The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion What if masks weren’t fated to be polarizing? New polls suggest as much.

Anti-mask protests outside a Florida school board meeting. (Amy Beth Bennett/South Florida Sun-Sentinel via AP)

It has been repeated so often that it’s become an accepted maxim: The country is “deeply polarized” over the government response to covid-19. This has become the new “culture war.” Americans now inhabit “two separate realities.” And so forth.

The new focus of this claim is the national battle that has erupted over mask mandates, with some local government and school officials wanting to implement them and Republican governors standing in their way. This is being treated as yet another sign that the country is split into warring camps.

But what if the country isn’t actually that divided over the idea? What if the impression of deep divisions has been largely created by the fact that opponents of mask mandates are a lot louder than proponents, and GOP governors are mostly responding to the former population?

Two new polls suggest this possibility: They both find broad support for various types of mask mandates. And there are also signs that mask mandates transcend some of the geographic and cultural lines that are seen as key fault lines in our politics.

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A new Politico/Morning Consult poll, for instance, finds large majorities of registered voters either strongly or somewhat support their local governments requiring masks for offices (64 percent), for indoor dining (61 percent), at gyms (62 percent) and at entertainment venues (65 percent).

Majorities of older voters, of White voters, of Southerners, of various Christian denominations, of non-college-educated voters, and even (to a slightly lesser extent) rural voters support these mask mandates.

Those percentages, interestingly, were not far off from those among younger voters, non-White voters, people outside the South, secular voters, college-educated voters, and suburban and urban voters. That suggests this position straddles various cultural lines in our politics.

“We are finding across demographics that there is majority support for mask mandates,” Robin Graziano, a pollster for Morning Consult, told me.

Meanwhile, a new Kaiser Family Foundation poll finds that 63 percent of parents of school-age children say unvaccinated students and staff should be required to wear masks while they’re in school. According to Kaiser, even non-college White parents — a demographic, we are constantly told, that is in thrall to Donald Trump and the cultural spells he casts — are very closely divided, with 48 percent supportive and 52 percent opposed.

In both polls, however, only minorities of Republican respondents support the mask mandates, even as majorities of independents (and Democrats) support them. The question is whether this concentration of opposition among Republicans is creating a somewhat skewed picture of just how deep the divisions really are here.

“Republicans are really the only outliers here, with majorities of Republicans consistently opposed,” Graziano of Morning Consult told me.

All of this raises tantalizing questions about what might have been. Early on, President Biden and his advisers hoped that the country might unite around our covid response. Once Trump faded into the background and his hold on Republican voters loosened, the logic of vaccines and masks and social distancing would be overwhelming. The country might unite around the idea of mutually working together toward the common good of defeating covid.

But Trump didn’t fade from the scene. Worse, many Republican officials and influencers actively picked up and ran with Trump’s project of using covid to stoke cultural and social conflict in all kinds of ways.

The broad public support for mask mandates is getting lost in all the noise and suggests that if Republicans hadn’t made that ugly decision, our politics could have been unified on these matters as well. It’s even possible that recalcitrance among even GOP voters might not be so widespread. But we may never know.