Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A 119 (3) - [2022-01-18; online 2022-01-20]
Political polarization impeded public support for policies to reduce the spread of COVID-19, much as polarization hinders responses to other contemporary challenges. Unlike previous theory and research that focused on the United States, the present research examined the effects of political elite cues and affective polarization on support for policies to manage the COVID-19 pandemic in seven countries (n = 12,955): Brazil, Israel, Italy, South Korea, Sweden, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Across countries, cues from political elites polarized public attitudes toward COVID-19 policies. Liberal and conservative respondents supported policies proposed by ingroup politicians and parties more than the same policies from outgroup politicians and parties. Respondents disliked, distrusted, and felt cold toward outgroup political elites, whereas they liked, trusted, and felt warm toward both ingroup political elites and nonpartisan experts. This affective polarization was correlated with policy support. These findings imply that policies from bipartisan coalitions and nonpartisan experts would be less polarizing, enjoying broader public support. Indeed, across countries, policies from bipartisan coalitions and experts were more widely supported. A follow-up experiment replicated these findings among US respondents considering international vaccine distribution policies. The polarizing effects of partisan elites and affective polarization emerged across nations that vary in cultures, ideologies, and political systems. Contrary to some propositions, the United States was not exceptionally polarized. Rather, these results suggest that polarizing processes emerged simply from categorizing people into political ingroups and outgroups. Political elites drive polarization globally, but nonpartisan experts can help resolve the conflicts that arise from it.