Election 2016

Study: Voters Worried About Political Correctness Flocked to Candidate Trump

"Support for Trump (and opposition to Clinton) is especially likely amongst people who feel emotional reactance to restrictive communication norms."


Sipa USA/Newscom

In the immediate aftermath of the 2016 election, I suggested that Donald Trump's unlikely victory was partly the result of backlash against political correctness—something the Republican candidate deftly turned to his advantage during both the primaries and the general election.

A year and a half later, there's a good amount of evidence supporting this theory. Take this study, produced by a team of researchers at the University of Montana and Syracuse University, titled "Donald Trump as a Cultural Revolt Against Perceived Communication Restriction: Priming Political Correctness Norms Causes More Trump Support." According to its abstract:

In this framework, support for Donald Trump was in part the result of over-exposure to PC norms. Consistent with this, on a sample of largely politically moderate Americans taken during the General Election in the Fall of 2016, we show that temporarily priming PC norms significantly increased support for Donald Trump (but not Hillary Clinton). We further show that chronic emotional reactance towards restrictive communication norms positively predicted support for Trump (but not Clinton), and that this effect remains significant even when controlling for political ideology. In total, this work provides evidence that norms that are designed to increase the overall amount of positive communication can actually backfire by increasing support for a politician who uses extremely negative language that explicitly violates the norm.

These findings complement work done by the mathematician Spencer Greenberg, which showed that believing "there is too much political correctness in this country" was the second most reliable predictor of whether a person would vote for Trump (second only to being a Republican).

When I first started writing about the political-correctness-backlash theory, there was much agreement but also plenty of criticism. Since I write frequently about the excesses of political correctness on college campuses, some said I was committing the "pundit's fallacy" of thinking an issue I care about is something everybody cares about. In a piece for the Niskanen Center, McGill University political scientist (and occasional Reason contributor) Jacob Levy accused me of "mapping my list of excesses onto the voting behavior of 80,000 very-low-information voters in three states." In particular, Levy thought this explanation was relatively unlikely because the pertinent voters would have been poorly acquainted with "any particular political dispute that isn't on national television that day."

I thought that part of Levy's analysis was probably wrong, given that political correctness—on campus and off—is one of the most exhaustively covered topics on cable news and talk radio. Moreover, many regular folks encounter political correctness in the course of their day-to-day lives, even if they aren't constantly inundated with examples of it all around them.

Happily, the very same Niskanen Center has now published a piece by Michigan State University's Matt Grossmann casting some doubt on Levy's claim that "a lot of butterflies flapped their wings to bring about the November 8 result, but we have particularly little reason to think that [political correctness] was one of them."

Grossmann's piece cites the Montana/Syrcause study, among others, to argue that cultural issues mattered far more to Trump voters than economic issues. Raising the salience of cultural issues and political correctness—a strategy undertaken not just by the Trump campaign, but also inadvertently by the Clinton campaign, which thought smearing Trump supporters as racists and sexists would increase the pro-Clinton vote—helped Trump.

It's difficult to parse how important this was, since many voters who picked Trump because he was anti-P.C. would have voted for him anyway. Conversely, voters who weren't just anti-P.C. but outright racist may have picked Trump because they saw him as the more racist candidate. It might be true that they also wanted Trump to win for ordinary anti-P.C. reasons, but these voters can't vote twice.

That distinction matters, because the perception of Trump as racist actually hurt him among voters, according to Grossmann:

His negative statements about minority groups were recognized by voters—but not positively. In open-ended responses, "racist" was the number one negative thing said about Trump even among Republicans. And a surprisingly high proportion of Trump voters said they did not like him personally, often citing his language.

In paid advertising, it was the Clinton campaign that repeatedly raised these issues and endlessly replayed Trump's statements. That made their ad campaign a vast historical outlier compared to prior elections; Clinton talked a lot less about policy issues and a lot less positively overall. Clinton raised the salience of norms about off-limits race and gender discourse, believing it would help her win votes (but may have also activated views of political correctness).

"Voters can simultaneously 1) dislike Trump's bigotry 2) dislike Dems' harping on it 3) perceive that Dems used to care about white working class, now only care about minorities 4) mistrust Republicans on class, but perceive Trump as different," Grossmann explained on Twitter. "In fact, [this] pattern seems dominant."

The Montana/Syracuse study puts it this way:

It is clear that support for Trump (and opposition to Clinton) is especially likely amongst people who feel emotional reactance to restrictive communication norms—and importantly, this effect goes beyond political ideology….

Although Donald Trump presents an interesting paradox of sorts to modern political pundits, his emergence is precisely what a theory focusing on the backfiring of social norms would expect. It is a paradox, but a theoretically expected one: As restrictive norms become ever more salient and heavy-handed, the more they will work in the short-term. But in the long-term, this salient heavy-handedness increases the likelihood that they will ultimately backfire. And this backfiring doesn't just occur for norms that are genuinely repressive to political freedom—it also occurs for norms that have a clearly good and noble aim.

The present study suggests that communication norms that are designed to increase the amount of positive communication may ultimately backfire in political figures like Donald Trump—figures who do anything but increase the amount of positive communication. His emergence should serve as a lesson for students of cultural change and deviance. He is not the first and will certainly not be the last example of popular figures emerging in response to restrictive norms–and the present work illustrates specific psychological processes that help us better understand why that occurs and when it will occur.

Caution is still warranted—the election came down to just tens of thousands of votes in three states, and so several explanations could hold some theoretical claim to having been decisive. But it seems that the political correctness butterfly was indeed flapping xer's wings quite strenuously on November 8, 2016.