Study of letters to newspaper editors suggests Sept. 11 polarized country

May 03, 2002

CHAPEL HILL - Horrific events of Sept. 11 helped draw Americans together in some reassuring ways, but they also had a polarizing effect on tolerance in political culture, a University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill sociologist says.

Based on a study he is conducting of letters to newspaper editors around the country during the two months before and after the terrorist strikes, Dr. Andrew J. Perrin says the tragedy made American political culture more accepting of authoritarian views. At the same time, his analysis revealed that opposition to authoritarianism also grew.

"I collected 8,101 letters to editors of 17 non-elite U.S. newspapers ranging from the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and Atlanta Journal and Constitution to the Tampa Tribune and Wilmington (N.C.) Star-News," said Perrin, assistant professor of sociology. "By analyzing a random sample of 410 of these letters, I found that degrees of both authoritarianism and anti-authoritarianism, as well as the number of issues people debated surrounding those viewpoints, rose significantly in the post-attack period when compared with the previous month."

Other researchers have discovered that among other traits, people susceptible to authoritarian views tend to hold conventional middle-class values, are generally submissive to and uncritical of authorities and tend to look for, condemn and sometimes even punish those who violate the conventions, he said. Such people also tend to oppose imaginative and tender-minded others, think rigidly, identify with powerful figures, think cynically of humanity in general and show an exaggerated concern with sexual "goings-on."

Anti-authoritarians are those who specifically oppose those positions, he added.

An example of the former from one letter writer:

"We are all Americans, people in this country. The idiot who wrote in saying that George W. Bush started this war should be horse-whipped. His letter was an insult to all the victims, rescue workers and just plain loyal Americans. As for the so-called university crowd, I remember a time when they would be tried for treason. Bush said it best: If you're not for us, you're for the terrorists."

An example of the latter:

"...To describe Chris Britt's cartoons as 'communist propaganda' smacks of pure ignorance on (prior letter-writer) Gamble's part. Instead, I would gather that like many people brainwashed in today's society, Gamble automatically labels anything he disagrees with as being communist or anti-American. I wonder which is more dangerous to American society -- a cartoonist whose job it is to poke fun at politics and make us think about social issues, or a person who would take away the cartoonist's right to say what he wants....Never underestimate the danger of ignorant people in large groups."

Perrin decided to examine letters to editors since relatively few studies have looked at them before as sources of social science data. He believes they contain valuable but nearly untapped information about this country's political culture that can help show the effect of Sept. 11 on average Americans. He sees the letters as a kind of literary town hall or, as someone once said, "a nation talking to itself."

"Existing theory and empirical work suggest that an important element in authoritarianism is perceived threat: individuals who perceive a significant threat are more likely to adopt authoritarian stances and attitudes than those who perceive less or no threat," Perrin said. "My study suggests that there's not a simple link between perceived threats and authoritarianism. Instead, authoritarianism and anti-authoritarianism are paired elements of political culture that are invoked together."

In other words, while some Americans have become more community-minded and more aware and appreciative of family, friends and colleagues, others - possibly out of fear - have become significantly less tolerant of others and opposing opinions.

The UNC scholar said he does not know yet whether the polarization he observed in his study has declined in the eight months since the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon but certainly the nation's overall anxiety level has dropped.
Note: Perrin can be reached at (919) 962-6876 or

UNC News Services

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

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