How anxiety drives voter choices and election campaign strategy
U.S. contest provides prime examples of 'anxious politics,' authors say
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."
"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?
"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.
"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?"
"If your party is trusted on an issue, then you can benefit from anxious politics," she said.