Populism and its supporters: How Bruce Banner Morphed Into the Hulk

In 2014, the journal Science Magazine produced a fascinating study. The study, titled When contact changes minds: An experiment on transmission of support for gay equality, said that a gay door-to-door canvasser could persuade a voter to support an LGBT issue through a 20 minute non-confrontational conversation where the canvasser talked about their own personal story. Considering politicians and political activists can find it very difficult to persuade people to change their minds, this study was breath-taking. One Columbia University professor said the study was “almost like an existence proof that attitude change is possible.”

Two graduate students called David Broockman and Joshua Kalla wanted to replicate the experiment, but with transgender issues. To save time, they planned to use the methodology of the study’s authors, Donald Green and Michael LaCour. Broockman took a long hard look at the study. He called up uSamp, the company who LaCour claimed he used to conduct the survey and asked if they could use the methodology of the LaCour study in their study.

But uSamp had never been employed for the study. In fact, the uSamp employee from whom LaCour claimed to have received his data did not exist. Neither did the data! LaCour also lied about the study’s sponsors and financial incentives for study participants. Science Magazine retracted the report and the authors’ academic careers were severely damaged.

Which is why what happened next is head-spinning. Broockman and Kalla’s study aimed to change people’s attitudes on transgender issues with a ten-minute conversation between a pro-transgender canvasser and the public. Their study found that subjects were more likely to be in favour of transgender rights both immediately after the conversation, and three months hence. The study’s findings actually replicated the conclusions of the fraudulent investigation they had uncovered. LaCour and Green had been right, but in the wrong way.

Their study found that subjects were more likely to be in favour of transgender rights both immediately after the conversation, and three months hence.

When confronted with intolerance and prejuduce in individuals, many of us will respond on the offensive, condemning such people for their bigoted behaviour. For those who believe transgender people should be granted equality under the law, reports of ‘bathroom bills’ arising in American state legislatures are appalling; they would be tempted to behave in the exact opposite fashion to the pro-transgender canvassers when confronted with people expressing hostile attitudes to transgender people.

But although we might hold the moral high ground, holding the emotional low ground can backfire. Because calling such people transphobes will probably just lead, if their position changes at all, to a further entrenchment of their animosity towards transgender people. You start out talking to Bruce Banner and you end up arguing with the Hulk. Except this green giant is not the nice sort!

Making abusive and threatening comments towards individuals whether they harbour bigoted attitudes or not is a bad way to convince subjects to change their mind. It might make us feel morally superior, but it’s a vote loser. When Hillary Clinton referred to half of Trump’s supporters as a “basket of deplorables” during the 2016 presidential campaign, she may have been accurate in describing a certain type of reactionary Trump voter, but many Trump voters took great offence to the comment and felt Clinton was inaccurately representing their values and concerns. They considered the term “deplorables” to be an attack on them. Clinton even admits the comment was a factor in her election defeat.

You start out talking to Bruce Banner and you end up arguing with the Hulk

Stanford psychologist Alana Conner has observed the downsides of calling people bigots. She says that “telling people they’re racist, sexist and xenophobia is going to get you exactly nowhere. It’s such a threatening message. One of the things we know from social psychology is when people feel threatened, they can’t change, they can’t listen.” In fact, they’re likely to become more bigoted through such explicit attacks on their character. Liberals and left-wing anti-populists must understand that pressuring people to accept a non-prejudiced belief can be like cutting the head off the Hydra.

It’s also misleading for anti-populists to ascribe to right-wing populism the sole influence of ethnocultural or nativist motivations. The reasons behind Trump’s electoral victory have been thoroughly explored and though some motivation for his victory was related to immigration and race, the full explanation of his success is more complex.

See, there is no such thing as ‘one kind of Trump voter.’ In fact, analysis by Emily Ekins for the Democracy Fund Voter Study Group found there are five groups, or ‘flavours’ as she describes it, of Trump voters. Three groups, Staunch Conservatives, American Preservationists, and the Disengaged are predominantly motivated by concerns about immigration and tend to hold nativist attitudes. Yet the two other groups, the Free Marketeers and the Anti-Elites tend to hold liberal to moderate views on race and migration. As Ekins writes of the Free Marketeers: ‘their vote was a vote primarily against Clinton and not a vote for Trump.’ They also reject nativism, have warm feelings towards immigrants and don’t consider their racial identity to be important.

To avoid alienation, populist voters must be listened to and their concerns not dismissed outright

The Anti-Elites do hold less permissive views on immigration and a temporary Muslim immigration ban than Free Marketeers; however, their views are still far more moderate than both Staunch Conservatives and American Preservationists. Ekins does not deny that views on illegal and Muslim immigration were a major factor in Trump’s success, but she also notices that both negative sentiments towards Hillary Clinton and someone’s own personal economic circumstances were key predictors of a Trump vote. More importantly though, not all Trump voters had reactionary attitudes towards immigrants or different racial groups.

Anti-populists must develop a deeper understanding about the views of those who cast their ballot for populists. They must also extend their empathy towards those who do not share their political outlook. Making simple assumptions about populism and populists will be detrimental. Nobody likes being called names; so, to avoid alienation, populist voters must be listened to and their concerns not dismissed outright. At the moment though, Bruce Banner has turned into a villain and the progressives are constantly heightening his anguish. Speaking softly is the only way to calm the monster down.