The COVID-19 pandemic is driving different political trends in the US and Australia according to new research from the United States Studies Centre, in collaboration with La Trobe University and the University of Melbourne.

Polling of 1,000 Americans and 1,000 Australians has shown a stark contrast in sentiment toward government management of the crisis, with the pandemic driving partisan politics in the United States but erasing party lines in Australia. United States Studies Centre CEO Simon Jackman notes, "Bipartisanship, reliance on scientific expertise, effective policies and public support for those policies form a virtuous circle."

The public is much more willing to support tough policies when political leaders from opposite sides of politics are seen to be united and relying on experts, as we've seen in Australia with the National Cabinet."

The research reveals that the differences do not just apply to the perception of government handling of the crisis but fear over the virus itself. In the United States, only 19 per cent of Republicans are very or extremely worried about contracting the virus compared to 48 per cent of Democrats. The polling found no equivalent partisan divide in Australia, with only 5 points difference between voter concern and Coalition voters in between Labor and Greens voters on the question.

“In these circumstances, opposition to policies is outside the mainstream and is starved of political oxygen,” Jackman explains. He adds, “Partisan acrimony in the US was running at century-high levels prior to the COVID-19 crisis."

The research also notes the significance of the United States entering their peak election season, while the Australian federal government were elected last year.

Jackman concludes, "With elections in November, and after the Trump administration's slow response to the crisis in its opening months, prospects of an effective, bipartisan policy in the US evaporated."

Key points

  • New research finds most Australians believe COVID-19 lockdowns and social distancing measures are “are about right”, while profound partisan disagreements are both symptom and cause of American’s struggles to respond to the pandemic.
  • Australians report lower levels of concern about contracting the virus, higher levels of support for lockdowns and trust in medical experts, and almost a complete absence of the partisanship cleaving American public opinion.
  • In Australia, two-thirds of voters say government measures are “about right” but in the US, 51 per cent of Trump voters said the measures have gone too far while 53 per cent of Biden voters say they have not gone far enough.
  • Trust in medical experts is also polarised, with 85 per cent of Biden supporters saying they trust medical experts “a lot” with respect to the pandemic but only 37 per cent of Trump supporters say the same.

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