Politics·Q&A

How anxiety drives voter choices and election campaign strategy

Why do some issues become the focus of an election campaign — even when they're unlikely to directly impact voters' lives? Anxiety is a strong driver, according to the authors of a new book about fear and politics, and they say we're seeing that in the U.S. election campaign.

U.S. contest provides prime examples of 'anxious politics,' authors say

Donald Trump supporters demonstrate outside a 2015 campaign event in Los Angeles. The authors of the book Anxious Politics look at how issues like climate change, terrorism, public health and immigration figure into election campaigns. (Lucy Nicholson/Reuters)

Why do some issues become the focus of an election campaign — even when they're unlikely to directly impact voters' lives?

Anxiety is a strong driver, according to the authors of a new book about fear and politics — and they say we're seeing that in the U.S. election campaign.

Shana Kushner Gadarian and Bethany Albertson, the co-authors of Anxious Politics: Democratic Citizenship in a Threatening World, spoke with CBC Radio about how anxiety motivates our political choices.

What are some U.S. examples?

"(Republican candidate Donald) Trump's been playing up immigration anxiety from the very beginning," Albertson said. But playing on anxiety isn't restricted to one candidate or party.

"Trump's certainly going to do it more, and empirically he has. If you watch the two conventions, they gave you very different worlds."

Donald Trump speaks at a December, 2015 rally in Mount Pleasant, S.C., where he called for a ban on Muslims entering the United States. Trump has played up immigration anxiety in his campaign, says Bethany Albertson. (Randall Hill/Reuters)
But she said some of that is because of the political reality before the campaign began.

"Clinton's coming off a Democratic administration, and so she has less incentive to say the world's a scary place. She can talk about the accomplishments of the Obama administration. Whereas Trump, representing the out party, has more incentive to paint a very dreary, scary picture of the country and say what we need is a change."

Gadarian says a focus on fear in the campaign has drowned out some other issues.

"I think there's been a lot of focus on terrorism, and perhaps for very good reasons — because it is a threat," she said.

"But I do think that given the focus on national security, or on immigration … it does leave out other issues that are just as important in people's daily lives, but that aren't as easy to run in a campaign ad, or make people feel scared about."

What triggers the most anxiety?

Shana Kushner Gadarian says fear may cause voters to seek information. But they often pay more attention to threatening information, which doesn't ease their anxiety. (Syracuse University)
Gadarian said she and Albertson looked primarily at how issues like climate change, terrorism, public health and immigration figure into election campaigns.

"Some of those are issues that are likely to make people feel physically threatened — like terrorism or public health outbreaks," she said.

"And then there's other ones like immigration … they're more about your place in society, and whether you're part of the community. So these are two kinds of issues that can make people feel anxious about political life."

"We can be anxious about a variety of things," said Albertson. But what she and Gadarian set out to explore was "the fit between the politicians' incentive to talk about the issue and offer up policies to help relieve our anxiety, and what's actually happening out there in the real world."

How do anxious voters act?

Gadarian said she and Albertson looked at three outcomes of anxiety, including what may initially seem to be a positive — the drive to seek information.

But that may not actually reduce voters' anxiety.

"They seek out more information so that they can feel better and know what to do with the threats that are causing them emotion," Gadarian said.

"But what happens when they look for information is they tend to pay attention to threatening information, so it doesn't actually help them feel better," she said.

Political psychologist Bethany Albertson says politicians who promote fear also need to provide solutions. (University of Texas/YouTube)
Albertson agrees anxiety can produce positive results — but only to a point.

"Anxiety tends to be something that gets us to pay more attention to politics," Albertson said. "So anxious people do learn, but they learn in particular ways."

And that focus on threatening information may influence choices on who to vote for — and where voters get their information.

"People want to feel better and they want to feel protected," Gadarian said. "They put their trust into leaders and information sources that they think of as experts."

She said it also draws voters to candidates who offer policies they see as "protective" — which again, can have negative consequences.

"These protective policies sometimes are ones that deny civil liberties from others, and sometimes are ones that can actually be relatively restrictionist and punitive."

How do campaigns use anxiety?

"If you just look at campaign ads, many of them are what we call fear ads," Gadarian said — ads that play on fears about things like terror attacks.

"And the message is, once you are afraid, who can protect you? Whose policies are the best, who is the leader who can protect you?"

A still from a campaign ad for U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump. Shana Gadarian says many ads in the current U.S. campaign focus on fear. (Donald J. Trump for President/YouTube)
But Albertson cautions there's a fine line to walk when politicians rely on a fear-based message.

"If your party is trusted on an issue, then you can benefit from anxious politics," she said.

"If you just want to stir up anxiety, but you have nothing to offer us — to tell us that we might be safe again — then you're going to leave people still looking around. So I would tell a politician to make sure to pair their threatening appeals with the policies that you can promote that will help keep us safe."
A March, 2016 demonstration against Donald Trump in New York. Trump has played up immigration anxiety throughout his campaign, says Bethany Albertson. But playing on anxiety isn't restricted to one candidate or party. (Eduardo Munoz Alvarez/Getty Images)

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