What Threatens Americans Most?

Louisa Gouliamaki/AFP/Getty Images

Louisa Gouliamaki/AFP/Getty Images

Reuters has explored in excruciating detail what scares American citizens with a series of polls on how threatening respondents find various things in U.S. politics, religion, international relations, and other areas. When lined up for comparison, the poll responses with the highest level of threat felt have a number of interesting implications for international relations, and for how Americans feel about their own government.

But first, let’s take a look at what could be wrong with these polls, and what could be wrong with my representation of them below. This is always a good place to start, so we know exactly how strong the information we’re working with is, and so we know what errors I may have introduced into the equation through simplification. After that, we’re ready to consider the implications, and it’s easier as readers to add or subtract how much weight you lend to conclusions based on this data.

The respondents’ answers are averaged over a rolling period of five days. These are polls that have been conducted since March 31, 2014, up until the most recent day’s average, with the date of this post’s authorship being March 31, 2015 — from which the information in the graphs is drawn. The polling is entirely done online, meaning certain demographics are not represented as well. While a simplistic and quantitative margin of error is not available because of how the polling credibility is evaluated, and because there are so many different polls being considered, it’s hard to give a hard and fast overall margin of error. But we do know that the sample size is above 1,500 for each poll, and for that five-day period over which the average is taken.

The poll asks about degrees of threat perceived from various groups, individuals, and categories, however some of the distinctions are questionable. For example an “imminent threat” versus a “serious threat.” Imminent suggests the impending nature of the threat, under a tight time line. Respondents may not always distinguish between the two based on time, but could do so based on the amount of danger posed. The wording could be clearer. Furthermore, some of the polls are likely thrown off — as is wont to happen — by uninformed respondents. Looking at an example of a single poll, it’s clear that groups with perhaps less media attention or name recognition, like Anonymous, have a higher response of “not sure” from poll responders (41.1%), while Al Qaeda has only a 14.7% response of uncertainty. This could be because Al Qaeda is seen as a more black and white situation for many Americans, but it’s difficult to rule out the possibility of bad information.

Some of the polls also overlap somewhat — leaders versus the countries they represent. It’s clear that the question and how it’s presented matters a great deal, especially in countries where leadership is tenuous and apt to change, and where a change in leadership can completely alter the relationship it has with America. With those caveats laid out, let’s take a look at some of the broader issues addressed.

As demonstrated below, terrorism had the highest response rate for “imminent threat” and the second lowest response claiming it wasn’t a threat to the United States, just under “cyber attacks and espionage,” the second highest response for classified as an imminent threat.

What this generally shows is that national security from outside threats has a lead on internal concerns like immigration, gay rights, and sexism. Some internal issues did come close. Drug trafficking was considered a major threat. The third highest response for imminent threat fell into the category of racism and bigotry, something that has gained much attention following police shootings in the news — particularly with protests in Ferguson.

The next graph made from Reuter’s data (shown above) looks simply at respondents’ views of danger posed by various countries. Iran, North Korea, Syria, and Russia all have the highest respondent rate categorizing them as imminent threats, though bizarrely Syria also had the highest percentage stating that it was no threat. Iran, North Korea, and Russia are all sensical given conflicts in the Middle East, cyber attacks, and disagreement with Russia over Ukraine’s future.

The comparable comfort felt with countries like Israel and Cuba — a historical ally and a newly reborn relationship, respectively — makes sense. Syria is, however, a confusing stat, unless you consider that many civilians in Syria are simply under attack from militant groups. It is not the country that is a threat, it is the extremist groups within — particularly ISIL (ISIS) also known as the Islamic State. As is visible in the graph below, ISIS received the highest polling responses for labeling it an imminent threat to the United States, with Al Qaeda following up quickly behind, at 57.4% and 43.4% — and notably much of the remaining percentages falling into the categories of serious or moderate threat.

Interestingly, when you look at both the above graph, and the next graph of political leaders, political parties don’t stack up particularly well against other threats. Of course, respondents are looking at each of these threats individually, and then giving them a threat level, not directly ranking or comparing one to the other — an important distinction.

But the gut impulse to respond as negatively as possible against Boko Haram and the Republican party is nearly the same. The NSA and CIA both fare relatively well comparatively, especially given extreme concern about monitoring and surveillance last year following Snowden’s disclosures.

When looking at leadership, President Obama does indeed fall just below Russian President Vladimir Putin, a difference of 21% to 20% for those labeling each politician an impending threat to America.

But the president also falls between Pope Francis (56% consider him no threat) and Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-Ohio) who is not considered a threat by 27%, with President Obama at 35%. So the distribution is questionable, and how directly we can compare these realistically, is also questionable.Lastly, we have polls on religious threats. The cumulative results of these polls were not surprising, but they were somewhat concerning. For the most part, Judaism, Christianity, and the Catholic Church were all considered mostly non-threatening. Atheism, a minority amongst the religions, was somewhat threatening. But the key response was to Islam.

Many draw a direct line between Islam and extremist action, likely leading to 28.9% labeling the faith an imminent threat, 15.8 percentage points over the second highest response (Atheism). This is despite the rhetoric from most world leaders insisting that violent action dedicated to faith should not be confused with the peacefully faithful amongst members of religious groups.

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