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Terrorist warnings affect political attitudes, says Vanderbilt researcher

[Watch video of Elizabeth Zechmeister speaking about terrorist warnings affecting political attitudes: Part 1 and Part 2]

When citizens in the United States and Mexico are confronted by terrorist threats, they cope in ways that can put significant stresses on the nations’ democracies, according to research by political scientists at Vanderbilt and Claremont.

“Terrorist threats are collective crises that increase feelings of distress and hopelessness. We found that exposure to a terrorist threat causes important shifts in political attitudes, evaluations and behavior,” Elizabeth Zechmeister, assistant professor of political science at Vanderbilt University, said. “For example, threatened individuals not only seek out strong leadership but they come to perceive otherwise ordinary leaders as extraordinary.” She co-wrote Democracy at Risk: How Terrorist Threats Affect the Public (University of Chicago Press) with Jennifer Merolla, associate professor at Claremont Graduate University.

The researchers began collecting data in the fall of 2004, when the threat of a terrorist attack was raised shortly before the U.S. presidential election. They ran experiments using six groups of people – five in the United States and one in Mexico. The resulting book project reports on these novel experiments, in which some individuals were exposed to threat-heightening stimuli while others were exposed to the opposite, and also analyzes existing survey data. “Some journalists and pundits were speculating that the threat was driving political attitudes and influencing voter choices,” Zechmeister said. “We wanted to take a comprehensive look at these changes in political thoughts and behavior – not only in direct response to 9/11 but also in the midst of another threat.”

The researchers first focused on individuals’ attitudes toward one another and found links between terrorist threats and decreased social trust. Survey participants had less sympathy for gays and immigrants and took tougher stances on crime when they experienced a terrorist threat. In their experiments, the researchers found that those who were predisposed to conformity and established authority were at greater risk of expressing intolerance and preferences for punitive measures.

Second, a terrorist threat caused individuals to view a relatively more conservative, incumbent party’s candidate as a more charismatic and stronger leader, while they perceived the incumbent’s rival less favorably.

“During times of terrorist threats, people put these leaders on a pedestal and seek to protect them from negative attacks,” Zechmeister said.

She explained that threatened voters want to believe their leader is heroic and almost super-human so that he or she can deal effectively with any crisis. The researchers collected data about their research participants’ attitudes about the 2004 U.S. presidential election and the 2006 California gubernatorial election with regards to perceptions of leadership. In both studies, they found that exposure to terror threats resulted in more positive evaluations of the GOP incumbents as “strong leaders” compared to their Democratic challengers.

Merolla and Zechmeister found evidence that elevated conditions of a terrorist threat made individuals blame President George W. Bush less for policy failures that included the CIA leak scandal, faulty intelligence with respect to Iraq and lapses in homeland security. Their findings are timely: A new book by former Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge has prompted a new conversation over whether or not the Bush administration pushed to elevate the terror threat level for political reasons. While not commenting directly on whether the terror threat level was purposefully raised, the professors’ work demonstrates that warnings of terrorist threats did indeed help Bush 43’s public image. Their research also shows that Mexican citizens similarly tend to place leaders on pedestals during times of terrorist threats.

The third coping strategy during a terrorist threat that the researchers confirmed was increased support for an interventionist foreign policy aimed at engaging countries abroad while protecting the homeland. This includes citizens’ willingness to give up some civil liberties for greater security. The researchers found this to be true in the United States as well as Mexico.

Zechmeister emphasized that there are aspects of these coping strategies that are not inherently damaging to democracy. “We are not condemning people’s reactions, but we believe it is important to analyze our responses as some of them can put our democracy in a precarious position,” she said. “For example, shifting the balance of power to the executive branch over the long term could substantially alter democratic institutions.”

While the researchers focus extensively on terrorist threats, they also look at the impact of economic threats on the United States and Mexico. “There were some cases in Mexico in which people reacted as intensely to an economic threat as U.S. citizens did to a terrorist threat,” Zechmeister said. “We surmise that this might have been because, at that point, an economic threat was more credible in Mexico [in 2006] than it was in the United States.”

The book points out two major reasons for citizens to be concerned about the responses to terrorist threats that they detect in their study. One is that even temporary shifts in support for various policies might result in permanent legislation. In addition, unlike traditional wars, there is no clear end date to the threat of terrorism. Also, “the magnitude of the effects of a terrorist threat are likely to be much larger in real life than those we find in a lab or survey data, and this gives us all the more reason to be concerned about the political consequences of terrorist threats,” Zechmeister said.

Media contact: Ann Marie Deer Owens, 615-322-NEWS