Democracy at Risk How Terrorist Threats Affect the Public
by Jennifer L. Merolla and Elizabeth J. Zechmeister
University of Chicago Press, 2009
Cloth: 978-0-226-52054-4 | Paper: 978-0-226-52055-1 | Electronic: 978-0-226-52056-8
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226520568.001.0001


How do threats of terrorism affect the opinions of citizens? Speculation abounds, but until now no one had marshaled hard evidence to explain the complexities of this relationship. Drawing on data from surveys and original experiments they conducted in the United States and Mexico, Jennifer Merolla and Elizabeth Zechmeister demonstrate how our strategies for coping with terrorist threats significantly influence our attitudes toward fellow citizens, political leaders, and foreign nations.

The authors reveal, for example, that some people try to restore a sense of order and control through increased wariness of others—especially of those who exist outside the societal mainstream. Additionally, voters under threat tend to prize “strong leadership” more highly than partisan affiliation, making some politicians seem more charismatic than they otherwise would. The authors show that a wary public will sometimes continue to empower such leaders after they have been elected, giving them greater authority even at the expense of institutional checks and balances. Having demonstrated that a climate of terrorist threat also increases support for restrictive laws at home and engagement against terrorists abroad, Merolla and Zechmeister conclude that our responses to such threats can put democracy at risk.


Jennifer L. Merolla is the Mary Nicolai–George Blair Assistant Professor in the Department of Politics and Policy at Claremont Graduate University. Elizabeth J. Zechmeister is assistant professor of political science at Vanderbilt University.


“Merolla and Zechmeister offer a fresh, bold, and rigorous account of how the threat of international terrorism transforms democratic citizens. As the shadow of threat lengthens, citizens put their faith in strong leaders, sacrifice liberty for order, advocate an interventionist foreign policy, and grow less tolerant of those at the margins of society. What does that mean for democracy? To answer this timely and enduring question, the authors sift through numerous surveys and conduct original experiments in two countries, making Democracy at Risk the most comprehensive analysis yet of public opinion in an era of international terrorism.”

— Ted Brader, University of Michigan

Democracy at Risk is tremendously important—and unfortunately, increasingly timely—political research. Merolla and Zechmeister provide substantial support for their theory of how citizens in a democracy cope with terrorist threat, employing both experimental and survey data from the United States and Mexico. This multimethod comparative perspective makes Democracy at Risk a fine illustration of social science research at its very best, and a must read for both government officials and concerned citizens who now have to live in our post-9/11 world.”—Richard R. Lau, Rutgers University

— Richard R. Lau, Rutgers University

“A fascinating and provocative exploration of an important issue.”—John Mueller, Ohio State University

— John Mueller, Ohio State University


List of Figures

List of Tables




1. Coping with the Threat of Terrorism

2. Crisis Creation: A Methodological Tour

3. Love Thy Neighbor? Terror Threat and the Social Fabric

4. Holding Out for a Hero: Looking for Leadership in Times of Terror Threat

5. Enabling Charismatic Leadership in Times of Terror Threat

6. Engage Abroad, Protect at Home


Appendix: Question Wordings and Codings