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Addressing Fear Must Be Part of Democrats’ Game Plan

The Democratic Party must offer a clearer vision of the policies they’ll support in order to keep the country safe and address people’s fears.

Columns appearing on the service and this webpage represent the views of the authors, not of The University of Texas at Austin.

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Be very afraid.

That was the message coming out of the recent Republican National Convention. Is there anything wrong with that? Maybe fear-mongering in politics gets a bad name. After all, there has been a lot of scary news of late. Terrorist attacks, an attempted military coup in Turkey, police shootings and police officers killed – just to name a few that leave us somewhere between unsettled and curled up in a ball.

Given the uncertain state of affairs, any politician who didn’t reflect our anxieties would seem tone deaf.

Politicians stoke fears because sometimes fear resonates and rings true. We don’t think a politician could make us worried that the sky is falling if we weren’t already at least wondering. As the Democratic National Convention gets underway, fear will yet again play a role, but Democrats must also offer a few specific things.

First, Democrats must acknowledge that many Americans are afraid. Survey research shows that Americans are anxious. In January 2016, 69 percent of respondents to the American National Election Studies pilot survey said that they were worried – either moderately, very, or extremely – about terrorism in the near future.

And these fears are not just about terrorism. Gallup polls from 2016 show widespread increases in worry: 64 percent were worried about global warming. Thirty-five percent of Americans worried a about race relation and 60 percent were worried about not being able to pay medical costs if they get sick.

Second, Democratic leaders should offer policies that address these worries. When people feel anxious, they are motivated to support politicians who offer to protect them from harm. In our research on the role of anxiety in politics, we found that anxious people were more likely to put their trust in leaders when they offered policy solutions, not just rhetoric stoking people’s fears.

This is an important point – policy solutions can alienate voters. We often don’t agree on the best course of action, but in our research what we found was that anxious people are more likely to put their trust in politicians who talk policy.

Will any solution do? Of course not. Many of us evaluate policies through a partisan lens, so part of the challenge for politicians is identifying what is making people anxious. Politicians who want to win elections may have different incentives compared with elected leaders who are tasked with governing. They have to cater to the fears and concerns of their constituents and potential supporters to win.

For example, contrary to popular belief, fears about immigration have actually declined during the past 15 years, yet Republicans have become more worried about immigration. Hillary Clinton may never win many of those people over. Democrats, on the other hand, are far more worried than Republicans about gun violence, so it is not surprising Clinton has offered a number of policies to deal with this problem. She needs her base to turn out.

Although proposing certain policies means alienating some potential supporters, they are exactly what we need. At the Republican National Convention, Donald Trump said that only he could keep us safe, but his proposed methods were at best ambiguous. His clearest policy proposal is building a border wall with Mexico, though the political and economic feasibility of such a wall is heavily debated. Beyond the wall, Trump has promised to more carefully control immigration, first promising to ban Muslim immigrants and then limiting immigration from countries “compromised by terror.” But it’s unclear exactly how this all would work.

Moving forward, the Democratic Party and Clinton need to offer a clearer vision of the policies they’ll support in order to keep the country safe and address people’s fears, extending beyond terrorism to other domains such as the economy, civil rights and gun violence. Their policies aren’t likely to please many Texans, but that’s politics. 

At a time of high anxiety, it won’t be enough to merely play on people’s fears, but our next president will have to allay the fears that are broadly shared and be sensitive to those that some feel more urgently than others.

Bethany Albertson is an assistant professor of government at The University of Texas at Austin. Shana Kushner Gadarian is an associate professor of political science at Syracuse University.

A version of this op-ed appeared in the Austin American Statesman.

To view more op-eds from Texas Perspectives, click here.

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Texas Perspectives is a wire-style service produced by The University of Texas at Austin that is intended to provide media outlets with meaningful and thoughtful opinion columns (op-eds) on a variety of topics and current events. Authors are faculty members and staffers at UT Austin who work with University Communications to craft columns that adhere to journalistic best practices and Associated Press style guidelines. The University of Texas at Austin offers these opinion articles for publication at no charge. Columns appearing on the service and this webpage represent the views of the authors, not of The University of Texas at Austin.

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