Wearing a mask has become a catalyst for political conflict. In an arena where scientific evidence is often viewed through a partisan lens, most Democrats support wearing a mask. Most Republicans don’t.
That’s the finding from a Pew Research Center survey conducted at the height of the pandemic. Pollsters set out nationwide and found that the dispute over masks largely embodies the latest political dynamics.
The divide between those who wear masks and the “anti-maskers” is particularly sharp. The so-called anti-maskers have expressed their views loud and clear. Those who advocate mask wearing have done likewise. The survey found that the common denominator between both groups is what they’ve heard from their preferred political party.
The views of anti-maskers are not shared by public-health experts. The latter group insists that wearing a mask helps stop infected people from passing the virus on to others. It’s been a confusing message because early in the pandemic, public health officials suggested people not wear a mask because there might not be enough to go around for health care workers. A little later, scientific understanding of the virus and its transmission had changed…and so did the advice to the public.
Democrats were caught in a bind with the confusing messaging. They professed that masks can help prevent the spread of infection and if people covered their faces in public then the country could get back to normal faster. This was in line with Democratic leaders who were more vocal about the importance of face masks. Many governors made it mandatory to wear a mask in public. Many Republican leaders spoke out about the importance of masks, but top GOP leaders were more hesitant to mandate masks—even as their states began to see surges of new cases amid reopening phases.
Shana Gadarian, an associate professor of political science at Syracuse University, said public health experts believed that the more worried people were about the virus, the more likely they would follow best health practices. That was the premise she and her colleagues followed when they conducted a survey last year about American’s attitudes toward the pandemic. They quickly discovered they were wrong.
“What we found was that the biggest divider in people’s behaviors was not their age, not their demographics, not their education; it was their partisanship,” Gadarian said. The percentages, they found, on mask-wearing—even hand-washing—between Democrats and Republicans diverge as much as 20 percent. As states began to open up, the gap widened.
In North Carolina, a group called “Reopen NC” said shutdown orders were “muzzles” that, along with things like mandatory temperature checks, were “ways our freedom is being eroded.” A meeting of local leaders last year in Palm Beach, Fla. saw several people speak out against masks. Reasons varied from anger that masks “throw God’s wonderful breathing system out the door” to invoking a “plan-demic” conspiracy theory.
A recent survey by CivicScience, an online polling app, found that those who do not plan to get the vaccine have a high likelihood of believing masks are not necessary even if a person is unvaccinated. Those who are vaccinated have the opposite belief. The poll found that, overall, half of the general population believes that masks are at least sometimes necessary once someone is vaccinated. Those who believe that masks are still necessary tend to fall into the lower-income brackets. Higher-earning persons are more likely to say masks are not necessary. Part of this could be related to job type; lower-income service workers view masking as important because of more public interaction.
The CivicScience poll may have revealed the sheer resistance to authority among anti-maskers and anti-vaxxers. Dr. Henry Redel, chief of Infectious Disease at St. Peter’s University Hospital in New Jersey, summed it up this way: “I think people are hesitant to wear masks due to our culture and humans are used to using their faces to express emotions and communicate. It’s a big change. Cultures in Asia, where respiratory viruses have caused epidemics in the past, have adapted culturally to the practice and had better results during the pandemic. Americans can do the same.”
Has the media played a role? Forty years ago, we didn’t have an extremely large and well-financed right-wing media establishment. This body generally distrusts the government and the “liberal elite.” The American phenomenon—“I know my rights”—goes back centuries. The reluctance to wear masks may reflect a decline in trust of institutions and a willingness to believe conspiracy theories.
Industy plays a role. In the 1970s, when the environmental movement began pushing for change, the manufacturing industry fought back. Tobacco companies for years publicly doubted the science that smoking causes cancer. When global warming came to the forefront as an issue, the oil, chemical and coal industries redoubled their efforts to fight back and cast doubt on the scientific research proving climate change is a significant problem. Today, companies have been slow to mandate vacciness.
For centuries, there has been a list of things Americans think they shouldn’t be required to do. It’s growing exponentially. There have always been long-standing cultural tendencies and conspiracy theories that the government is trying to take away our rights. Add the polarized news outlets—full of conspiracies and distrust—and you get where we are today.
If politics is about winners and losers, during the pandemic, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) lost big time starting with the slow, botched roll-out of its test kits, and then its about-face on whether we needed to wear masks.
“We had some confusing messaging at the beginning of the pandemic,” Gadarian said. “Messages from health leaders like the CDC were rapidly changing, and that was hard for people to keep up with. So, they have to turn toward those kinds of experts that they believe and that they trust. And in this case, the kind of [political] messaging is the dominant factor in their decision to wear or not to wear a mask.”