Terrorism has been a concerning threat across the world for many years, the United States has especially focused on it since the attacks on 9/11. Threats about terrorism, or rather perceived threats, have deeply affected culture and impacted domestic and international politics for years to come. Furthermore, the United States has seen a widening gap between the Left and the Right since 9/11. Although there might not be a direct correlation, the impact of the perceived threat of terrorism in the United States has not been studied enough to draw significant conclusions. While the impacts of terrorism more generally have been widely studied, from case studies that analyze how a state has reacted and how people respond to it, little research has been done regarding the lasting divisive effect of fear in voters. This research proposes to analyze the individual and their response to threat, and how it translates to their relative political affiliation to answer the question: Does the perception of threat contribute to political polarization in the United States?
This literature review is concerned with the impact of terrorism on political polarization, focusing on what terrorism does to an individual’s decision-making process and political affiliation. This perhaps will explain increased patriotism or political shifts that have been recorded in many countries after a major attack on its people, including the United States. It will also address possible ways intense emotional response can lead to further political polarization. By viewing these different phenomena through a Political Psychology lens, this paper attempts to synthesize the current discourse about the impact of threats on political polarization in the American government.
Social Identity Threat and Political Ideology Following Terror
Social Identity Threat is a theory that explains an individual’s reaction to their national, cultural, social, or individual identity being threatened. It is a key element to understanding political affiliation following terrorism. Laufer and Solomon’s study on political ideology following terror outlines group behavior and offers an explanation as to why political ideology changes and sometimes becomes pseudo-nationalist with threats. In the circumstances of terrorist attacks or other kinds of threats, people embrace individuals who are similar to them, especially in their in-group, while rejecting those who are unlike them, their out-group (Laufer., Solomon, 2010). This theory, called Social Identity Threat, identifies ideology as a kind of buffer, or a coping mechanism, that attributes meaning and order in a difficult circumstance like a terrorist attack. Social Identity Threat explains that if someone’s social identity is threatened in some way, then a common way of protecting the status of a person’s in-group is to tighten and increase the identification with that particular group (Davies, et. al 2008). This would explain why people turn to somebody to blame, whatever that group is after an attack, and tighten their association with people who are like them because it is a group that matches their own identity and comforts them. As the nation is being attacked, it rejects the outsiders and embraces the familiar in-group that acts as a cognitive buffer. This could explain political phenomena as it relates to nationalism but also recent events regarding polarization. Americans that are especially nationalist and have a stronger sense of attachment to the United States will perceive the threat more strongly and attach themselves to parties that have the same aim to preserve this “in-group” view of identity. While this occurs, others may not have the same attachment patterns, which leads to polarization.
In terms of political affiliation, Social Identity Threat largely explains things like augmented nationalism or patriotism, since it causes a person to adhere more to their social group and identity. In many cases, this leads to more conservative views and votes, since many of those parties are harsher on outsiders and offer less inclusion of social groups (Davies, 2008). According to Hetherington and Nelson (2003), within the American context, terrorism has a 'rally-round-the-flag' effect, defined as the 'sudden and substantial increase in public approval of the president” in response to a traumatic event. They argue that in times of crisis Americans patriotically turn to the president as a living symbol of united social identity.
Terror Management Theory
Terror Management theory, similarly to Social Identity threat, is a coping mechanism to deal with trauma and mortality salience. It leads to a person adjusting their worldview and therefore adjusting their opinions and behaviors accordingly, which would include voting. According to Weise et al.’s study on Terror Management and Attachment process, political ideology is an important part of a person’s cultural worldview, which serves as a defensive function, offers security, and manages death-related anxiety (Weise D.R., et. al, 2008). After an act of terrorism, Terror Management theory can serve as cognitive or psychological security against the fear of death, by adjusting the worldview and political ideology to something that creates a larger sense of security. They stated that people with low interpersonal attachment tend to have lower self-esteem and more anxiety, and thus tend to become more conservative. In contrast, people with high interpersonal attachment become more liberal because interpersonal security encourages reliance on nurturing and compassionate values for coping with existential fear (Weise D.R., et. al, 2008). Conservative parties offer security and structures, and often harsher rhetoric that serves as a comfort to people when mortality salience is high. In addition, After a threat like a terrorist attack, this theory also states that there is increased support for more conservative, restrictive laws at home and engagement against terrorists abroad (Merolla, J. L. (2009). The Mortality Salience and Terror Management theory emphasizes the emotional impact that perceived threat has on irrational decision-making and attachment, but it does not fully explain the complex cultural heritage and identity of the person and thereby their unique worldview. It touches on the possibility of an individual shifting into more conservative thinking as a cognitive coping mechanism, but it does not expand into explaining nationalist behavior and the impact of threats on a large-scale population. It is viable, however, that, according to this theory, a conservative shift in political ideology following a large threat will result in a more conservative vote in an upcoming election.
System Justification Theory
System Justification theory is a mechanism after a large attack that leads a person to find ways to justify the status quo and explain the situation. These people therefore will search for strong leaders with clear rhetoric, usually about terrorism and the dangers of terrorism. Echebarria-Echabe, A. and Fernández-Guede E. outline the System Justification Theory, which explains the existence of a motivational force to perceive social arrangements as legitimate and justified. According to this, people accept the status quo as legitimate and stable. (Echebarria-Echabe, Fernández-Guede, 2006). Much like the other articles mentioned, this study also emphasized the importance of social threats and mortality salience on increasing conservatism. As circumstances change, people’s beliefs are altered and they adhere to different ideologies to explain or justify the situation. This is relatable to the current situation in many terror-stricken countries, however, it is difficult to establish whether or not political ideology change occurs because people perceive the status quo to be unstable, in order to maintain it, or because they are trying to legitimize the situation at hand, as this theory suggests. This theory explains that after terrorism, people seek strong leaders that justify the traumatic event that has occurred and offers comforting rhetoric. For this reason, some affected states can be susceptible to populist and extremist parties, because they offer the comfort and rhetoric these people need.
Relative Deprivation is a subjective state that shapes emotions, thinking, and behavior according to the personal, or collective, feeling of having less than one merits-- while others might get more than they merit (Pettigrew, et. al 2008). These feelings of marginalization, or deprivation, can lead to strong animosity towards whomever the person feels deprived by. Many studies have shown that these feelings, especially group relative deprivation, or GRD, are linked to political protest and prejudice against immigrants (Pettigrew, et. al 2008). This deprivation could especially occur due to stigmas towards outsiders after terrorist attacks have occurred. According to Horry, R., & Wright, D. B. (2009), in a study that explored participants’ perceptions of who “real” Americans were, most respondents were much more likely to respond anxiously or feel threatened by the pictures of the middle eastern men because of stigmas they had about terrorism. These stigmas and a feeling of identity threat outlined above could fuel resentment and relative deprivation which leads to a change in political preference. A person who feels resentment for terrorists and terrorist stigmas about immigrants in mind will be more likely to vote for a party that is harsher to the people the person feels relatively deprived by.
Most of the literature regarding terrorism and voting following an attack suggests that voters tend to become, overall, more conservative. However, since not everyone has this reaction, people become more ideological or more pragmatic. Social Identity threat, and other theories that stem from it, highlight the large impact terrorism has on a person’s social group, personal identity, and the rejection of out-groups. Since conservative parties tend to be less inclusive and have stronger rhetoric they seem like an understandable choice for people affected by a terrorist attack. These theories, however, are all very broad, and while they are applicable to general case studies, more specific attention needs to be given to the American context. This gap in research could be filled by conducting an experiment among residents of the United States to see if the perceived threat of terrorism influences their political position, leading to further polarization.
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