Bridging Partisan Divisions over Antiterrorism Policies: The Role of Threat Perceptions

By Malhotra, Neil; Popp, Elizabeth | Political Research Quarterly, March 2012 | Go to article overview

Bridging Partisan Divisions over Antiterrorism Policies: The Role of Threat Perceptions


Malhotra, Neil, Popp, Elizabeth, Political Research Quarterly


Abstract

The authors examine how changes in perceptions of threat affect individuals' policy views as well as the political implications of this relationship. They administered a survey experiment to a representative sample of the U.S. population in which they exogenously manipulated individuals' perceived likelihood of a future terrorist attack on American soil and assessed subsequent changes in support for terrorism-related public policies. They find that reducing perceived threat substantially decreases support for policies intended to combat terrorism and that this effect is concentrated among Democrats who believe another terrorist attack is likely to occur. These results suggest that threat, as part of the larger information environment, can alter partisan divisions on controversial policies.

Keywords

terrorism, threat, policy attitudes, partisanship, polarization, experiment

The September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon profoundly influenced U.S. foreign and domestic policy agenda, drawing attention to the need for policies intended to prevent a subsequent event. In the wake of the attacks, both Republicans and Democrats at the mass and elite levels supported several antiterrorism policies. For instance, the Patriot Act sailed through Congress with bipartisan support on a 98 to 1 vote in the Senate and a 357 to 66 vote in the House. Similarly, the Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Terrorists passed 98 to 0 in the Senate and 420 to 1 in the House. In addition, 86 percent of Americans favored increased technological surveillance in public locations and 83 percent supported taking military action against a country harboring terrorists.1

As shown in Figure 1, the consensus regarding the appropriate response to terrorism proved to be short-lived. Immediately after September 11, 2001, nearly 90 percent of Americans believed that another terrorist attack was "likely."2 In addition, both Republicans and Democrats approved of President Bush's handling of terrorism, representing a bipartisan coalition that supported government policies following September 11. Six and a half years after the events of September 11, though, the proportion of Americans believing that an attack is "likely" fell well below 50 percent. Concurrent with this decline in threat, the bipartisan coalition in support for President Bush's terrorism policies dissolved. Support among Democrats declined dramatically along with threat perceptions from 2001 to 2007, whereas support among Republicans dropped relatively little. These poll results suggest that declining threat perceptions may have contributed to the dissolution of the bipartisan coalition in support of the Bush administration's antiterrorism policies.3

Given that threat perceptions and the bipartisan consensus on the issue of antiterrorism policy eroded in the years following the attacks, how does new information about the threat of an attack influence antiterrorism policy support years after September 11, well after the initial salience of the attacks has waned? To address this question we conducted an experimental study, administered to a representative sample of the U.S. population recruited via random-digit dialing, in which we manipulated individuals' perceived likelihood of a future terrorist attack on American soil and assessed subsequent changes in support for public policies.

We find that threat perceptions substantially affect support for policies intended to reduce terrorism. Republicans, who generally perceive greater terrorist threat and are more supportive of antiterrorism policies a priori, do not drive this relationship. Rather, the effects are concentrated among Democrats who perceive high levels of prior threat. Democrats, on average, may not be predisposed to support the policies of a Republican administration, either for ideological reasons or because of their reliance on party cues. Under conditions of threat, however, threatened Democrats may abandon these predispositions. …

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