Menus Subscribe Search

Tarring Opponents as Extremists Really Can Work

• December 07, 2011 • 4:00 AM

Political scientists have determined that labeling supporters of stands that otherwise might be unassailable can have a sleazy efficacy, although not everyone falls for tactic.

Back in 2002, when the male-only, members-only Augusta National golf club was picked to host the Masters Tournament, advocates of equality for women were taken aback. They wanted the tournament moved or the storied golf club opened to women. And their cause resonated with many Americans in an age when the public supports little outright gender discrimination.

The campaign ran into a hitch, though: for many people, it became synonymous with Martha Burk, a feminist leader whose name frequently appeared in the national press alongside words like “radical,” “extreme,” and “dogmatic.”

That story is a classic example of a tactic prevalent in politics. Tar a policy’s proponents as “extreme,” and maybe the policy will start to look that way, too. Political strategists clearly bank on this idea. And new political science research reveals that it works on many of us.

Researchers Thomas Nelson, Gregory Gwiasda, and Joseph Lyons studied the strategy in a paper published in the journal Political Psychology. To understand their findings, it’s helpful to view political disputes — even the Augusta National story — as a clash of conflicting values, in this case gender equality and the rights of private organizations to determine their own rules.

Most values are generally thought to be positive, although people may rank them with different priorities. Most of us are on the same page about freedom, security, equality, and even the environment. No one dislikes those things.

“We think of [values] as kind of rules that can never be violated, sacred rules that must be protected,” Nelson said. “The problem, of course, is you can’t have everything. Sooner or later those things are going to come into conflict. This happens in our everyday lives.”

And it happens constantly in politics.

[class name="dont_print_this"]

Idea Lobby

THE IDEA LOBBY
Miller-McCune's Washington correspondent Emily Badger follows the ideas informing, explaining and influencing government, from the local think tank circuit to academic research that shapes D.C. policy from afar.

[/class]

When two of these values come into conflict — in, say, a policy question pitting national security against personal liberties — strategists must figure out how to advocate one at the expense of the other. No one wants to go on record attacking the value of security, or liberty. But you can do the next best thing: attack the people standing near it.

Nelson offers this example: “Everybody loves national parks, everybody loves the environment, nobody wants to be perceived as anti-environment. So if you are, say, the snowmobile manufacturer, and you want to push for greater access to public land for snowmobiles, you can’t say, ‘Well the environment is stupid, nobody cares about the environment. The only thing that’s important is riding a snowmobile.’”

You could, however, say, “Sporting outdoorsmen may not get to enjoy our national parks this winter because radical environmentalists care more about owls than the local economy.”

Such rhetoric helps ambivalent voters find their way out of a conflict between competing values.

In their study, the researchers had undergraduate students read and respond to an account of the Augusta National dispute with three small changes: one referred to critics of the policy as “people” and “citizens;” another as “radical feminists,” “militant feminists” and “extremists”; and the third with extended descriptions of the type of world such radical feminists advocate (one with co-ed locker rooms!). The policy itself remained constant as these descriptions changed. As a result, the students exposed to the extremist language were less likely to support moving the tournament or welcoming female members to the club — even though a self-assessment of their values would suggest that they might.

The researchers performed similar experiments with opinion pieces and blog posts about environmental issues and immigration.

Most surprising to them was their discovery that sometimes the label itself is enough. Sometimes, simply calling advocates “feminists” or “environmentalists” is sufficient to tap into extremist associations people already have about those groups (perhaps the same negative associations that underlie the odd phenomenon that many people who care about the environment and gender equality don’t want to be called “environmentalists” or “feminists”). Other times, it’s apparently necessary to dress up that label, maybe “wild-eyed radical feminists,” or even “extreme feminists who would go so far as to advocate unisex toilets.”

The authors don’t know where that line is drawn. They also don’t know what distinguishes the people unfazed by this trick from those who are persuaded by it. In their studies, only some of the students were lulled by extremist labels into opposing policies that otherwise align with their values.

Perhaps other voters know the tactic when they see it, or they’ve seen it so many times that extremist labels themselves become off-putting (Nelson calls this the “tactic tactic,” calling out an opponent for using just such a tactic).

“For a lot of people, that does raise a red flag. This looks like a last desperate measure of somebody who doesn’t have anything better to say,” he said. “But what distinguishes those people from others who are susceptible to it?”

Sign up for the free Miller-McCune.com e-newsletter.

“Like” Miller-McCune on Facebook.

Follow Miller-McCune on Twitter.

Add Miller-McCune.com news to your site.

Subscribe to Miller-McCune

Emily Badger
Emily Badger is a freelance writer living in the Washington, D.C. area who has contributed to The New York Times, International Herald Tribune and The Christian Science Monitor. She previously covered college sports for the Orlando Sentinel and lived and reported in France.

More From Emily Badger

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

July 25 • 2:00 PM

Trophy Scarves: Race, Gender, and the Woman-as-Prop Trope

Social inequality unapologetically laid bare.


July 25 • 1:51 PM

Confusing Population Change With Migration

A lot of population change is baked into a region from migration that happened decades ago.


July 25 • 1:37 PM

Do Not Tell Your Kids That Eating Vegetables Will Make Them Stronger

Instead, hand them over in silence. Or, market them as the most delicious snack known to mankind.



July 25 • 11:07 AM

The West’s Groundwater Is Being Sucked Dry

Scientists were stunned to discover just how much groundwater has been lost from beneath the Colorado River over the past 10 years.


July 25 • 10:00 AM

Shelf Help: New Book Reviews in 100 Words or Less

What you need to know about Bad Feminist, XL Love, and The Birth of Korean Cool.



July 25 • 8:00 AM

The Consequences of Curing Childhood Cancer

The majority of American children with cancer will be cured, but it may leave them unable to have children of their own. Should preserving fertility in cancer survivors be a research priority?


July 25 • 6:00 AM

Men Find Caring, Understanding Responses Sexy. Women, Not So Much

For women looking to attract a man, there are advantages to being a caring conversationalist. But new research finds it doesn’t work the other way around.


July 25 • 4:00 AM

Arizona’s Double-Talk on Execution and Torture

The state is certain that Joseph Wood’s death was totally constitutional. But they’re looking into it.


July 24 • 4:00 PM

Overweight Americans Have the Lowest Risk of Premature Death

Why do we use the term “normal weight” when talking about BMI? What’s presented as normal certainly isn’t the norm, and it may not even be what’s most healthy.


July 24 • 2:00 PM

California’s Lax Policing of the Fracking Industry Has Put the Drought-Stricken State in a Terrible Situation

The state’s drought has forced farmers to rely on groundwater, even as aquifers have been intentionally polluted due to exemptions for the oil industry.


July 24 • 12:00 PM

What’s in a Name? The Problem With Washington’s Football Team

A senior advisor to the National Congress of American Indians once threw an embarrassing themed party that involved headdresses. He regrets that costume now, but knows his experience is one many others can relate to.


July 24 • 11:00 AM

How Wildlife Declines Are Leading to Slavery and Terrorism

As wildlife numbers dwindle, wildlife crimes are rising—and that’s fueling a raft of heinous crimes committed against humans.


July 24 • 10:58 AM

How the Supremes Pick Their Cases—and Why Obamacare Is Safe for Now

The opponents of Obamacare who went one for two in circuit court rulings earlier this week are unlikely to see their cases reach the Supreme Court.



July 24 • 9:48 AM

The People Who Are Scared of Dogs

While more people fear snakes or spiders, with dogs everywhere, cynophobia makes everyday public life a constant challenge.


July 24 • 8:00 AM

Newton’s Needle: On Scientific Self-Experimentation

It is all too easy to treat science as a platform that allows the observer to hover over the messiness of life, unobserved and untouched. But by remembering the role of the body in science, perhaps we humanize it as well.


July 24 • 6:00 AM

Commercializing the Counterculture: How the Summer Music Festival Went Mainstream

With painted Volkswagen buses, talk of “free love,” and other reminders of the Woodstock era replaced by advertising and corporate sponsorships, hippie culture may be dying, but a new subculture—a sort of purgatory between hipster and hippie—is on the rise.


July 24 • 5:00 AM

In Praise of Our Short Attention Spans

Maybe there’s a good reason why it seems like there’s been a decline in our our ability to concentrate for a prolonged period of time.


July 24 • 4:00 AM

How Stereotypes Take Shape

New research from Scotland finds they’re an unfortunate product of the way we process and share information.


July 23 • 4:00 PM

Who Doesn’t Like Atheists?

The Pew Research Center asked Americans of varying religious affiliations how they felt about each other.


July 23 • 2:00 PM

We Need to Start Tracking Patient Harm and Medical Mistakes Now

Top patient-safety experts call on Congress to step in and, among other steps, give the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention wider responsibility for measuring medical mistakes.


July 23 • 12:19 PM

How a CEO’s Fiery Battle Speeches Can Shape Ethical Behavior

CEO war speech might inspire ethical decisions internally and unethical ones among competing companies.


July 23 • 12:00 PM

Why Do We Love the ‘Kim Kardashian: Hollywood’ Game?

It’s easy enough to turn yourself into a virtual celebrity, complete with fame and mansions—but it will likely cost you.


Follow us


Subscribe Now

Do Not Tell Your Kids That Eating Vegetables Will Make Them Stronger

Instead, hand them over in silence. Or, market them as the most delicious snack known to mankind.

The West’s Groundwater Is Being Sucked Dry

Scientists were stunned to discover just how much groundwater has been lost from beneath the Colorado River over the past 10 years.

How Wildlife Declines Are Leading to Slavery and Terrorism

As wildlife numbers dwindle, wildlife crimes are rising—and that's fueling a raft of heinous crimes committed against humans.

How a CEO’s Fiery Battle Speeches Can Shape Ethical Behavior

CEO war speech might inspire ethical decisions internally and unethical ones among competing companies.

Modern Technology Still Doesn’t Protect Americans From Deadly Landslides

No landslide monitoring or warning systems are being used to protect vulnerable communities.

The Big One

Today, the United States produces less than two percent of the clothing purchased by Americans. In 1990, it produced nearly 50 percent. July/August 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.