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How Affective Polarization Shapes Americans’ Political Beliefs: A Study of Response to the COVID-19 Pandemic (WP-20-30)

James Druckman, Samara Klar, Yanna Krupnikov, Matthew Levendusky, and John Barry Ryan

Affective polarization—partisans’ dislike and distrust of those from the other party—has reached historically high levels in the United States. While numerous studies estimate its effect on apolitical outcomes (e.g., dating, economic transactions), researchers know much less about its effects on political beliefs. The authors argue that those who exhibit high levels of affective polarization politicize ostensibly apolitical issues and actors. An experiment focused on responses to COVID-19 that relies on pre-pandemic, exogenous measures of affective polarization supports their expectations. Partisans who harbor high levels of animus towards the other party do not differentiate the “United States’” response to COVID-19 from that of the Trump administration. Less affectively polarized partisans, in contrast, do not politicize evaluations of the country’s response. The authors’ results provide evidence of how affective polarization, apart from partisanship itself, shapes substantive beliefs. Affective polarization has political consequences and political beliefs stem, in part, from partisan animus.

This paper has been published in the Journal of Experimental Political Science.

James Druckman, Payson S. Wild Professor of Political Science and IPR Fellow, Northwestern University

Samara Klar, Associate Professor School of Government and Public Policy, University of Arizona

Yanna Krupnikov, Associate Professor Department of Political Science, Stony Brook University

Matthew Levendusky, Professor of Political Science and Stephen and Mary Baran Chair in the Institutions of Democracy, University of Pennsylvania

John Barry Ryan, Associate Professor Department of Political Science, Stony Brook University

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