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Anxious Politics

A new book by political scientist Shana Gadarian explores how anxiety over public threats affects the political arena.

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Shana Gadarian studies how political threats (such as terrorism) and resulting anxiety impact politics and voter attitudes.

The 2016 presidential campaign is breaking the mold in many regards, perhaps none more significant than its focus on international policy, as candidates frame the security of the nation through concerns about the Islamic state, terrorism, and the immigration of refugees.

The emphasis is unusual, says Maxwell political scientist Shana Kushner Gadarian, because historically people don’t vote on foreign policy. “But it’s also the case that political leaders see these issues as advantageous to them and it is in their interest to keep people anxious about them,” she says. According to Gadarian, “anxious” people are more likely to trust leaders they believe have expertise in the issue they’re anxious about, or to trust leaders from whatever party is traditionally seen as “owning” the issue. 

 “If you survey people, they will repeatedly say that Republicans have an advantage on national defense and immigration,” she says. “But we have a Democrat running — Hillary Clinton — who has foreign policy experience in a way that none of the other candidates do, by virtue of having served as Secretary of State.”

When expertise and ownership lean in different directions, it’s not as clear what will happen. “That’s what makes this cycle so interesting,” she says.

Gadarian is co-author with Bethany Albertson of Anxious Politics: Democratic Citizenship in a Threatening World, which explores how American’s reactions to public threats affect the national political arena. The book was written from studies the duo conducted between 2007 and 2014 on four hot-button issues: terrorism, immigration, public health, and climate change. Published in October, the book has enhanced timeliness due to world events and their emphasis in the U.S. presidential campaign.

“It’s certainly the case that, in this election cycle, outside events are causing people to feel more anxious,” says Gadarian, whose work has been funded by the National Science Foundation, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Princeton Policy Research Institute for the Region, and the Mamdouha S. Bobst Center for Peace and Justice.

“It’s certainly the case that, in this election cycle, outside events are causing people to feel more anxious.”
— Shana Gadarian

In response to that anxiety, Gadarian says people typically try to become more informed about the issues they’re worried about. While that seems like an appropriate response, she says the result is that people tend to seek out and remember more threatening news.

An anxious public also seeks out leaders they feel they can trust, which are those they believe will provide protection and safety. “When you hear Donald Trump say ‘I will build a wall,’ he means to reassure people that he can protect them from threats,” says Gadarian, who received Maxwell’s Moynihan Award for Teaching and Research in 2015.

However, there is a counter-effect. Candidates who stoke the fire of American fears, Gadarian says, alienate those from the other side of the political aisle. “We find that political leaders [who leverage threat anxiety] are less effective in persuading people from the opposite party,” she says. “People use their own beliefs — including partisanship — to resist appeals to anxiety that they view as manipulative.”

Gadarian spent seven years on the Anxious Politicsproject, studying how threats such as terrorism, disease, and climate change — magnified by media attention and elite rhetoric — impact public attitudes. She has since moved on to a cross-national project with European scholars, funded by the Norwegian Research Council, that examines public response to terrorism in Europe and the United States. They’re comparing, country by country, both the policy responses and “societal resilience” to attacks.

Until the election, Gadarian is enjoying the attention that world events and the Presidential candidates bring to her book; she’s been interviewed by journalists from as far away as Chile, Spain, and Denmark. “I joke I should send Donald Trump a fruit basket,” she says.       

— Renée Gearhart Levy

This article appeared in the spring 2016 print edition of Maxwell Perspective; © 2016 Maxwell School of Syracuse University. To request a copy, e-mail dlcooke@maxwell.syr.edu.