Glenn Beck’s Rally and the Threat Gap

“We’ll be the checks and balances on this out-of-control, criminal government.”

Comments like that one were par for the course this past Saturday here in Washington, D.C. In what must have been a trial run for hosting the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association later this week, TV personality Glenn Beck led a “Restoring Honor” rally at the Lincoln Memorial. I want to focus not on the rally’s content but on the motives of the many thousands who attended.

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(Photo credit: Lee Drutman)

Even before it took place, the rally was being discussed as another example of the “enthusiasm gap” between Democrats and Republicans leading into the 2010 midterm elections. I think a better name might be the “threat gap.” That’s because the Tea Party appears to be the latest example of a mobilization in response to a perceived policy threat—in this case, a Democratic policy agenda being pursued by at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. Nobel Prize-winning social science tells us that people are generally loss averse (gated), meaning that we’re likely to be more worried about shifts away from our preferred policies than excited about shifts toward them. That’s exactly what political scientists Richard Lau (gated), John Patty (ungated), and Joanne Miller and Jon Krosnick (ungated, gated) have separately argued: in motivating political behavior, threats are more energizing than opportunities. And that asymmetry hints at why there was no “Taxed Enough Already” movement driving the actual enactment of the Bush tax cuts in 2001.

Are such mobilizations in response to perceived policy threats rare in American politics? Not in the slightest: in October of 2002, January of 2003, and again in September 2005, many thousands of Americans of a very different political stripe came here to D.C. to protest against the War in Iraq. In fact, the quotation that opened this blog post, so seemingly at home in a discussion of the current right-wing mobilization, actually came from anti-war activist Cindy Sheehan at a 2005 demonstration. Yet strangely, discussions of the Tea Party almost never mention its recent left-wing analog.

At least in part, the Anti-War movement in the early part of the decade and the Tea Party movement at the end were both responses to shifts in public policy that many Americans—especially those not identifying with the party in power—saw as at odds with their values and deeply threatening. For one bit of evidence on this, take a look at national survey data from the Social Capital Community Benchmark Survey.

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In both the fall of 2000 and the spring of 2006, the survey asked Americans about their political ideology, and also asked if they had attended a political meeting or rally in the last year. It’s not that ideology shifted much, at least on the left. In both years, only about 7.5% of Americans called themselves “very liberal.” But the participation of that 7.5% differed substantially. In the fall of 2000, with a Democrat in the White House and no major policy changes in the works, the very liberal respondents were only slightly more likely than other Americans to be manning the proverbial barricades: 25% had been to a rally or political meeting in the last year. In the spring of 2006, with the ongoing Iraq War and unified Republican control, that number had jumped to 39%. The participation of other ideological categories seemed unchanged. Not long ago, the threat gap cut the other way.

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