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Partisanship and Support for Restricting the Civil Liberties of Suspected Terrorists


What impacts people’s willingness to restrict the civil liberties of suspected terrorists? For decades, social scientists have studied the dynamics that shape political tolerance, and increasingly, scholars examine the effects of terrorism for people’s willingness to limit civil liberties in pursuit of security. We argue that the social categorization of a suspected terrorist (e.g., White Nationalist or Islamic Fundamentalist) is consequential for civil liberty attitudes in the United States, but, importantly, we theorize that the effects are contingent on partisanship. We implement question-wording experiments in four surveys. Three of the studies are comprised of national samples implemented at different points in time; a fourth sample incorporates a targeted sample of U.S. military servicemembers. We find evidence that partisanship moderates the effects of terrorist categorization such that Republicans are less likely to restrict the civil liberties of White Nationalists than unspecified suspected terrorists. By contrast, Democrats are more inclined to restrict the civil liberties of White Nationalists. At times, partisanship also moderates the effects of an Islamic Fundamentalist categorization. The study has implications for political tolerance, partisanship, and attitudes toward terrorism in contemporary politics.

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  1. We employ these labels because they are routinely used in elite rhetoric discussing terrorism. We examine the impact of these labels for public opinion. We do not analyze the extent to which terrorism is linked to these categorizations.

  2. Characteristics that influence support for civil liberties are contingent on the tolerance measure (Gibson, 2013).

  3. Research also examines predictors of perceiving threats (Goodwin et al., 2005) and the effects of threat perceptions for attitudinal outcomes other than civil liberties (Gadarian, 2010).

  4. Flores et al. (2018) summarize social categorization theory as the “process through which people categorize others” which “conditions their attitudes and behaviors toward them” (198).

  5. Avdan and Webb (2019) argue "People attribute heinous acts to inherent out-group characteristics" and "dismiss similar behaviors by members of their own communities attributing these behaviors to situational factors and labeling them atypical" (92).

  6. Substantial proportions of Democrats and Republicans likely identify both Islamic Fundamentalists and White Nationalists as out-groups. As such, we think elite framing—in conjunction with in and outgroup dynamics—helps explain partisan differences in threat perceptions.

  7. We also implemented a pre-test using Amazon Mechanical Turk (Supplemental Materials).

  8. These are not probability-based population samples, but they are more representative of our target populations than other convenience samples (e.g., student, MTurk samples). And, online convenience samples can provide inferences about treatment effects that are indistinguishable population-based samples (Coppock et al., 2018).

  9. We analyze average treatment effects in our Supplemental Materials (no controls or interactions with partisanship). However, ATEs may mask treatment effects conditioned by respondent partisanship.

  10. Table 1 provides information about the statistical significance of within-party group comparisons, but this is not the main test of our hypothesis.

  11. There was another experiment on a different topic in this Qualtrics survey and we control for those manipulations; they do not impact our dependent variables (Supplemental Materials).


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The authors thank Rob Norris, Dave Ciuk, Kal Munis, Toby Bolsen, and Nazli Avdan for their feedback on earlier versions of this manuscript.

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Correspondence to Kevin J. Mullinix.

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Caton, C., Mullinix, K.J. Partisanship and Support for Restricting the Civil Liberties of Suspected Terrorists. Polit Behav (2022).

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  • Political tolerance
  • Partisanship
  • Terrorism
  • Threat
  • Social categorization