The Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan made a similar argument in May, during the pandemic’s first wave. She wrote: “There is a class divide between those who are hard-line on lockdowns and those who are pushing back. We see the professionals on one side … and regular people on the other.” Republicans certainly promoted this narrative during the fall election campaigns, as The Washington Post recently noted: “In the middle of a pandemic in which Democrats have been more willing to push stay-at-home orders and other mitigation measures, Republicans have accused them of seeing the world through the eyes of a privileged class of workers able to conduct their work from home.”
But these observations have been based on rough impressions or intuition, rather than evidence. Surveys — whether conducted recently or earlier in the pandemic — don’t show the class divide that some pundits believe is self-evident. Compared with previous Republican candidates, Trump did well among working-class voters and poorly among middle-class voters, prompting attempts to identify issues that might explain this pattern. And some observers are imagining class differences where they do not exist, or exaggerating small differences.
To be sure, most working-class people can’t do their jobs from home, so they suffer a bigger financial loss from shutdowns. It is at least plausible that they might look skeptically on the views of elites and experts. Perhaps working-class people are more fatalistic (or realistic) and think you must accept some risks in life. But you can also think of reasons that middle-class people might oppose restrictions. Middle-class jobs are more likely to allow some distance from co-workers and customers, for example, and middle-class people tend to go out more frequently for dining and entertainment. As a result, they might risk less and gain more from reopening.
That’s why we need data. Although many surveys have asked for opinions of the government’s handling of the pandemic, only a few have asked about restrictions. However, two recent surveys sponsored by Fox News contain a good measure of general attitudes about the issue: “Which of the following do you think should be the federal government’s priority: limiting the spread of coronavirus, even if it hurts the economy, or restarting the economy, even if it increases the risk to public health?” The first survey was conducted Oct. 3-6, when the recent surge in cases was beginning; the second was conducted Oct. 27-29, when it was well advanced.
One common (if imprecise) way to draw the line between the working and middle class is by possession of a college degree. The reports on the surveys do not have a general breakdown by education, but they do show opinions among White registered voters with and without a college degree. In the first survey, 36 percent of White voters with a college degree — and 37 percent of Whites without one — thought that restarting the economy should be the priority. In the second survey, 43 percent of White college graduates — and 38 percent without a degree — took that position. There is some evidence, in short, that it is White people with degrees who are becoming more anxious to get back to normal: Their support for focusing on the economy rose more between the surveys, while support among Whites without degrees increased less. But the class differences in both surveys were within the margin of error — they could easily be due to chance — so the safest conclusion is that there is no compelling evidence of a class-based divergence of opinion.
The Fox News poll did not include breakdowns by education among groups other than Whites. But an NPR-PBS NewsHour-Marist poll conducted Aug. 3-11 did. It asked about seven kinds of restrictions: keeping students out of school; closing workplaces; preventing large groups from attending religious, social and sporting events; ending organized youth sports; banning indoor dining at restaurants; banning outdoor dining; and mandating mask use nationally. Support among all groups for restrictions ranged from 17 percent (the proportion who thought outside dining was a bad idea) to 74 percent (in favor of a mask mandate). On six of the seven questions — all except allowing outside dining — people with a college degree were more likely to favor restrictions, but the differences were very small: 42 percent of people without a college degree thought it was a good idea for students to return to school, for example, compared with 37 percent of people with a degree. That is statistically significant, but it is hardly evidence of a class chasm.
In both the Fox and the NPR-PBS-Marist polls, several other demographic characteristics were more closely correlated with attitudes about restrictions than was class. Women were significantly more likely than men to support restrictions, as were people from urban areas. But the biggest influence was race. Forty-nine percent of non-Hispanic Whites but only 21 percent of African Americans thought that it was a good idea to have restaurants open for indoor dining. (Latinos and Asian Americans fell somewhere in between Whites and African Americans.) Democrats support restrictions more than Republicans do, and Black voters are overwhelmingly Democratic. But it’s not simply a partisan issue: Even among Democrats, Black support for the restrictions stood out. (Although it is hard to be sure given the sample size, educational differences seemed to be somewhat larger among Blacks than among Whites or Latinos.)
These demographic differences may have mattered electorally: Whites, men and people in rural areas tended to vote for Trump, who opposed most restrictions. Attitudes among Black voters toward the restrictions may have solidified their ties to the Democratic candidate. But contrary to the conventional wisdom, there is not a consistent class difference in views on coronavirus-related restrictions.