Editor’s Note: Stephen Hawkins is the director of research for More in Common, a nonpartisan research and civic nonprofit, and Dan Vallone is the US director for More in Common. The views expressed in this commentary are their own. View more opinion on CNN.
The Covid-19 pandemic struck at a time when political polarization in the US is at record levels. At first glance, Americans’ experiences of the virus confirm a story of a deeply divided nation. Research has consistently shown partisan identity to be among the strongest predictors of Americans’ divergent responses to the virus, and extensive coverage of protests against lockdown orders vividly dramatizes the red-versus-blue dynamic.
When we look beneath the headlines, however, there are signs of an emerging story of solidarity that cuts across our polarized politics. The leading actors in this story are members of the “Traditional Conservative” segment we identified in our 2018 report, “Hidden Tribes: A Study of America’s Polarized Landscape.”
Traditional Conservatives are staunch Republicans – 87% voted for Donald Trump in 2016 and 86% voted for a Republican candidate in the 2018 midterms – and constitute almost 20% of the adult population overall and approximately 39% of Americans who identify as Republican.
Despite this strong political identity, members of the Traditional Conservative segment are now responding to Covid-19 through a social and community lens, rather than a partisan filter.
If this shift endures, it could have significant implications – not just for the 2020 election but for the strength of America’s social fabric.
When we published “Hidden Tribes” two years ago, we identified seven distinct segments of the American population. We described four segments as comprising the “Exhausted Majority” because, while ideologically and demographically diverse, they shared a set of common features: They were fed up with hyper-partisan politics, felt like their voices were not heard and wanted our country to come together. We put a spotlight on this group as a potential force to reduce polarization in politics and foster a spirit of collaboration.
Traditional Conservatives – along with the “Progressive Activist” (8% of the population) and “Devoted Conservative” (6% of the population) segments – were not part of the Exhausted Majority in 2018 because of the intensity of their partisan identity and investment in the political status quo.
Relative to the Exhausted Majority, Traditional Conservatives were 12 percentage points less likely to want compromise (53% vs. 65%), more likely to say “we need to defeat the evil within our nation” (48% vs. 36%) and almost twice as likely to express partisan views, such as cold feelings toward supporters of Hillary Clinton (85% vs. 44%). Subsequent research we published in 2019 affirmed the primacy of Traditional Conservatives’ partisan identity.
Today, Covid-19 may be changing the equation. In a study our nonprofit, More in Common, fielded with YouGov in late March, we asked 2,000 Americans how Covid-19 was affecting their views on subjects of unity, gratitude and community. Half of the respondents had participated in “Hidden Tribes,” allowing us to compare results.
In this new study, we unexpectedly found that many Traditional Conservatives expressed views closer to those of the Exhausted Majority, breaking ranks from their Devoted Conservative allies.
Meaningfully, Traditional Conservatives have the strongest perception, across all segments, that America is more united now than it was before Covid-19 (66% versus average of 46%). This sense of unity is accompanied by a sense of solidarity and shared experience.
Fully two-thirds (67%) of Traditional Conservatives say they are now more grateful to live in the US (versus 34% average) and 22% say they feel closer to the people in the areas hardest hit by Covid-19 in the early days of the pandemic, such as New York City, California, and Washington State. Just 5% of Devoted Conservatives expressed such solidarity with these blue areas.
Beyond solidarity, Traditional Conservatives’ response conveys a growing sense of appreciation for other Americans. When asked about groups who have played a role in tackling the pandemic, (e.g. nurses, police, grocery staff) Traditional Conservatives expressed gratitude at or above the national average for 9 out of 12 groups.
Similarly, the percentage of Traditional Conservatives who feel “we can’t count on the people around us as much as we used to” has dropped from 73% in 2018 to less than half (47%) today, the largest drop shown by any segment.
These shifts do not represent a definitive change in the political landscape. Traditional Conservatives still express many views similar to those of the Devoted Conservatives – 42% of Traditional Conservatives and 64% of Devoted Conservatives are “much more frustrated” with journalists and reporters now than before the onset of the virus, for example.
Further, while majorities of both Democrats and Republicans think restrictions put in place “are about right,” recent polling has shown a widening partisan gap in views on the pandemic.
However, today, many Traditional Conservatives appear to be more closely aligned with a growing American consensus that appreciates the need for national solidarity against Covid-19 and is frustrated by our broken politics.
This bolsters the ranks of Americans looking for leaders to heal our divisions and build on our shared experiences of loss, gratitude and hope as we wrestle with this pandemic.