Ever since the election, pundits have trotted out a bevy of theories in an effort to explain Donald Trump’s unanticipated victory. CNN commentator Van Jones argued that it was “whitelash” (white backlash to two terms for America’s first black president). At the New York Times, Nate Cohn tied Trump’s victory to support from a wide swath of the working class. At Vox, Emily Crockett attributed it to plain old misogyny.
All of these theories may have merit, but some classical liberals have a different take: Perhaps, after eight years of creeping explicit and implicit censorship, Trump’s election can be seen as a broad referendum on political correctness. After all, what better way to stick a finger in the eye of social justice warriors and campus activists than to elect an outspoken vulgarian with a penchant for denigrating minority groups?
Reason columnist Robby Soave has made this point with much gusto, arguing that “Trump won because of a cultural issue that flies under the radar and remains stubbornly difficult to define, but is nevertheless hugely important to a great number of Americans: political correctness. More specifically, Trump won because he convinced a great number of Americans that he would destroy political correctness.” Others have made this point as well: Bill Maher is a reliably liberal media figure, but in response to the election, he expressed exasperation with the Democrat’s embrace of political correctness.
Understanding Anti-PC Backlash
As an academic psychological scientist who has closely followed the increasingly troubling cultural developments on America’s college campuses over the past few years, I have some sympathy for this view. There can be little doubt that the Left has pushed a cultural agenda that explicitly or implicitly restricts what we can and cannot say. Members of majority groups are often treated to the ad hominem “check your privilege” attack when making arguments that touch on race, gender, or sexual orientation.
Everyday conversations are now labeled “microaggressions.” MTV — once known for running raunchy music videos that were often degrading to women — released a video entitled “New Years Resolutions for White Guys,” lecturing their once-target audience in the most patronizing tone possible. For anyone who has monitored the culture wars over the past decade, the backlash theory has some degree of prima facie validity.
In fact, there is a body of scientific research that can help us to understand the phenomenon Soave and others have described. Psychological reactance occurs when a person feels that his freedoms are being restricted, and feels greater desire for that which is prohibited as a result. In short, if you tell me I can’t do something, that thing suddenly becomes more appealing to me, even if it never really was all that appealing in the first place. We want what we cannot have, sometimes simply because we cannot have it.
Most of the research on reactance has been conducted in the realm of consumer behavior, where the consequences of restricted freedoms are often most visible. To cite an example from my own life: my wife and I are quite budget-conscious and rarely dine out. Nevertheless, when we moved from a suburb of Cleveland, Ohio, to rural Murray, Kentucky, the absence of a wide variety of restaurants felt restricting. I found myself searching for the nearest steakhouse, saddened by the lack of results.
The same phenomenon occurs when outside parties overtly restrict peoples’ options. In its most extreme form, the defiance of such restrictions can result in civil disobedience and even arrest.
But subtle defiance of onerous restrictions is probably more common. People may say things or flirt with beliefs (or vote for candidates) that are borderline unacceptable due to the dictates of political correctness.
Responses to Restrictions on Freedom
When people feel that their freedoms are being restricted, their behavioral response is often twofold. As Jack Brehm (the founder of psychological reactance theory) argued,
Whatever freedom is threatened, whether it be the possession of a choice alternative or the adoption of a particular position on women’s rights, the resulting reactance leads to increased perceived attractiveness of that option. Thus, there may be two manifestations of the occurrence of reactance: actual attempts to restore freedom, and increased perceived attractiveness of the lost or threatened option.
Thus, when voters say that they like the fact that Trump is not afraid to speak his mind, one can hear echoes of psychological reactance. They wish for Trump to reverse the infringement on their freedoms, and they also experience an unusual degree of affinity with the prohibited views he expresses.
But voters need not necessarily agree entirely with Trump’s more outrageous comments to admire his willingness to stand up to censorious culture. Supporting a particular candidate is somewhat opaque: exactly why we like them is often unclear — particularly to those who are on the other side of the political fence.
Over the past year, I heard many Trump supporters say, in response to complaints about Trump’s various offensive comments, something along the lines of “well, I don’t know that he actually believes all that.” Their support was not for the specific, outrageous comments Trump made, but for his willingness to make them.
But now comes time for an important caveat: it is simply wrong to say that an anti-PC backlash was solely responsible for Trump’s victory. It’s also wrong to say that Trump won due solely to racism, sexism, or the economy. Attributing any social phenomenon to a single cause is what Columbia University statistician Andrew Gelman refers to as “piss-poor monocausal social science.” The backlash thesis is no exception.
However, this does not mean the backlash theory is wrong — it’s just not a complete explanation for Trump’s rise (a point Soave himself readily accepts). In trying to understand the 2016 election, reactance to restrictive cultural norms should be part of our model.