Researchers are beginning to better understand the toll of polarized politics on mental and physical health, and a new study suggests that Americans’ political anxiety crescendos before a major election.
Led by University of Nebraska–Lincoln political scientist Kevin Smith, with Aaron Weinschenk of the University of Wisconsin–Green Bay and Costas Panagopoulos of Northeastern University, the study is the first to examine anxiety tethered to a specific political event — the 2020 presidential election, touted as the most consequential in recent history by both sides.
Using a two-wave panel survey measuring political anxiety, given two weeks prior and two weeks following the 2020 election, the study found that overall Americans were more anxious before the election, as researchers had hypothesized. Further, following the election, it was those who specifically voted for Donald Trump, conservatives and African Americans who reported lower levels of anxiety.
“We found a lot of political anxiety right before the election, and that the election was an intervention to treat some of that anxiety — how much, we don’t know because of some of the craziness around the election,” Smith, chair and Olson Professor in political science, said. “But, pretty much across the board, political anxiety went down following the election, and it went down surprisingly in some groups.
“One thing that really surprised us, though, was that even before the election, anxiety was lower for African Americans than their white counterparts.”
The most anxious group — before and after the election — were those who are more politically engaged or attentive to politics. Their anxiety levels rose after the election.
“While some results were surprising, you also saw results that fit exactly what you’d expect,” Weinschenk said. “We found that more engaged people, or people who knew more about politics, were more anxious after the election. You’d expect that because of the uncertainty immediately following the election, and these are people more invested.”
The researchers note in the article that the 2020 election was anything but normal. It broke numerous records. Turnout was the highest in the 21st century, with a record number of votes cast, and was the most expensive election on record, topping $6.6 billion spent in the contest between President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump. Voters were also in the midst of a pandemic state of emergency, and conspiracy theories abounded about election fraud.
Despite that, Smith said the study establishes a good method for researchers to measure political anxiety going forward.
“Our measure appears to be valid,” he said. “We’re looking at 2024 and hoping we can replicate some of this to possibly parse out some of those effects.”
Smith and Weinschenk also suggested that scientists could use these measures to look at the mental health toll of state and local elections, which are becoming more expensive and more polarized.
“Would an election in a Republican- or Democratic-leaning state, where the outcome seems pre-determined, be less anxiety-inducing than in a battleground state, where a ton of money from outside special interests is coming in and it’s dominating the news cycle?” Smith said. “I don’t know, but it is a relevant question because with state and local elections, you’d be going through this cycle each year.
“One of the things we’re hoping for is that other researchers will pick up this measure and use it in other surveys.”
As with his previous research into the deleterious effects of politics on the national psyche, Smith said this line of examination is important to understanding how an engaged populace in a polarized political environment may be ruining their health with stress and anxiety, and what measures can be taken to circumvent those effects.
“Essentially, politics may be serving as a primary source of stress — and specifically anxiety — in an environment that would be more or less constant. And what do we do about that?” Smith said. “There’s not a large group of us looking at this yet, but hopefully, that number grows.”