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Jennifer Merolla's new book says citizen response to terrorism threats puts democracy at risk

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

According to Claremont Graduate University Professor Jennifer Merolla, citizens’ emotional responses can place substantial stress on democracy. Her new book, Democracy at Risk: How Terrorist Threats Affect the Public (University of Chicago Press), which she co-wrote with Vanderbilt Professor Elizabeth Zechmeister, supports this conclusion. In a time when terrorism is an ever-present concern, her findings have significant implications for understanding public support for particular policies and politicians.

Using existing survey data and novel experiments with participants in Mexico and the United States, the researchers find that the public becomes more distrustful of others in times of terror threat—even their own neighbors. We further become more intolerant of minority groups like gays and immigrants and take tougher stances on crime.

The authors’ findings also show that terrorist threats cause the public to perceive Republican incumbent candidates as stronger, more charismatic leaders than they would otherwise. These boosts in leadership evaluations come with significant political purchase. In times of terror threat, the public bases voting decisions more on leadership evaluations than they do in non-threat circumstances. Because individuals coping with terrorist threats feel a greater need for reassurance and security, they also place a Teflon shield around otherwise ordinary leaders. As the researchers found, participants concerned about terrorism blamed ex-president George W. Bush less for policy failures.

Exposure to the threat of terrorism also has implications for security policy. Participants coping with the threat of terrorism are more willing to give up their civil liberties for enhanced security and are more supportive of restrictive immigration policies. They are also more likely to support an interventionist foreign policy.

Jennifer Merolla is Associate Professor and Department Chair in the Department of Politics and Policy, School of Politics and Economics.

“Our findings shed new light on the depth of the public’s response to 9/11 and related terrorist threats, not only in the U.S., but also in Mexico.” concludes Merolla. She adds, “In a time when the threat of terrorism faces countries around the globe, the results are disturbing because they confirm the potential for the public to become more distrustful of others, more willing to sacrifice their rights, and more willing to pin their hopes on a strong leader who may then alter democratic institutions.”

About Claremont Graduate University

Founded in 1925, Claremont Graduate University is one of the top graduate schools in the United States. Our nine academic schools conduct leading-edge research and award masters and doctoral degrees in 22 disciplines. Because the world’s problems are not simple nor easily defined, diverse faculty and students research and study across the traditional discipline boundaries to create new and practical solutions for the major problems plaguing our world. A Southern California based graduate school devoted entirely to graduate research and study, CGU boasts a low student-to-faculty ratio.

About the School of Politics and Economics
Based at Claremont Graduate University in Southern California, its program is one of the top-ranked programs in politics and policy, economics, international studies and evaluation where students can earn a PhD or masters degree.

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