Fear of Terrorism Erodes U.S. Democracy, Research Finds

By Matthew Harwood

Amid the backdrop of the rampage at Fort Hood, Texas, and other recent homegrown terrorism plots, two researchers argue at The Huffington Post that terrorism-related news coverage profoundly affects public opinion in a way that threatens democracy.


Jennifer Merolla, Ph.D., and Elizabeth Zechmeister, Ph.D., authors of Democracy at Risk: How Terrorist Threats Affect the Public, have studied how the prominence of terrorism in the news cycle affects the American public over five years.

In a series of tightly designed experiments, we expose subsets of research participants to a news story not unlike the type that aired last week. We argue that attitudes, evaluations, and behaviors change in at least three politically-relevant ways when terror threat is more prominent in the news. Some of these transformations are in accord with conventional wisdom concerning how we might expect the public to react. Others are more surprising, and more disconcerting in their implications for the quality of democracy.

According to the researchers, terrorism-related fears make the American public more distrustful of their neighbors and minority groups, more receptive to charismatic political leaders, and more willing to allow the erosion of their civil liberties in return for their security.

Fear of terrorism led many Americans to see the rights of Arab and Muslim Americans as less than absolute and this attitude even extended to immigrants and gays. The researchers also found that during the 2004 presidential election more fearful Americans were more likely to perceive President George W. Bush as more charismatic and stronger than non-fearful Americans. This held true for more fearful Americans, regardless of their political affiliations. Finally, Merolla and Zechmeister found that the terrorist threat made people more welcoming of policies to protect the homeland even if those policies infringed on civil liberties.

"When increased media attention on terrorism sends a chill up our collective spine," Merolla and Zechmeister write, "our research cautions us to take pause, and consider whether our desire to cope psychologically with the fear of international terrorism is changing our political attitudes, evaluations, and behaviors in some ways that are more detrimental than useful."

♦ Photo by thelastminute/Flickr


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