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A new study published in American Behavioral Scientist sheds light on the relationship between anxiety and support for right-wing populist parties. The findings highlight that anxiety plays a significant role in shaping contradictory attitudes, driving both authoritarian submission and anti-elitism in different contexts.

Previous research has shown conflicting evidence regarding the link between anxiety and support for right-wing populist parties. The new study aimed to clarify this relationship by examining how two seemingly opposing subdimensions of right-wing ideology — authoritarian submission and anti-elitism — mediate the influence of anxiety on support for right-wing populist parties.

“Right-wing populist parties are on the rise in many countries around the world, including Germany. We wanted to understand why these parties are gaining so much support,” said study author Susanne Veit, the head of the DeZIM.lab and co-head of DeZIM Cluster Data-Methods-Monitoring at the DeZIM Institute in Berlin.

The study involved an online survey of 1,879 German citizens in December 2020. The sample was carefully selected to represent the German electorate by considering age, gender, education, and geographic region. Respondents answered questions about their propensity to vote for the Alternative for Germany (AfD), a right-wing populist party, on a scale of 1 to 11. They also completed assessments measuring authoritarian submission (a preference to obey established authorities) and anti-elitism (a tendency to distrust and rebel against elites).

The researchers distinguished between two forms of anxiety: situational anxiety (triggered by immediate threats) and diffuse anxiety (a general tendency toward anxiety). To measure situational anxiety, participants were exposed to a societal crisis or neutral stimuli and then asked about their emotional state. Diffuse anxiety was measured as a general tendency through standard psychological tools.

The results indicated that anti-elitism played a more decisive role in mediating the relationship between anxiety and support for the AfD. This rebellious attitude had a stronger influence on political preferences than authoritarian submission, which had a dampening effect on populist support. While both subdimensions of right-wing attitudes increased with rising anxiety, the overall positive relationship between anxiety and support for the AfD was primarily mediated by anti-elitism.

Interestingly, situational anxiety and diffuse anxiety had different effects on these two attitudes. Situational anxiety, induced by immediate societal threats, was more strongly associated with authoritarian submission, as anxious individuals sought protection by rallying around established authorities. Diffuse anxiety, reflecting a general tendency toward anxiety, leaned more heavily toward anti-elitism and skepticism of established authorities.

“As a result, the opposing forces of these two pathways tend to cancel each other out, leaving no significant indirect but a direct effect of situational anxiety on AfD support,” the researchers explained. “This finding suggests that [right-wing populist] rhetoric of fear can backfire when frightened voters seek shelter with established parties in the face of salient threats instead of rebelling against them.”

The study’s findings highlight the complexity of political attitudes and the contradictory role of anxiety in shaping them. On the one hand, fear and insecurity drive some individuals to seek the shelter of traditional authorities through authoritarian submission. On the other hand, anxiety can fuel rebellion against elites perceived to have caused or mishandled societal threats, fostering anti-elitism.

“Anxiety is an element that makes people susceptible to right-wing populist agendas,” Veit told PsyPost. “Attitudes towards authority play an important, albeit contradictory, role in this. On the one hand, fear motivates submission to strong leadership, and on the other hand, anxiety can also encourage the rebellion against established authorities.”

But the study, like all research, includes some caveats. “As this is a correlative study, we cannot prove a causal relationship,” Veit noted. “We also experimentally induced anxiety by confronting half of the subjects with negative statements about societal issues (climate, pension, crime,…). The experimental manipulation of anxiety was effective, and slightly different dynamics are discernible for both subgroups, but the experimental treatment was not strong enough to directly influence support for right-wing parties.”

“While anger is a much-studied predictor of right-wing populist attitudes, the role of anxiety is less researched,” Veit added. “However, psychological research suggests that anxiety (or fear) is an immediate reaction to a threat, whereas anger is a downstream reaction. With this study, we hope to stimulate research on anxiety as a predictor of support for right-wing populist parties and on the contradictory role of stances towards authority.”

The study, “Submission or Rebellion? Disentangling the Relationships of Anxiety, Attitudes Toward Authorities, and Right-Wing Populist Party Support,” was authored by Susanne Veit, Magdalena Hirsch, Heiko Giebler, Johann Gründl, and Benjamin Schürmann.

Do you think you may suffer from Anxiety and live in Florida, California or New York?

If so, please consider scheduling a proper virtual online ADHD and Anxiety diagnosis with one of our physicians. Although we have an online ADHD and Anxiety diagnosis tool, a proper diagnosis from a Board-Certified Medical Doctor will help you know for sure. If appropriate, a customized treatment program will be recommended at the conclusion of that initial visit.

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