The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Americans want to trust the experts on the coronavirus. That isn’t easy.

They end up trusting parties on the evidence.

Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and Deborah Birx, White House coronavirus response coordinator, answer a question during a briefing about the coronavirus in the White House on March 31. (Alex Brandon/AP)
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Covid-19 continues to disrupt. Should people — including the president — wear a mask? Will a vaccine solve the pandemic crisis? How do we safely open restaurants, schools and businesses — and keep the U.S. economy ticking along?

Early on, President Trump advocated repeatedly for easing restrictions to preserve the economy. Despite many epidemiologists and economists agreeing best practice for the economy was to protect public health, the “reopening debates” at the national and local levels posed public health and economic health as trade-offs. People had to wade through large amounts of conflicting information about the virus from politicians and media sources.

Under these circumstances, how did ordinary citizens make sense of the reopening debates?

My research answers this question through in-depth interviews with residents of three small Midwest towns during the spring of 2020. I found participants overwhelmingly wanted to follow expert advice, but because they often had little trust in secondhand sources — politicians and the media — many found themselves mired in uncertainty, not knowing what to believe.

As they grew increasingly aware of the partisan divide on the question of reopening, participants’ attitudes divided along party lines. They also worked to frame their opinions as scientifically valid, arriving at opposing interpretations of the same evidence.

How I did my research

I conducted 117 in-depth interviews from March through May, speaking by phone with 75 residents of three Midwestern counties. The sample comes from a larger, longitudinal study of these communities throughout the 2020 presidential election, which began in the summer of 2019. When covid-19 interrupted data collection, I refocused the research to incorporate voters’ assessments of the pandemic response.

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I selected these counties because they all have small towns of between 15,000 and 30,000 residents who are predominantly White and employed in the manufacturing, transportation, education and service sectors. Despite these similarities, these communities have voted differently in presidential elections since the 1960s: Iverson, Wis., is staunchly Democratic; Meriville, Ind., is devoutly Republican; and Williston, Minn., could go either way in any given election.

During the summer of 2019, I recruited participants to achieve a sample with balance and variation across age, gender, occupation, depth of religious beliefs, strength of partisan attachment and level of political information. I also conducted a first round of in-person interviews at that time.

I then conducted a first set of covid-19 interviews with a subset of participants at the start of stay-at-home orders in March and a second round of questions as communities were hotly contesting stay-at-home orders, which eventually eased in April and May. While the larger study focuses on comparison across each community, the timing of the interviews also sheds light on how people’s thinking changed between these two conversations.

Listening to the experts proves difficult

Here are some of the key findings. Democrats and Republicans alike overwhelmingly wanted their government to listen to the “experts” — specifically Anthony S. Fauci and Deborah Birx — and also sought to live by their advice. When I spoke with Fred, a Republican retiree, in March, he explained why he had faith in the experts: “I think that the good, scientific, steady approach is the only way to handle it.”

While many participants echoed Fred’s sentiments, they also expressed frustration over the feeling that “trusting the experts” wasn’t that easy to do. As they struggled to keep up with changing scientific evidence on the coronavirus, they also worried that the media and politicians distorted the information. As a result, participants regularly expressed feelings of apprehension and ambivalence about the pandemic response.

How democracies can survive dilemmas like the coronavirus

Then, during April and May, many interviewees came to see reopening as a trade-off between economic stability and public health, with the Republican Party advocating for the economy and the Democratic Party prioritizing public health. As Christopher, a Democrat from Iverson, explained in mid-May: “I think there’s only two sides to this. You either want to help stop the disease. Or you don’t. And you want it to continue spreading.”

By that time, with many citing that the uncertainties from covid-19 and their lack of trust in the media leaving them exhausted, participants tended to follow their party’s position on reopening.

People saw the evidence through increasingly partisan eyes

Importantly, participants justified their opinions not by crediting partisan evidence or rebuffing expertise. Instead, they interpreted emerging evidence about covid-19 differently — people thought their party had a “scientific” justification for their reopening opinions.

Here’s a particularly salient example. Participants recognized a lack of testing meant cases were underreported, particularly as new information about asymptomatic cases emerged. Democrats worried about the virus moving undetected through the community. Republicans tended to take this news about asymptomatic cases as evidence they did not have to worry as much about the virus’s severity. Cal, for example, is a Republican from Meriville who was less concerned the second time we spoke in late April, for this very reason: “It seems to be a lot more widespread than what they first thought. And most healthy people recover.”

Who can convince Americans to follow the science on coronavirus? Religious leaders.

What are the takeaways for pandemic policymaking?

My research suggests people in America are willing and able to keep up with the hefty task of information-gathering during the covid-19 pandemic — but the information environment makes this unnecessarily difficult. As a result, during the reopening debates, my interviewees tended to become more partisan because sorting through information they found untrustworthy became overwhelming.

This has repercussions for how public health officials convey information to the public. As this project continues, many participants this fall are expressing misgivings about the covid-19 vaccine approval process and general vaccination risks. But I’m also noting many people remain committed to some abstract idea of listening to the “experts,” including Fauci and Birx.

While we may be right to worry about Americans’ anti-science tendencies in other instances, among my interviewees this wasn’t the main barrier to consensus during the reopening debates. Instead, it was their pervasive, ingrained distrust in the media and in what politicians had to say about the pandemic.

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Stephanie Ternullo is a PhD candidate in sociology at the University of Chicago, where she studies political and urban sociology. This research is supported by the National Science Foundation and the Social Science Research Council. The names of the towns and the people mentioned in this article are all pseudonyms, in accordance with Institutional Review Board protocol.