Fear and anxiety have historically played a large role in politics and voter behavior, especially in 2020 as Americans face uncertainty related to the COVID-19 pandemic, civil unrest and the economy. These two emotions have often lead people to engage in politics in ways that could be both beneficial and harmful for democracy.
The way individuals think and behave changes when they are emotionally involved in politics, particularly when they are anxious. Jenel Cavazos, a psychology professor at the University of Oklahoma, said fear drives people to avoid harm, make a safer environment and find protection.
“So essentially fear pushes the amygdala, which is kind of the body's panic button, which sends our body into that sort of fight or flight mode,” Cavazos said. “And that fear not only prepares your body, but it also triggers memories to be created. And that keeps us from going back into the same situation that caused that fear to begin with. So it's really, really important to have fear. It's just where is it directed, and how sensitive are we to, you know, perceiving threats in our environment?”
One way people have typically coped with feelings of discomfort and uncertainty from political anxiety is by trusting experts to address threats. But during the COVID-19 pandemic, partisanship has shaped who people trust. This differs somewhat from who Bethany Albertson, a political science professor at the University of Texas at Austin, and Shana Kushner Gadarian, a political science professor at Syracuse University, initially theorized people experiencing political anxiety would look to during a public health crisis.
In their 2015 book “Anxious Politics: Democratic Citizenship in a Threatening World,” Albertson and Gadarian found that a public health crisis would typically be considered a “nonpartisan” threat, causing obvious, widespread worry among the public, regardless of what political parties say. This would cause the public to trust people seen as experts, such as medical professionals, to offer health information while relying less on politicians. But Gadarian said the COVID-19 pandemic has acted like a “partisan” threat since people have taken cues from their preferred political party on who to trust and how to respond.
“The COVID- 19 pandemic appears to be more politicized and more threatening to some people on the political left than it is on the political right,” Gadarian said. “There are these differing messages, one about whether or not the pandemic is a threat and two, how you actually protect yourself from it. We see this variation in both who people turn to for those messages and their actual behaviors in light of those recommendations that are coming differently from the Centers for Disease Control than from the White House.”
Another way people attempt to reduce discomfort caused by political anxiety is to seek out new information that is related to the cause of their worries. But Allyson Shortle, a political science professor at the University of Oklahoma, said anxiety typically doesn’t encourage well-rounded information gathering and often doesn't help achieve an informed citizenry.
“On one end, they are seeking out more information, but the information that they are seeking out is usually all threatening information,” Shortle said. “So it's making people even more anxious, which doesn't make for an incredibly stable citizenry when everybody's very fearful, and you’re not exactly sure how they’re going to react because of all of that fear that’s going on.”
This threatening information tends to be memorable and weighed heavily when evaluating issues, Gadarian said.
“I always use the example of WebMD," Gadarian said. "So if you've ever had a headache and went on WebMD and read all of the things that could cause a headache and convince yourself that you have a brain tumor, you have experienced what information seeking under conditions of anxiety is like. It's most likely not a brain tumor, but a brain tumor would have such bad consequences that our brains lead us to consider whether or not we should be going to the doctor in order to make sure that we are safe.”
Anxiety can also have the opposite effect, Cavazos said, causing some people to avoid political information and freeze like a deer in the headlights.
The role of anxiety and fear in American politics is complex and ever present. But there are times in the history of the U.S. when fear played an outsized role in motivating voters. 2020 appears to be one of those times.
This report was produced by Katelyn Howard for Oklahoma Engaged, an election project by NPR member stations in Oklahoma supported by the Inasmuch Foundation, the Kirkpatrick Foundation, and Oklahoma Humanities.