Public Reactions to Terrorist Threats
For the last five years we have researched the connection between times of terrorist threats and public opinion. In a series of tightly designed experiments, we expose subsets of research participants to a news story not unlike the type that aired last week. We argue that attitudes, evaluations, and behaviors change in at least three politically-relevant ways when terror threat is more prominent in the news. Some of these transformations are in accord with conventional wisdom concerning how we might expect the public to react. Others are more surprising, and more disconcerting in their implications for the quality of democracy.
One way that public opinion shifts is toward increased expressions of distrust. In some ways this strategy has been actively promoted by our political leaders. The Bush administration repeatedly reminded the public to keep eyes and ears open to help identify dangerous persons. A strategy of vigilance has also been endorsed by the new secretary of Homeland Security, Janet Napolitano.
Nonetheless, the breadth of increased distrust that the public puts into practice is striking. Individuals threatened by terrorism become less trusting of others, even their own neighbors. Other studies have shown that they become less supportive of the rights of Arab and Muslim Americans. In addition, we found that such effects extend to immigrants and, as well, to a group entirely remote from the subject of terrorism: gay Americans. The specter of terrorist threat creates ruptures in our social fabric, some of which may be justified as necessary tactics in the fight against terrorism and others that simply cannot.
Another way public opinion shifts under a terrorist threat is toward inflated evaluations of certain leaders. To look for strong leadership makes sense: crises should impel us toward leadership bold enough to confront the threat and strong enough to protect us from it. But the public does more than call for heroes in times of crisis. It projects leadership qualities onto political figures, with serious political consequences.
In studies conducted in 2004, we found that individuals threatened by terrorism perceived George W. Bush as more charismatic and stronger than did non-threatened individuals. This projection of leadership had important consequences for voting decisions. Individuals threatened by terrorism were more likely to base voting decisions on leadership qualities rather than on their own issue positions or partisanship. You did read that correctly. Threatened individuals responded with elevated evaluations of Bush’s capacity for leadership and then used those inflated evaluations as the primary determinant in their voting decision.
These findings did not just occur among Republicans, but also among Independents and Democrats. All partisan groups who perceived Bush as more charismatic were also less willing to blame him for policy failures such as faulty intelligence that led to the war in Iraq.
A third way public opinion shifts in response to terrorism is toward greater preferences for policies that protect the homeland, even at the expense of civil liberties, and active engagement against terrorists abroad. Such a strategy was advocated and implemented by the Bush administration. Again, however, we found that preferences shifted toward these objectives regardless of one’s partisan stripes and, as well, outside the U.S.
Nothing surprising here. Fear makes people deferential, docile, and distrustful, and both politicians and marketers have learned to take advantage of this.
Jennifer Merolla and Elizabeth Zechmeister have written a book, Democracy at Risk: How Terrorist Threats Affect the Public. I haven’t read it yet.