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What psychology teaches us about opposing an unpopular president

Trump’s best hope is to convince opponents he’s more popular than he actually is.

A scene frome women’s march, following Trump’s inauguration.
The women’s march, following Trump’s inauguration.
Emily Crockett/Vox

These are disorienting times for American democracy. Key features of a democratic nation — that the candidate who wins the majority has the right to rule, that elections are free from outside influence, and that political actions reflect the views of the majority of citizens — are all in question.

The newly elected president has historically low approval levels, as does the newly convened Republican-led Congress. And key features of their political agenda — repealing the Affordable Care Act, reducing taxes for the rich, restricting access to abortion, inaction on climate change, opposing minimum wage increases — are all opposed by majorities of the American public.

Our second president, John Adams, coined the phrase the “tyranny of the majority” to express his concern that majority-rule politics could trample the interests and rights of minority groups. Today we face a different challenge. Even though the majority of Americans do not support their agenda, Republicans will soon control all three branches of the federal government while also holding tremendous power at the state level.

What can politicians and citizens do to resist this powerful but unpopular regime, to ensure majority sentiment is represented? Social science research on the dynamics of social norms, by myself and others, provides a variety of insights.

This research fills an important gap, because while many post-election analyses have highlighted the causes of our undemocratic moment — the Electoral College, gerrymandering, and the diffusion of "fake news," among them — it is much less clear what action the majority of Americans should take, as they find themselves governed by politicians pushing an agenda they do not support.

The strange case of “unpopular norms”

Social scientists say that an “unpopular norm” exists when people perceive a view or behavior to have popular support when it is actually opposed by the majority. An unpopular norm is on view in the Hans Christian Anderson fable in which an entire village pretends to see a naked emperor’s nonexistent new clothes, falsely believing that everyone else can see them.

Though you might assume unpopular norms are unusual, studies show they are actually quite common. Examples range from undergraduates overestimating the popularity of binge drinking on college campuses to citizens within repressive regimes underestimating the dissatisfaction of their peers.

In a situation where the ruling minority asserts, falsely, that it represents the desires of the majority, what can politicians and citizens do to ensure that the true majority sentiment is represented?

Most critically, the majority position must consistently broadcast that theirs is the more popular view. The key factor driving unpopular norms is the misperception of public opinion. Wherever possible, reliable data on the true majority sentiment should be brought to the table and emphasized relentlessly.

Journalists have a role to play in making sure that false impressions of the public’s political views do not take root. Since the election, a view has emerged of Donald Trump as a clever and evasive politician who is able to upend existing policies and standards of decorum without consequence. But this narrative is false. Trump has taken a significant hit in the polls for pursuing an unpopular agenda.

Broadcast the facts: Trump and his policies do not have popular support

Where incoming presidents typically gain support following the election, Trump has lost support. Amazingly, he entered office with roughly half the favorability that Barack Obama did in 2008 — 40 percent versus 79 percent. Trump often asserts that he is overwhelmingly popular, claiming that he lost the popular vote only because millions of votes for Hillary Clinton were cast illegally. But there is no evidence for this claim. In fact, he squeaked into office based on the quirkiness of the Electoral College. The true story of the public’s perception of Donald Trump is not one featuring an easily distracted nation accepting outrageous behavior, but instead of widespread rejection of an incoming president and his agenda.

Second, the majority must be deeply committed. Norms don’t just exist; they are made. And making them requires commitment. In my own research, my co-authors and I find that a minority of "true believers" who not only express their views but also seek to convert others can be critical to the emergence of an unpopular norm. Thus, an inequality of political will can be a critical factor driving the emergence of an unpopular regime (a dynamic captured by the W.B. Yeats line, “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity”).

But this can be undone where the minority's will is met with equal or greater determination from the majority. In practical terms, this means not just maintaining one's views but also working to spread them through grassroots campaigns, contacting legislators, organizing for candidates and ballot initiatives, and engaging in effective protests and persuasive conversations with other citizens.

Additionally, the majority must never “move on” by assimilating to the reigning minority, thereby losing sight of the political injustice inherent in minority rule. Democratic institutions tend to be “self-justifying”: Because they are the result of elections, we assume they must represent the will of the people. Viewing officeholders as unpopular and, in President Trump’s case, possibly elected illegitimately produces cognitive dissonance, more than most can comfortably maintain.

There is a tendency to reduce this dissonance through cognitive distortion, by simply concluding that these figures and their policies are in fact popular, legitimate, and acceptable. Instead, the injustice of the situation should be seen for what it is. The majority should resolve the dissonance by changing the facts on the ground, not in their minds.

People will change their opinions to align with what they perceive, rightly or wrongly, as the majority view

Resisting such cognitive distortion is particularly critical since the misperception of majority sentiment can easily become self-fulfilling. For example, the research on undergraduates' perceptions of drinking norms noted above found that the majority of students initially found themselves uncomfortable with campus binge drinking. Falsely assuming that they were in the minority, however, they gradually adjusted their views to put them more closely in line with what they assumed most of their peers thought. An imagined norm can easily become real.

Finally, voice matters. The Vietnam War was not as unpopular as we assume it was. But those protesting the war were easier to see — whether on the streets or on the evening news — leading people to draw inaccurate inferences about the scope of disapproval of the war. Indeed, one of the strategic goals of social activism is to shape the public's perception of how widespread a view is. It's little surprise that the size of public protests is a significant predictor of their political influence.

It's hard to stand up to an apparent majority. An unpopular regime that nonetheless attains power develops a persuasiveness that is outsize. People feel a strong pull to agree with what they believe most people think, and people fear speaking out against views they assume are held by a powerful majority.

But unpopularity is the Trump regime's — indeed every unpopular regime's — greatest weakness. While the alienation many feel now can breed hopelessness and apathy, these feelings are misplaced. Recall the end of the Anderson fable, in which a child laughs at the naked emperor, triggering a cascade of nonconformity that undoes the spell. Unpopular regimes rest on a fragile foundation. Their legitimacy can be undermined if the true majority reveals itself. Above all else, in order to resist the tyranny of the minority, the majority must remember the strength of its numbers.

Robb Willer is a professor of sociology, psychology, and organizational behavior at Stanford University. His recent talk on effective political communication can be viewed on the TED website. Find him on Twitter @GhostfaceWiller.


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