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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.

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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?”

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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.

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