The Paris Accord pullout. Proposed cuts to the Environmental Protection Agency. Fights over the Affordable Care Act.
Americans are growing more fearful about environmental and health-care issues, according to a survey by Chapman University in California. For the first time in the four years of the survey, environmental fears have not only crept up the list but occupy four of the top 10 spots.
“It’s funny, it’s one of those things you find surprising until you look at it,” says Chris Bader, a professor of sociology at Chapman and one of the principal authors of the survey.
Bader says he believes Americans have grown more fearful regarding numerous issues. But he cautions that the randomized survey of 1,200 adults from a range of states and demographics was administered in May. At the time, President Trump was threatening to pull the United States out of the Paris Accord and proposing to slash the the EPA’s budget by a third, and Congress was locking horns over the Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare.
Bader said that if the survey was administered today, it might have mass shootings and gun control near the top. Or, he said, people might be driven by fears of wildfires. A California resident, he had to evacuate this week.
Fear of government corruption, however, seems to appear locked in, year after year for Republicans, Democrats, and independents.
In past years, he noted, environmental issues didn’t even crack the top 20. So to see pollution of waterways, drinking water and air — as well as climate change — take up four of the top 10 spots could indicate a zeitgeist of environmental concern.
“The thing that’s really interesting for us is to see next year if those environmental concerns drop down again into the 20s or 30s, which is where they were before,” Bader said. “We certainly have also seen generally a change in the list based on the Trump presidency, in terms of health care and the discussion of trying to get rid of Obamacare.”
Bader said he and two other professors, all criminologists, started the survey in 2013, hoping to conduct it scientifically in order to get a baseline of fears over the years. Essentially, they could see which fears linger for years and which ones are simply driven by the news cycle at the time the survey is conducted.
They believed that many fears of Americans were focused on sensational crimes and events that, while terrible, were nonetheless driving public policy without data as a guide.
“We were seeing fears about strangers’ kidnapping children, mass shootings, and other crimes — they are exceedingly rare, but when they happen they are all over the news. Americans just have wild misperceptions about how common these crimes are,” he said.
More worrisome, he said, is that fears of terrorism lead to bias or worse.
“We are finding American fears, especially on terrorism, are associated with a distrust of Muslims. We find they are willing to restrict rights for all Americans, and in particular Muslims. In turn, that drives how people vote.”