 2020 until a sample size of 609 (n = 609) was reached (June 17, 2020), using a survey through Qualtrics. The American population to date is 331,006,265 (Worldometer, 2020); thus, a representative sample size with a margin error of 4% and a confidence interval of 95% would reach 601. This number was calculated based on an online tool called CheckMarket (2020), thus a sample size of 609 is a sufficiently large enough population to study. Participation criteria included American citizens who are of legal voting age (18+), which was communicated in the outreach post, as well as in the first page of the survey. Outreach consisted of both convenience and snowball sampling methods using personal connections through social media networks, including Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. 

Findings

Those who identified as Democrats perceived the U.S. federal government’s response to COVID-19 as illegitimate. However, Democrats believed that the U.S. federal government rarely to sometimes abused its authority, despite having low levels of perceived legitimacy. Those who identified as Republicans perceived the U.S. federal government’s response to COVID-19 as somewhat illegitimate. Moreover, Republicans believed that the U.S. federal government rarely to sometimes abused its authority. This could be attributed to the higher response from Democrats in this study, which represented the majority of responses compared to Republicans. Additionally, many Republicans revealed their support for presidential candidate Biden as opposed to President Trump, indicated their lower party strength identity to the Republican party. Not very strong Republicans felt it rarely exceeded its authority. Independents perceived the U.S. federal government to have lower legitimacy, while believing it rarely exceeded its authority.

The data from the Feeling Thermometer illustrate that while both Democrats and Republicans (including Independent leaners) maintained in-group favouritism and out-group hostility towards their respective national parties, Independents and the ‘Other’ group favoured the national Democratic party over the Republican. This observation refutes Nail et al.’s (2009) position that even liberals tend to lean conservative in times of uncertainty, while confirming Greene’s (2000) position that Independent leaners tend to be highly critical and hold negative sentiments towards the government. Among all political parties, the national Democrat party had higher levels of warmth/favourability than the Republican party. This could be explained by the higher strength of partisanship among Strong Democrats and Independent – Democrats, as well as the data that skews towards more Democratic respondents. 

For the Trait Rating scales, Democrats (Strong, Not very strong, Independent leaners) had zero to very low levels of negative traits ratings for national Democratic party and moderate levels of positive traits. Strong Democrats, however, did show stronger levels of polarization compared to Not very strong and Independent leaners (e.g. higher levels of joy and lower levels of anger). In comparison, Republicans (Strong, Not very strong, Independent leaners) had moderate to high levels of negative traits and very low positive traits. In terms of evaluating the national Republican party, Democrats (Strong Democrats, Not very strong Democrats and Independent leaners) felt high levels of disgust, anger, hate and annoyance. Strong Republicans felt moderate levels of positive traits; Not very strong Republicans and Independent Republican leaners had similar low ratings for positive traits and higher scores for negative traits. These results confirm existing research about the hyper-polarized political climate in the United States.

Interestingly, respondents belonging to the ‘Other’ and Independent parties felt moderate levels of anger and annoyance towards the Democratic party with lower levels of delight, happiness, joy, hate, relaxed and disgust. However, when evaluating the Republican party, ‘Other’ and Independent participants had slightly higher ratings for negative traits than positive ones compared to the Democrat party evaluation. This suggests that these two parties are both more inclined to favour the national Democrat party, perhaps supporting Greene’s (2000) argument that Independents are more critical of the current government than Democrats or Republicans. Additionally, Democrats and Republicans had stronger out-group hostility than in-group favouritism, confirming Iyengar and Krupenkin’s (2018) idea that it is “outgroup animus rather than ingroup favoritism drives political behavior” (Iyengar and Krupenkin, 2018 p. 203). Notably, Democrats and Independent Democrats had stronger out-group hostility than in-group favouritism compared to Republicans in general, indicating higher degrees of animosity.

Affective polarization did not mediate the relationship between party identification and perceived legitimacy, even when holding constant gender, age, income, education, ethnicity and state. While there continues to be an upward trend of increased out-group hostility and in-group favouritism between Democrats and Republicans (including Independents holding strong partisanship), perceptions of legitimacy are not tied to this notion. One theory for the lack of interaction is that affective polarization can be influenced by factors other than emotional attachment. This may include information bias (Iyengar et al., 2019) from media and news outlets that can lead to stark differences in how political parties interpreted the federal government’s handling of COVID-19. For example, 79% of Republicans said the news greatly exaggerated health risks attributed to COVID-19, while 66% of Democrats said it was largely accurate (Gotfried et al., 2020). Additionally, focusing solely on left-right affect (or ideology) tends to neglect multidimensional aspects of polarization (Lauka et al., 2018). The divide may be as cultural as it is political. More measures that investigate racial, religious, generational, ideological and urban-rural divides as opposed to strictly political ones would be beneficial to the current study. 

Limitations and considerations for future research

One limitation to the present study is the lack of cross-national comparisons. Data on government performance, public opinion and attitudes are typically drawn from Western democracies (Gilley, 2009; von Haldenwang, 2006), and particularly in the United States where partisanship is robust. This present study limits data collected from not only countries that belong to B.R.I.C.S. nations (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) (Amiel, 2019), but countries that do not operate in a democracy. Future research considerations would include a more robust study that compares Western democracies to non-Western tyrannies. 

Moreover, this study does not account for individuals who shift between political parties. Respondents who identified as belonging to the “Other” party, for example, argued that they were former Republicans but changed parties because of the current president. Others argued there was a familial/generational reason. Future research might address this change, as well as if their decision to vote for a particular party or candidate in the 2020 election changed from the 2016 election.

Understanding the participants’ political knowledge, civic engagement and the exposure to the type of media they engage with would help illustrate the relationship between knowledge, persuasion and perceived legitimacy towards the U.S. federal government. Gilley (2006) argues that “the more engaged that people are with politics, the more likely they are to see the state as legitimate” (p. 50). Furthermore, Iyengar et al. (2019) posit, “partisan news activates partisan identities and consequent feelings toward the political parties” (p. 134). Iyengar and Krupenkin (2018) also recognize the existence of a negativity bias, where “negative information carries more weight in decision-making than positive information” (p. 212).  Observing how political leaders spread news and whether citizens perceive it to be a viable source of information would be helpful in measuring political literacy and how it affects perceptions of legitimacy towards governments.

Lastly, comparing perceived legitimacy of state performance to national performance should be considered for future research. The United States operates under a federalist legislation where the national and state governments engage in different systems (United States Courts, 2020). During the COVID-19 outbreak earlier this year, for example, New York, New Jersey and Connecticut declared a disaster emergency and issued public closures to contain the spread of the virus, while Texas, Oklahoma and Arkansas ignored public health warnings and ignored state-wide closures (Al Jazeera, 2020). Evaluating how individuals perceive legitimacy with regards to state and federal performance during the COVID-19 pandemic would offer additional comparative insight. Moreover, measuring individual perceptions of the government’s and President Trump’s responses about the Coronavirus would clarify the impact of how the source of communication and the message itself affect understanding.

Conclusion

The challenge of navigating the recent 2020 elections during the current COVID-19 pandemic has presented new concerns over leadership capabilities amidst an extremely volatile environment. While this study confirms previous research of out-group hostility acting as a stronger agent than in-group favouritism in driving partisanship, perceptions of legitimacy as mediated by affective polarization are not part of this relationship. It is crucial to examine affective polarization in a multidimensional manner, as well as other possible factors that influence the evaluation of the legitimacy of a government’s response to handling COVID-19. Further research is encouraged to measure this relationship as the current situation rapidly evolves.

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