Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Fear Is a Politician's Best Friend

Posted By on Tue, Sep 3, 2013 at 12:00 PM

Time's Katy Steinmetz flags the work of UA political scientist Samara Klar, who has examined the role of fear in political rhetoric:

Klar explored what happens when political rhetoric primes two different parts of a person’s identity. Her case study: Democrats typically support spending more money to extend social services; parents typically support reducing the deficit, often mindful of their children’s fiscal future. So how does the Democratic parent resolve this internal conflict? Klar found that it can depend on how politicians frame the argument.

One approach is positive and empowering. Klar cites Obama declaring that the government “extended Pell Grants for million of people, including millions of young women.” This reminds young women that they’re part of a distinct demographic, suggests that young women are important (Obama wanted to do something for them) and that the government is responding to them (he did it, and they in particular are better off). Klar calls this an “efficacy prime.”

But the primes can also come in the form of threats. Klar asked 428 Democratic parents in Illinois’ 9th District for their views on social services and the deficit. She found that if the respondents’ Democratic beliefs were threatened—for instance by the specter of big budget cuts impacting people in need—they’d insist that social welfare programs must be protected. If their role as a parent was threatened, however, with talk of future generations bearing a painful debt burden, the respondents were more likely to support deficit reduction. This was the case even when the respondents were given supportive ”efficacy” primes too, like reading a statement designed to make them feel empowered as Democrats right before one designed to make them feel concerned as parents.

“The threatening prime appears to increase worry, or anxiety,” Klar writes, and the effect of that feeling becomes “an insurmountable counterweight” in situations where two parts of a person’s identity are at odds on policy. The message for speechwriters? Fear is a great motivator.

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