Scary Politics

Americans are scared about a lot of things—especially the government itself.

fear mongering Republican presidential candidates Ben Carson, Do
Rhetoric from presidential candidates like Ben Carson, Donald Trump, and Ted Cruz is often based on fear.

Photo illustration by Juliana Jiménez. Photos by Scott Olson/Getty Images. Alex Wong/Getty Images and Bill Pugliano/Getty Images.

Halloween ought to be the Republican presidential candidates’ favorite holiday—they love to scare people. Donald Trump warned us about Mexican rapists and job-stealers; Ted Cruz said people should be afraid of gay marriage because it’s the greatest threat to religious liberty; Ben Carson likened the Obama administration to the Nazis; and Mike Huckabee claimed the Iran deal would lead Israelis to “the door of the oven.”

This rhetoric is based on fear. If you ever find yourself voting from your gut and not your head, take some deep breaths. Nothing good ever comes from fear-driven decisions.

Rational decisions come from weighing the pros and cons of a policy. But when fear enters the equation, people give more weight and importance to some considerations than they actually deserve.

Chapman University’s latest annual survey of American fears, which came out in mid-October, provides some insights. Researchers asked 1,500 adults from across the nation 88 questions organized into five categories: personal fears, acting out of fear, natural disasters, paranormal fears, and domains of fear.

Nearly 1 in 5 Americans say they have cast a vote for a particular candidate based on fear.

“I see it as a threat to our process,” said L. Edward Day, director of the Earl Babbie Research Center at Chapman and a member of the team that conducts the annual survey.

Other findings show that more than 10 percent of respondents have purchased a gun out of fear, and more than 5 percent have sent their children to a private school because of a fear.

Even before people make a decision about how to vote, though, fear and anxiety play a role in the kind of information they pay attention to.

“When people are anxious, they seek out news that they believe will be helpful in resolving their anxiety,” said Shana Kushner Gadarian, a political scientist at Syracuse University. “However, they are most likely to seek out, remember, and agree with threatening news, which may not actually help lower their anxiety.” In experiments, people chose headlines of news stories that supported their fears, Gadarian said, and they were more likely read those stories and to agree with them.

Gadarian and Bethany Albertson of the University of Texas at Austin made this finding along with others and published them this summer in the book Anxious Politics, which looks at how anxiety affects the way people take in political news and which politicians they trust.

Gadarian and Albertson’s experiments and surveys centered on the topics of immigration, public health, climate change, and terrorism. Overall, they found that people from both political parties were susceptible to fear, uncertainty, and doubt.

In one study, Gadarian and Albertson showed participants a video of an anti-immigration ad from Republican Pete Wilson’s 1994 campaign for governor of California

For some of the ads, the researchers added threatening images and ominous background music. Then they asked study participants whom they were more likely to trust on the issue of immigration. People who viewed the more ominous ads said they’d trust the Republican Party on immigration, regardless of their own political leanings.

In another study, Gadarian and Albertson surveyed people about climate change. They found that Republicans anxious about climate were more likely to support a Democratic solution than a Republican one. “Anxious Republicans look more like Democrats,” said Gadarian.

Partisan priorities may help explain why people would put confidence in the political party they don’t normally vote for. Ask anyone which party “owns” which issues, and you’re likely to come away with a pretty accurate list.

Patrick Egan, associate professor of politics and public policy at New York University, did just that in his book Partisan Priorities: How Issue Ownership Drives and Distorts American Politics

Egan published cumulative data from American surveys between 1972 and 2010 showing that, on average, people think Republicans do a better job on policies surrounding domestic security, military, crime, and immigration, and that Democrats do best with poverty, environment, health care, and jobs. So, even if you don’t vote Republican, you might be inclined to trust a Republican more than a Democrat on domestic security, especially if you have some anxieties about domestic security, because, say, you just saw two iconic towers in New York City collapse in gigantic clouds of ash.

“People who were more worried about terrorism after 9/11 were more supportive of policies offered by a Republican president,” said Gadarian.

Remember all of those “code orange” alerts that were issued in the months and years after the attacks? It turns out that each time the terror warnings came out, George W. Bush’s approval rating went up.

The issues Republicans focus on lend themselves to provocative messaging—the kind of fears that hit home quickly. A terrorist. A criminal. A job-stealing border crosser. Whereas issues that Democrats specialize in cannot be encapsulated in a threatening image. A hungry child. A smoggy sky. An unemployed, single mom. Sympathy-inducing, yes. Striking fear into the hearts of all? Not so much.

That said, Republicans don’t own fear-laced rhetoric, and Democrats don’t own hope. Gadarian points out that Ronald Reagan’s “Morning in America” is considered among the most positive political campaigns. On the other hand, a 1964 ad for Democratic candidate Lyndon B. Johnson’s presidential campaign—the “Daisy” ad—is considered the first attack ad on television, and it’s quite scary. It shows a little girl in a field counting the petals on a daisy. An ominous voice counts down from 10 and suddenly a mushroom cloud explodes. Nuclear annihilation is enough to send chills down anyone’s spine.

In the end, though, the thing people fear most is government itself. According to the survey from Chapman University, government is people’s No. 1 fear. Technology came in second.

“The two things they have in common,” said Day, “is that people are really dependent on them, yet feel as though they don’t have any control over them.”

Which may explain why the top two Republican candidates going into Wednesday night’s debate, Donald Trump and Ben Carson, are outsiders with no political experience at all.

“We think we’ll probably see the fear of government stay high until the election cycle is over,” said Day.

And that means taking a lot of deep breaths between now and November 2016.