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Daniel, you have recently published a paper on the relationship between authoritarianism and wanting to leave the EU. Can you summarize for us the main findings?

The paper builds on a theory first expounded in another article I published with Susan Banducci. Previous research had found both a positive interaction between authoritarianism and increased threat and a negative interaction between authoritarianism and increased threat, i.e., that low authoritarians respond more to increased threat than high authoritarians. We argued that this is because high and low authoritarians respond to different types of threat and showed the validity of both interactions in the context of the Manchester bombing in the UK in 2017.

In the paper on Brexit we extend that model to a more difficult case for the theory, of the threat of immigration and wanting to leave the EU. We argue that low authoritarians will be more affected by the personal threat from immigration, while high authoritarians will be more affected by the abstract or political threat of immigration,  insofar as both major parties have promised to reduce immigration but repeatedly failed. We show this to be true in relative terms—low authoritarians were more affected by the personal threat of immigration, for example, than high authoritarians when it came to wanting Brexit—but the personal threat of immigration had large effects on both. Still, the paper confirms that when we think about “threat” and authoritarianism there seems to be distinct types of threat to which high and low authoritarians respond.

Can we extrapolate that relationship outside the specific UK context to European continental countries? One may remember how the French National Rally changed its language on the EU to move from a hypothetical “Frexit” to a more Orban-inspired “changing the EU from the inside” perspective.

The relationships we found should be generalizable beyond the UK context. The actions of the National Rally are interesting though. They have generally continued to try to change their image and moderate some policies, seemingly in an attempt to go beyond a sizable minority in elections to a potential majority, i.e., perhaps to appeal to a broader section of authoritarians. Moreover, Kris Dunn has shown that high authoritarian support for radical-right populist parties is not automatic. It may be that the moderation and respect for tradition in the National Assembly shown by the National Rally is appealing to a larger number of authoritarians in France than its more radical demands for change.

To stay on the UK case, you have also worked a lot on the impact of media consumption and advertising on political choices. Could you tell us more specifically about the role of advertisements and especially negative advertisements on citizens’ political behaviors? In an article you wrote several years ago, you use the example of the Bush and Kerry campaigns of 2004 as an instance where politicians were rewarded with high voter turnout due to public asymmetric attention that validated negative campaign ads. Are negative ads necessarily more effective?

There is quite a lot of evidence that negative ads are more effective in the sense that they are better remembered and that they motivate people in terms of raising perceptions of what the stakes are in an election. If you become convinced that one candidate is a corrupt liar who will destroy America, the stakes in the election are a lot higher for you than a choice between two nondescript candidates. Yet the impact those negative ad effects have on voter preferences and turnout is more difficult to discern. Meta-analyses suggest they are modest, while a recent article on the impact of political advertising in general suggests the effects could be quite large, although it does not distinguish between positive and negative advertising.

In the article of mine you mention, I was looking at two possible routes for the power of negative ads: that negativity is more arresting—the asymmetric attention idea—and that negative ads contain more information than positive ads. In the real world, negative ads almost always contain more information, making it impossible to know whether one or both routes are necessary or sufficient to explain negative ad effects. I conducted an experiment in which the tone of the ads varied but the amount of information in negative and positive ads did not. Under those circumstances, I did not find a difference between positive and negative ads, suggesting that asymmetric attention does not account for differences.

It is interesting that your question refers to the validation of negative advertising. In more recent work, co-authored with Barbara Allen, we tackle the validity of negative advertising further. We had become a little frustrated with research that suggested that because negative advertising contains more information and needs to provide more evidence to support its contentious claims, i.e., is more truthful, as well as perhaps motivating turnout, it is normatively unobjectionable. Barbara and a team of students at Carleton College, MN took all the ads that were aired on television and radio in Minnesota in the 2008 election—more than 700—and checked and rated every claim made in them on a truth scale. This was a huge undertaking, only sometimes aided by media fact-checks.

It allowed us, among other things, to assess the assumption that negative ads are more likely to be truthful—we found they were not. We also found a negative relationship between television markets where there had been more inaccurate advertising and turnout. I find these normative questions more interesting than whether or not negative ads are effective, and I would say the evidence is at best mixed.

You have discussed the intermedia agenda setting in “choosing” a leader. Can we say globally that media play a key role in framing which kind of features a leader should have? Has that been exacerbated over the years? Is that more pronounced in the UK and US media-politics landscape than in continental Europe?

I think that we can certainly say that media play a role in the kinds of leaders we have. But cause and effect is not clear, i.e., are media influencing the kinds of leaders that rise to the top, or are parties choosing leaders who are savvy media performers and who are the kinds of people voters would “want to have a drink with”, to go back to a comparison that was often made between George W. Bush and Al Gore in the 2000 presidential election?

Moreover, with regard to UK politics, and I suspect the US and continental Europe too, these kinds of changes seem to run deeper than media or parties. People have become less deferential and more demanding of politics and politicians in ways that are only partly explicable by media.

Having said all that, I do believe that media framing also plays a real role in how leaders are perceived and thus on voter preferences, sometimes in ways that are discernible even during relatively short election campaigns.

People have become less deferential and more demanding of politics and politicians in ways that are only partly explicable by media.

You have also looked at gendered visions of security threats. Can we discern specific patterns of formulating anxiety? Does it mean that research on populism and ‘fear production’ could benefit from more dialogue with the gender studies field?

The work on gender and security threats was really interesting and I wish I had had time to pursue it further. It definitely made me think that there needs to be more dialogue between subfields—not just with gender studies but more also between political psychologists and IR in general. This was illustrated by my first presentation of the paper at APSA. I was on a gender and IR panel, presenting the paper on my own, and felt very much out of my comfort zone. The chair and discussant could not have been nicer or more constructive, but they certainly made me realize I needed to engage with a literature I did not know, which made me bring other people on board.

I think that that paper also shows the benefits of mixed methods. In this case, we suggested that the bare survey marginals on how men and women define security threats were interesting—they showed some small differences—but more intriguing was what we suggested underpinned those differences in definitions based on the mini-focus group evidence. We then circled back to other survey questions to show how we thought those differences played out beneath the surface of other survey responses, such as in women identifying more security threats. A lot of other research has observed that women identify more security threats: the focus group evidence suggested it is not necessarily because women feel more threatened but rather because, more than men, they consider security threats from a number of different perspectives.

Last but not least, you have delved into a largely unexplored field, that of everyday perception of (in)security and how non-elite knowledge can impact decision-making. We think immediately of both for instance popular perceptions of terrorist attacks or of the pandemic and the relationship to science. Can you tell us more about this current research?

This is another example where my interest began because of conversations with a colleague in a different subfield, Nick Vaughan-Williams (now at the University of Warwick). Nick was already doing research on vernacular (in)security and was interested in the notion of non-elite “citizen detectives” involvement in surveillance after 9/11. I was interested in non-elite perceptions of threats from a psychological angle, although most of my research on that question up to then had been in election contexts, focusing on the economic threats or threats portrayed in negative political advertising.

We felt that our subfield outlooks and methods could work productively together to explore, among other subjects, the relationship between government perceptions of security threats and ordinary citizens’ perceptions. We found very little relationship—very low awareness of the UK government’s National Security Strategy, for example. We called for the public to be genuinely brought in to decision-making and communication on security threats, not just as co-opted citizen detectives for some issues.

We ended up going back to the data when the COVID-19 crisis began because we had asked about a health pandemic as a threat in our fieldwork in 2012. There had been scares, particularly with swine flu and Ebola, such that the UK government had put a possible health pandemic in Tier One, along with such threats as terrorism and an international military conflict. Nevertheless, our research showed that people did not take the threat of a health pandemic from Asia seriously at all.

Our research also suggested the importance of different kinds of framings of security threats: different people reacted to what they saw as a national threat than to a personal or community threat.

Our research also suggested the importance of different kinds of framings of security threats: different people reacted to what they saw as a national threat than to a personal or community threat. It is that aspect of threats that interests me in my current research, which links back to the recent articles on authoritarianism. I would say that we know, more or less, the consequences of increases in perceptions of threats. But we don’t know much about when, why and how perceptions of threats change, beyond obvious triggers such as a terrorist attack, economic crash, or a migrant crisis, for example. That is the research I am looking to do at the moment.  

Daniel Stevens is a Professor of Politics at the University of Exeter, Cornwall campus in the United Kingdom. His research interests are in political communication and political behavior, which he has written about extensively.

The Illiberalism Studies Program studies the different faces of illiberal politics and thought in today’s world, taking into account the diversity of their cultural context, their intellectual genealogy, the sociology of their popular support, and their implications on the international scene.