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The partisan divide over COVID-19 is killing us: Here are the receipts | Opinion

Why kill your own voters or your own viewers? My speculative answer is that there are three overlapping reasons: an addiction to culture wars, conspiracism and anti-science narratives

(Getty Images/Colorado Newsline)

By Don Moynihan

‘Tis the holiday season and the heroes of Fox News are valiantly arraying their forces in the War On Christmas, even as ICU beds are filling up and a new strain of COVID has arrived.

In the spirit of the season I am making a special plea to Rupert Murdoch to deliver a Christmas miracle: stop killing us.

That’s it, that’s the tweet.

Wait, this is an article? I have to write more. OK then.

The partisan COVID gap has gotten worse

Republicans have been more reluctant to get vaccinated and more likely to die as a result. This trend was obfuscated initially because COVID emerged in blue states on the coasts, and because conservatives had at least some stake in dampening the pandemic when Trump was still president. As those conditions have disappeared, the partisan divide has become undeniable.

If you want to follow the evolution of these trends, health analyst Charles Gaba @charles_gaba has been tracking the partisan divide. The differences are very clear. Fewer vaccines and more deaths as a county becomes Trumpier. The most recent data complied by Gaba shows that the death rate in the reddest counties is 5.54 times that of the bluest counties.

(Image via the Wisconsin Examiner)

As illustrated by Philip Bump, of the Washington Post, this pattern is not static, but has become worse over time. At one point, there were similar amounts of deaths in blue and red counties, but a very large gap has now emerged.

The partisan divide has hardened as vaccines have become more available, and even as other groups who initially showed hesitancy or faced access issues have increased vaccination rates. The gap between whites and Blacks has declined, and all but disappeared for Latinos. (The Asian-and-everyone-else gap is the only one which has grown!)

In other words, the remaining block of people who are refusing to get vaccinated are Republicans. At this point, knowing someone’s political identity is the best way of knowing their approach to vaccines. See this graph from NPR: Republicans are 60% of the unvaccinated population.

Misinformation matters

Why are Republicans so resistant? There is variation even within Republicans that offers insights. Unvaccinated Republicans tend to be younger (which makes sense, since they are least at risk of death), but also less educated and more conservative in their views. They are also more likely to believe that the threats are exaggerated and less likely to believe that COVID is something to worry about.

The most extraordinary difference may be that just 3% of unvaccinated Republicans believe that getting vaccinated is a collective responsibility (compared to 26% of vaxxed Republicans and 81% of vaxxed Dems). The inherent nature of COVID is that it transfers from one person to another. By definition, the choices we make as individuals affect those around us. But almost no unvaccinated Republicans agree that they have some responsibility to their community in this domain. We can’t defeat a pandemic as long as so many people refuse to acknowledge their obligations to others.

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Republicans are also more likely to believe in conspiracy theories about vaccinations, for example, that they cause impotence, give you COVID, or include microchips. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, almost half of Republicans compared to just 14% of Democrats believe or are unsure about four or more false statements about COVID-19.

The Ideological Divide

So who is to blame for this? Another way of asking this question is: Why do Republicans believe what they believe?

Maybe there is something in the conservative DNA that makes them reflexively opposed to public health measures. Indeed, if we compare attitudes toward COVID across countries we see that political ideology matters. But it matters much more in the U.S. Across other countries there is a 10-20 percentage point difference between the left and right according to one Pew poll.

In the U.S. it is 45 points.

COVID is a novel public health challenge. Therefore it represented a relatively blank slate where people did not have clear prior beliefs. This makes it more likely that people adopted their beliefs based on the cues provided by elites, such as politicians and media.

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Which brings us to Fox News.

I could show you a series of screenshots of Fox News talking heads encouraging COVID complacency and vaccine hesitancy. Such content has become a central feature of their programming. Or I could point out that Fox News itself, as an organization, was one of the early adopters of a workplace vaccine mandates that its editorial policy so fiercely opposes.

Instead, I am going to show you causal evidence that Fox News has made things worse. In other words, Fox News is not just catering to its audience’s taste for public health misinformation, it is actively cultivating it.

Social scientists obsess about questions of causality, how to show that X (Fox News content) caused Y (viewer public health beliefs), rather than Y caused X, or that other factors drove both X and Y. Ideally, an experimental design is used to sort out causality, identifying some sort of exogenous factor that shapes the outcome.

A standard technique at estimating the causal effect of Fox News is to look at channel positioning. The idea is that the placement of channels is random, but that people tend to watch more of channels placed earlier on the dial, all else equal. Researchers can then examine if that random source of variation is associated with changes in public health behaviors and outcomes, using indicators like local surveys, health measures like deaths, or GPS data to track whether people stayed at home. Researchers have used channel positioning to assess the effect of Fox News on other outcomes, such as estimating Republican vote share in elections, and the rise of the Tea Party.

What did researchers find when researchers used this technique to understand the relationship between Fox News and COVID?

One paper used a slightly different causal technique to look at variation within Fox News coverage. Hard to believe, but there was a time when Tucker Carlson’s messaging was reasonably responsible compared to Sean Hannity. Researchers exploited this variation through a variety of techniques.
They could not use channel placement as a source of exogenous variation in this case, since they were looking at variation within the Fox News channel, so they took a different ingenious approach: using variation in sunset times (with the idea that people watch more TV when its dark, and that in places where sunset is later, people will be exogenously more exposed to more Hannity, which runs later).

To sum up, a series of sophisticated analyses show that Fox News is leading viewers to take the COVID less seriously, to skip basic public health measures, to avoid vaccines and to greater illnesses and deaths. Fox News talking heads are not just asking questions, they are leading their viewers to their demise. And because COVID is a virus, they risks they are persuading their viewers to undertake are shared, unwillingly, with the rest of us.

The studies I’ve highlighted focus on Fox, but they should make you worry about a whole domain of conservative media and politics. Other Murdoch-owned operations, like the nominally high-brow Wall St. Journal and its embarrassing-but-influential cousin, the New York Post, are beating the same COVID-skeptic drum. So is the media Fox is now competing with, like Newsmax and OANN. Such messaging is also employed by many Republican politicians who have shaped coverage and promoted quack cures.

It is not the case that Fox and Co. are wholly responsible for partisan COVID gap. But elite messaging helps us to understand why the gap between left and right is so much wider in the U.S. than in other countries.

The pied pipers of death
Did we really need some fancy analytical techniques with social scientists finding ingenious sources of exogenous variation to persuade us that elite messaging matters? Maybe not. As it is, we have a lot of evidence that conservative media and Republican politicians are encouraging deaths. Its sort of like we have found them over the corpse, bloody knife in their hand. What the analyses do is to remove any reasonable doubt by providing a recording of the crime. It moves the moral culpability for death beyond plausible deniability.

Why kill your own voters or your own viewers? My speculative answer is that there are three overlapping reasons: an addiction to culture wars, conspiracism and anti-science narratives.

The omniscience of culture war framing on the right means that even basic public health issues are framed through that prism. As soon as CDC officials recommended masks for Americans, Trump’s advisers spied an opportunity: “In the months that followed, Trump was only seen wearing a mask on rare occasions, instead following the advice of Stephen Miller, Johnny McEntee, Derek Lyons and other trusted aides to think of masks as a cultural wedge issue.”

Similarly, a media and party that has fed its followers conspiracies seemed unable to switch modes when it came to COVID: Things are never as they seem. Some shadowy puppeteers are in cahoots with the government or foreign powers to control you! This mode of thinking is also the populist mode, and the line between conservative populism and conspiracism has become increasingly hard to discern. It is not just anti-elitism in general. If you take your cues from Trump, Rupert Murdoch and Tucker Swanson McNear Carlson, you have no problem with elites. It is directed rage against a certain type of elite.

Finally, there is the anti-science aspect of modern conservative thought. Science is an imperfect exercise. On the whole the scientific domain has provided the tools to get us out of a deadly pandemic. However, there has been plenty to criticize during COVID – regulators moving too slowly, or sending mixed messages. But the nature of human progress depends upon a willingness to modify and update scientific beliefs to reflect new findings. When errors become a basis to punish or distrust science, we are in trouble.

Ultimately, governing depends upon rationality. The use of logic, and evidence about cause and effects, are especially necessary in domains like public health, where irrationality is mercilessly punished. In some fundamental way, U.S. governance is being held hostage by those who are not just unable to fulfill the basic requirements of the job, but also dedicated to salting the earth for anyone else who tries to do better. Thus, the same media that undermined public health guidance will shamelessly blame the Biden administration for not effectively corralling the pandemic.

Don Moynihan is the McCourt Chair at the McCourt School of Public Policy, Georgetown University, and formerly a Professor at UW-Madison. This op-Ed originally appeared in Can We Still Govern?. It was republished by The Wisconsin Examiner, a sibling site of the Pennsylvania Capital-Star, with permission of the author.

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