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Protestors demonstrate against new safer-at-home orders in Denver, Colorado, on April 26.
Jason Connolly/AFP via Getty Images

How anxiety changes political behavior

The coronavirus makes us anxious. What does that mean for our politics?

Why do some Americans react differently to the threat of terrorism than to the threat of the coronavirus?

This is a question I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, particularly in the wake of small protests emerging in opposition to state stay-at-home orders. And particularly as demands from some conservatives to “reopen the economy” continue despite the pandemic continuing to kill thousands of Americans.

On Twitter, MSNBC host Chris Hayes shared many of the same thoughts, noting that after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, “We completely transformed nearly every facet of American public life and governance” in response. Many of the same voices who urged that transformation seem to be reacting to the coronavirus pandemic — which has killed tens of thousands more than the 9/11 attacks — far differently.

To be sure, while the reaction to 9/11 was transformative for millions of Americans, it didn’t have the same economic repercussions as the coronavirus pandemic, but the differing attitudes to terrorism and pandemics were obvious well before the stay-at-home orders were issued.

Researchers on how anxiety impacts our politics argue that our different responses to terrorism and disease are the result of the politicization of anxiety, an emotional reaction to a perceived threat.

Bethany Albertson of the University of Texas and Shana Gadarian of Syracuse University are the authors of Anxious Politics: Democratic Citizenship in a Threatening World. In their work, they’ve found that what individuals want most when facing anxiety is certainty and protection. “When we’re anxious, we need to put our trust in someone to protect us,” Albertson told me. In more typical disasters, the government becomes a beacon of security for many Americans, leading to the “rally round the flag” effect in which support for presidents and trust in the government rises during times of crisis.

In their book, they looked at four different policy areas — public health, terrorism, climate change, and immigration — and divided them between “framed threats” and “unframed threats.” In short, a “framed threat” is a partisan one, where the “threat” level depends on your political perspective (some people are very anxious about climate change; others are very anxious about immigration levels).

Protesters against state government measures rally in San Diego, California, on April 26.
Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

An “unframed” threat, like terrorism or a public health catastrophe, is one where the threat is immediate and obvious to everyone. As Gadarian told the Niskanen Center in an interview, unframed threats are “ones where we don’t actually need politicians to necessarily tell you that you should be scared. Democrats and Republicans alike are scared about terrorism after 9/11.” Unframed threats, then, are supposed to be nonpartisan.

But the coronavirus, coupled with the federal government’s poor response and an existing lack of trust in institutions (including the media), has scrambled that response. Albertson told me that in the midst of the pandemic, “who [is] feeling anxious about this threat and who people are trusting have strong partisan predictors,” which broke with their previous research showing that response to a pandemic-level threat would be largely nonpartisan.

But Americans still want to hear from medical authorities over politicians. Gadarian told me, “They don’t want to hear as much from the political leaders, particularly when they think that their performance to date has been pretty bad.”

In this interview, Albertson and Gadarian discussed how partisanship and the actions of political elites are impacting anxiety and what reporters (like me!) and the media can do to help. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Jane Coaston

How do you define anxiety? You do not necessarily mean the anxiety that I feel about going to the grocery store during a pandemic. How do you think about anxiety in a political context?

Shana Gadarian

Well, I think actually the anxiety about getting sick is part of the politicization of anxiety. So, when we talk about anxiety, we’re talking about a kind of emotional reaction to a threat that people see in the environment — the recognition of a threat, and the uncertainty that goes around with how to protect oneself.

So in a pandemic, the kinds of things that people become anxious about may really be about becoming sick. The [anxiety] may be about dying, so that can be a source of anxiety in terrorism, as well. I think the concerns that people have, some of them are wrapped up in these concerns about physical harm. ...

Now, in different parts of the book, we look at four different policy areas. We look at immigration, we look at terrorism, we look at climate change, and we look at public health outbreaks. The anxiety, the source of that anxiety, is different across those areas. But what we argue is that what people are looking for is a way to cope with that anxiety. And they want policies, and they want leaders who can protect them.

Jane Coaston

How would you say the anxiety from terrorism differs from the anxiety caused by a public health threat?

Bethany Albertson

I think one of the variables to think about is whether the threat is coming internally or externally. In general, when we’re anxious, we need to put our trust in someone to protect us. And so you can say in general that anxious Americans put their trust in the government. When we’re anxious about the economy, though, and we think the government is at fault, anxiety makes trust in governments go down.

And so you can think about this as, when we’re anxious, like directly after 9/11, trust in the government goes up, and that’s rally around the flag. That’s “we need to believe in our government to keep us safe and feel protected.” And that gives way over time. It doesn’t last. And it takes on partisan dimensions over time.

But a public health threat, to the extent it’s external, should also prompt an increase of trust. And it shouldn’t hurt trust in government because it is supposed to be this external thing that hits us exogenous to the United States. ...

It’s more complicated than that, though, because we’re getting daily updates on ways in which the government hasn’t been protecting us. And so I think that this external/internal attribution breaks down in our current context.

Jane Coaston

Do you think that’s why some people have turned to conspiracy theories? When you are constantly getting news about how the government has failed, or even how medical professionals aren’t as knowledgeable, and someone claims, “I have this means to prove that this is all a hoax,” or, “I’m the person with the cure,” [maybe] people are just looking for something to trust.

Shana Gadarian

Yeah, I think that that’s part of it. I don’t know if you’ve talked to Joanne Miller at the University of Delaware about her conspiracy theories work. She’s got some really interesting stuff, and she’s out in the field this week with some Covid-19 conspiracy theories. She and her coauthors argue that conspiracy theories are for people who have experienced political losses. And they’re talking particularly about political conspiracy theories.

Jane Coaston

Right.

Shana Gadarian

But I think this sense of loss and [the idea] that if the world were fair then my team would be in charge, that kind of psychology leads you to endorse theories that on their face have very little backing. And I think that sense of, “Yeah, the government has failed. No, the experts don’t know what they’re talking about” — that work has been done by political elites for a long time to try and denigrate experts. The current president is particularly good at it, but that is a long-term project, particularly of elites on the right, to denigrate expertise in government and in other professions.

Jane Coaston

So you wrote this book not knowing that a global pandemic would arise. What has surprised you about specifically the American response to the pandemic, based on the research that you’ve done?

Shana Gadarian

I have some other work looking at fear of terrorism and attitudes about Muslims and attitudes about immigrants. And so, that kind of other-ing that happens in terrorism, it’s happening now in Covid-19, which is very disconcerting in a lot of ways.

I think there’s a lot of stuff that’s surprising, but to me, it’s the way in which particularly the president and some right-wing leaders have talked about Covid-19 as a “Wuhan virus,” as a “Chinese virus.” That work that they’re doing to other it is a way of casting blame on China, and casting blame away from the government and particularly the president. And that has really bad implications for blame attribution, and then also [for] things like racist violence against groups of Asian Americans. And these protests about the stay-at-home orders are not just protests about economic anxiety, although there is part of that.

I mean, it’s not surprising. We’ve seen this before. But this glomming on of anxiety about the virus and othering that’s going on about who to blame, and it’s anyone but the government, I think that is, again, it’s not surprising. It is a little depressing, though.

Bethany Albertson

In our book, we look at two public health crises. We look at responses to [the H1N1 outbreak] and then we look at responses to a fictional smallpox outbreak. And in both studies, we both theorized a public health threat as nonpartisan. And, empirically, we found that responses to a public health threat were nonpartisan.

Where this is different, not too many years later, in the current context we’re in now, is who’s feeling anxious about this threat and who people are trusting have strong partisan predictors. And so we thought of a public health threat as our nonpartisan issue area and climate change and immigration as our partisan issue areas where people feel anxious. And partisanship shapes who feels anxious. But now we see, people on the left are feeling more anxious [about the coronavirus]. Partisanship is shaping who’s being trusted.

At the same time, we do see some evidence that some of our theories around public health crises in the book still holds. People are putting their trust in medical experts. So it’s not everything has changed. People still do want medical expertise in the face of a public health crisis.

Jane Coaston

What is the best way [for scientists and others] to respond to the completely understandable anxiety of people who are looking for information to trust, while also continuing to learn more? You’re going to have scientists who say something one week and then three weeks later look back and think, “That was incorrect,” which is part of the scientific process.

But how do you think that they could do a better job of getting that across to people who are not as versed in how the scientific method works?

Shana Gadarian

Part of the really big challenge here is, I think generally, as political scientists, we’re a little bit sad about how little attention people are paying to politics on a normal basis. And that’s not the case [now]. Local news consumption is up. People are paying more attention to the media. They’re picking up the phone for polls, also, at higher rates, which seems good for democracy. But the messages that they’re getting are very quick-moving. And that is hard for people to adjust to. The World Health Organization says we shouldn’t wear masks, and now we should wear masks. And I do think that’s hard for people to keep up with.

We’ve recommended that the medical experts be up front and center, and the political leaders take a step back and defer to the doctors and to the head of the health agencies, because that’s who anxious people want to hear from. They don’t want to hear as much from the political leaders, particularly when they think that the performance to date has been pretty bad, which we see in the polling.

Jane Coaston

I’ve been thinking about how partisanship has impacted, in some ways, if not what the [government] response to the coronavirus looked like, the interpretation of coronavirus in the media. If you could wave a magic wand and change how I do this work, how do you think that media could better report on both the pandemic and the partisan response to it? While also getting across that, for most Americans, they’re obeying stay-at-home orders. They’re more concerned about stay-at-home orders being lifted too early rather than too late. How do you think we could do a better job of getting that across?

Shana Gadarian

There is this big partisan gap [that impacts] who is worried about coronavirus and [their behaviors. But while there’s still a gap, there is still more agreement than there is disagreement across the parties, in the mass public. I think reflecting that is good so that people don’t feel alone. I think part of the challenge of this time period is [that there is] so much uncertainty, and that people are looking for any kind of solution. And like you said, sometimes they’ll go to solutions that aren’t even logical, like conspiracy theories. But if we, if the media and political leaders, can provide a set of solutions for people that have some evidence, and to also call out when there’s no evidence, and very explicitly, that would be really helpful for people to know, one, they’re not alone. They’re frustrated and they want to go back to work, but they can’t yet, and it’s for everyone’s safety.

Oh, I have one more suggestion. I’ve been thinking about how the epidemiological modeling is hard for people to understand. Not because they’re numbers, but because I think counterfactuals are really hard for people. What would have happened in a different world had we not stayed home? I think that’s a hard thing to understand.

I’ve thought about whether or not we can start thinking about the people who we’ve saved by staying home. To move us in the realm of gains, rather than the realm of losses, showing those people, “This person is now alive because you stayed at home.” And I think personalizing that may help people understand the value of staying home and not going back to work. That’s something I’ve been kicking around lately.

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