- The wearing of face coverings has become a flashpoint between conservatives and liberals in the US.
- Insider asked two social psychologists to explain the phenomenon. Both blamed the issue on a highly partisan political environment and persistent anti-mask messaging from President Trump.
- They also likened it to the climate change debate, which didn't start out as a political issue in the 1990s but has since become highly partisan as Republicans incorporated it into their agenda.
- "It just isn't healthy for the country to be split this way," one of the experts said.
- Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.
The wearing of face coverings to prevent the novel coronavirus spread has become an undisputed flashpoint in the US.
People have been kicked off planes and have started fights over their refusal to wear masks. A Starbucks barista was shamed on Facebook and a Waffle House worker was shot for refusing to serve people who did not follow mask-wearing mandates.
This political divide over the issue of face coverings — which has been recommended by experts around the world — seems to be most prominent in the US, where liberals lean toward complying with face mask orders, and conservatives tend to reject them.
A survey from the Pew Research Center, published in late June, showed that 63% of Democrats and Democrat-leaning independents believed that face masks should be worn in public at all times, compared to just 29% of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents.
Insider spoke to two social psychologists, who said the issue traces back to America's polarized political climate and the anti-mask messaging from President Donald Trump, who until recently refused to wear one.
"We're in this space in the US where the two sides just really hate each other, and that extends to information. So it's not just 'I don't like you.' It's 'I don't like your values, I don't like your facts,'" Pete Ditto, a psychology professor at the University of California, Irvine, told Insider.
"You really don't see those levels of polarizations in other countries," he added.
Leading by Trump's example
A partisan political climate is not the only factor making face masks such a heated issue, said Eric Knowles, an associate psychology professor at New York University.
Republican and Democratic leaders have been shaping Americans' opinions on face masks through their explicit statements and actions throughout the pandemic, he said.
"Trump and Republicans have downplayed the seriousness of the pandemic, and by extension the importance of wearing masks, whereas Democratic politicians have played up the dangers — perhaps appropriately — and therefore the importance of health behaviors," Knowles said.
Another key factor in the face-mask divide, according to Ditto, is the fact that nobody likes wearing them in the first place.
"You can take that dislike of wearing masks and weaponize it in a way, and tell people this is bad, and that's essentially what's happened," Ditto said.
"You've got one side who, for a lot of complicated reasons, wants to believe that this pandemic is not very serious. They don't want it to disrupt their lives, so they've decided these masks are bad — and not just that they're bad, but that they don't work," he said.
Both psychologists compared the flashpoint over face masks to the climate change debate, which they said wasn't a very political issue when it first started being widely discussed in the 1990s.
"It did not stand out as a polarized political issue until Republicans started to use it as a wedge and started to associated their political agenda with downplaying climate change," Knowles said of the climate change debate.
The face mask issue is a "revisitation of that process of taking something that's a common challenge that we all face, we all need to team up and collectively deal with, and seeing it become increasingly politicized," Knowles said.
But Trump has the power to make people wear masks
Knowles said he was hopeful that Trump's sudden support of face masks could have a positive impact on mask-wearing across the nation. Indeed, the president's reelection campaign sent an email Monday night telling supporters that mask-wearing is "something we should all try to do," according to CNN.
"I tentatively expect that if Trump can stay on message and consistently express in the public sphere the importance of wearing masks, you will see a reduction in partisan discrepancy," he said.
Ditto is not as optimistic.
"In social psychology there is a long history of studies trying to make the point that some kind of external threat will bring people together," he said.
"We may fight and fight and fight when the stakes are low, but when a serious threat happens, we pull together."
"So everyone kind of hoped for that, that if the threat gets so bad it will pull people together," Ditto said. "That just doesn't seem to be happening, though."
The divide may only get worse as the election looms
With the November presidential election nearing, Ditto said he expects the partisan split on mask-wearing to get even more pronounced.
"It just isn't healthy for the country to be split this way," Ditto said. "A medical threat is a good example of something that shouldn't be politicized, but once it gets into this hopper, it gets politicized."
Regardless of the politics, people's refusal to wear face masks are likely going to cost more American lives. The US has recorded the most coronavirus cases and deaths in the world, and the toll is expected to keep rising.
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