Gadarian explains intersection of anxiety and American politics

By Page Forrest

Managing Editor

Dr. Shana Kushner Gadarian, an associate professor of Political Science at Syracuse University, spoke at Sewanee on September 21 on “Anxious Politics,” her research on how anxiety influences Americans’ political behavior.

“Anxious Politics” began as a research project in 2007, eventually becoming a book Gadarian published in the fall of 2015 with Dr. Bethany Albertson, a Professor at the University of Texas at Austin. Although they started work long before Donald Trump announced his campaign for president last year, “Donald Trump is the marketing plan,” Gadarian joked. However, as Gadarian acknowledged, Trump is far from the only one in politics to use fear as a campaign technique. The deliberate use of anxiety can be traced back at least fifty-two years to President Lyndon B. Johnson’s “Daisy” ad, which stirred fears of nuclear war, and President George H.W. Bush’s “Willie Horton” piece on crime.

According to Gadarian, “People cope with fear by seeking people and policies that make them feel better.” President Johnson’s “Daisy” ad not only implied that his opponent Barry Goldwater might fail to prevent, or, at worst, cause, nuclear war, but that only Johnson was capable of preventing it. Gadarian drew a comparison to Trump’s continued emphasis on the alleged dangers of immigrants and refugees, and then his claims that only he could stop them.

Threats can be classified as either unframed or framed. Unframed threats have an agreed upon cause of harm and and pose imminent threat – these can include disease outbreaks, terrorist attacks, and natural disasters. Framed threats usually have a debated cause of harm that isn’t necessarily physical, and are not always imminent. Climate change, the war on terror, and immigration are often cited as framed threats. Responses to threats from the public will depend on whether the issue is framed or unframed, the expertise of the actor who they expect to provide a solution, and whether or not a political party “owns” the issue. Gadarian explained the definition of party ownership in case some members of the audience weren’t already familiar. “Party ownership” refers to when a political party is perceived as dominating the discussion of a certain issue, and is seen as the authority on it, whether or not one supports that party.

Gadarian used two examples from her research to demonstrate the effects of anxiety on political behavior. When a group was exposed to a false news story about smallpox outbreaks, that group tended to show higher levels of trust for government agencies with perceived expertise in health, as opposed to the trust levels demonstrated by subjects who did not read the story about smallpox. For her second example, Gadarian played two mock campaign ads. Both featured the same images and voiceover, with an anti-immigration theme. The only difference was that the second ad contained hyper-dramatic background music as well. As Gadarian explained, Republicans are often perceived as “owning” immigration. That was reflected when she showed that both Republicans and Democrats had higher levels of trust in the Republican party after being shown the more dramatic ad. Even Democrats trusted their own party less.

Despite conventional wisdom, Gadarian believes that Trump will not benefit from heightened concerns this November, especially on the issue of terrorism. She posited that his lack of experience and support from the Republican establishment will cause voters to lose faith that he could address any of the issues, and that Secretary Clinton’s experience will convince scared voters that she is the candidate more capable of assuaging their anxieties. However, such a theory requires that Clinton’s experience be perceived as positive by the entire electorate, and not seen as a detriment by voters who are anxious not only about terrorism, but the establishment itself.

Caitlin Buchanan (C’17) saw the talk not only as an academic opportunity, but a chance to re-evaluate how she personally approaches politics. “Dr. Gadarian provided really interesting insight into some of the most pressing political issues, such as immigration. As a politics major, understanding how these issues, which can evoke a response of fear, was not only helpful for classroom learning but also made me reconsider how I react to political issues and circumstances,” said Buchanan.

Ultimately, so long as humans have emotions, politicians will continue to manipulate them in campaigns. Winning over reluctant voters is no easy task, but it helps when one is capable of tugging at their heartstrings or making citizens break into cold sweats. Gadarian’s research provides a valuable insight into how fear is used in election cycles, and how ultimately, it may be the trust of the public that decides where loyalties truly lie.