The Polarizing Pandemic

Topos Partnership
4 min readApr 23, 2020


Conservatives and progressives demonstrate sharply different perceptions at the level of the Cultural Common Sense.

Illustration: iStockphoto

One of the most disturbing aspects of the COVID crisis is the extent to which beliefs and actions are polarized by political party identification. Several surveys find partisan divides in concern and action; one rigorous analysis by the National Bureau of Economic Research controlled for a range of potential factors to conclude that “partisan gaps in beliefs and behavior are real.”

One obvious cause of the gap is the extent to which Donald Trump and conservative media downplayed the risk early on, a theme they have returned to after briefly acknowledging the severity of the pandemic.

However, it is clear to us the explanation isn’t quite as simple as that.

Conservative Americans are not blindly following and regurgitating what they hear. Rather, conservative media is deftly playing to the Cultural Common Sense.

“Cultural Common Sense” is a term the Topos Partnership uses to describe the pervasive, deeply held ideas (correct and incorrect) that shape thinking and behavior. We study the Cultural Common Sense because our work suggests it is the level at which political and policy debates are won and lost.

In the current climate, conservatives and progressives demonstrate sharply different perceptions at this level, each side looking at the other as having little common sense.

Individual vs. Interdependent

For example, conservatives embrace individual self-reliance — the idea that “I can take care of myself and my family.” In this view, each individual should decide for themselves the risks they are willing to take regarding COVID. Progressives, on the other hand, are more open to seeing how we are objectively and concretely interdependent — the idea that “We rely on each other” or “We are in this together.” In this view, it is acceptable for the government to set rules everyone should follow in a public health crisis, because that is what is required for the good of all.

This in mind, widely reported remarks by Texas Lt. Governor Dan Patrick make sense to conservatives and outrage progressives.

“My message: let’s get back to work, let’s get back to living, let’s be smart about it, and those of us who are 70-plus, we’ll take care of ourselves.” Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, a 69-year-old Republican from Texas.

He, like many conservatives, believes it is up to each individual to decide for themselves. Progressives, on the other hand, are outraged by the seeming callousness of a person who would take actions that put other people’s lives at risk, who would decide for other seniors that their lives are expendable by encouraging people to take actions that spread the virus.

Freedom vs. Sacrifice

Similarly, Donald Trump’s call for protesters to “Liberate” their states, taps into conservatives’ deeply held sense of personal freedom — “I should be free to do what I want, and not be restricted by oppressive government dictates.” Progressives, typically fans of defying authority, in this case are likely to view such protests as selfish. Since progressive views are shaped by a sense of interdependence, they see that responsible citizens make sacrifices (like social distancing) for the greater good.

Tough vs. Smart

Donald Trump’s impatient calls to “open” the economy are viewed as idiotic by many progressives, who insist that decision-making should follow science. That’s the smart and prudent thing to do. However, it is likely that many conservatives view Trump’s stand as being tough in the face of adversity and standing firm despite the critics. Those who wait for an assurance of safety are weak.

Different Kinds of “Action”

Relatedly, calls to “open” the economy are viewed by conservatives as taking action while waiting for science means months of waiting around. Progressives, on the other hand, blame Donald Trump for not acting to prevent the spread of the virus, and not taking the steps that allow for an end to the quarantine. For Trump-supporters, action in this case means individual action reflecting individual freedom — working, shopping, etc. — while progressives focus on effective leadership and policy action, since they believe these are essential for solving problems.

Moving Forward

What common sense ideas might get people on the same page in recognizing the severity of the crisis and taking appropriate actions? We haven’t yet had an opportunity to research the answer, but our experience suggests some options:

  • Sacrifice: This is potentially a unifying idea. Progressives already believe people are making sacrifices, and conservatives honor sacrifice.
  • Follow the rules: Typically, conservatives believe strongly in following rules.
  • Responsible not reckless: The idea of being steadied and careful rather than reckless, is likely to be heard differently by conservatives than “wait for science.”
  • Action means putting plans into action: Instead of “wait for science,” demand action in the form of plans, procedures, training, testing and mobilizing American industry. Without those capabilities, we are forced to wait.
  • Health vs. economy is a false choice: Many Americans are already under enormous economic pressure that puts their family at risk, and as time goes on this will worsen. We should reject this trade-off. Instead, the point is to restart the economy in ways that protect public health.
  • Combine Individual and Interdependent against a common enemy: For example, “The only way to protect your family is to protect all families. Stopping this virus in its tracks requires all of us to do our part.”

By understanding the deeply-held Cultural Common Sense ideas that shape people’s attitudes and behavior, it is possible to get beyond shouting matches and build support for an agenda that moves America forward.



Topos Partnership

Founded in 2007, our mission is to explore the landscape of public understanding where social issues play out.