Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Anxious Politics

Shana Kushner Gadarian, Bethany Albertson

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As of 2016, there is real public anxiety about terrorism, which is likely to increase in the coming months. As anxiety increases, what does political science tell us that we should expect to see? Our new book, Anxious Politics: Democratic Citizenship in a Threatening World, suggests four key lessons.


1) Anxiety helps people learn about politics but biases learning

In general, the American public pays little attention to politics. Anxiety counteracts this tendency. It triggers interest in and attention to news, increasing people’s ability to learn about and form opinions about those issues

But although people anxious about issues like terrorism or immigration seek out information in part to lower their anxiety, the opposite tends to occur: people become hypervigilant toward threats. Anxious people are likely to seek out and remember threatening news in particular.

For instance, citizens concerned about terrorism are likely follow news that focuses on the threat of future attacks or frames refugees as potentially dangerous.

2) An anxious public wants protection and safety

Anxiety signals to people that their environment is risky and motivates them to avoid danger, seek protection, and create a safer world. When anxiety comes from the world of politics, people are motivated to support policies that they believe will keep them, their families, and their country safe.

How do people know policies will do this? They rely on the messages that political leaders send. In the wake of terrorism, leaders will often advocate for military action. Anxious citizens are likely to support these policies, even at the risk of sacrificing the civil liberties of fellow citizens.

When leaders tie national security issues to immigration, anxious citizens become less supportive of immigration and more supportive of restrictive immigration policies like closing the borders.

3) An anxious public puts their trust in leaders

Anxious people need to trust others, particularly when threatened. We put our faith in others to manage and mitigate risks, and we’re drawn to leaders that offer protection and solace.

We find that anxiety causes people to trust experts. In some cases, expertise is simple, as in a medical emergency, where trust in doctors increases.

In politics however, what constitutes expertise is more contentious. We find that anxious people tend to trust the party that “owns” a particular issue. For example, both Democrats and Republicans who are made anxious about immigration become more trusting of the Republican Party.

4) Anxious politics has implications for elite messaging

Given the abundance of threat in the world and the political effects of anxiety, it should be no surprise that politicians engage in what’s derisively referred to as “fear-mongering”. Politicians legitimately feel responsible for alerting the public of threats, but there is also a strategic logic to what threats they emphasize and which they ignore or downplay.

Politicians have an incentive to stoke anxiety on issues where their party is perceived as having expertise. Anxious citizens are more likely to set aside partisanship and support leaders and policies they normally do not. But this doesn’t mean that “fear-mongering” always works. People use their own beliefs, including partisanship, to resist appeals to anxiety that they view as manipulative.

Emotions like anxiety can help people navigate a potentially dangerous world. In the current political climate though, politicians may be all to eager to amplify alarm bells and pair them with their preferred remedies. We hope that the election season means Americans will see some contestation over the best way to keep us safe.

This is an edited version of an article that appeared on Monkey Cage in The Washington Post.

About The Authors

Shana Kushner Gadarian

Shana Kushner Gardarian is co-author of Anxious Politics: Democratic Citizenship in a Threatening World (2015). She is an assistant professor of political science at the Maxwell Sc...

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Bethany Albertson

Bethany Albertson is co-author of Anxious Politics: Democratic Citizenship in a Threatening World (2015). She is an assistant professor of government at the University of Texas, Au...

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