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The Mind Tricks of Electoral Psychology

Do voters become more xenophobic after they cast a ballot for a radical-right party?
Ka Ming Chan, radical right politics, radical right voters, electoral psychology, voter psychology, cognitive dissonance theory, projection effect politics, persuasion effect politics, voter behavior, cognitive dissonance theory politics

© Laura Gangi Pond / Shutterstock

April 21, 2020 15:45 EDT

Following Donald Trump’s election as US president, many more radical-right rallies have taken place. This not only indicates an interaction between the electoral arena and civil society — it illustrates the fact that when a party (or a candidate) of the radical-right family is elected, its supporters are more likely to voice their approval in public as previous social norms often become destabilized. So what happens to the political-psychology component of voters after they decide to cast their ballot for a radical-right party?

To start, we need a basic understanding of the rational choice theory of voting. In this proximity model, voters hold informed opinions about political issues and know about different parties’ positions on these issues. In order to maximize their utility, voters choose a party closest to their point of view. But how does the proximity model of voting explain voter transition?

According to this model, a change in party preference takes place when voters alter their opinions about political issues when given new information. Conversely, a party changes its position on certain issues, and voters thus adjust their perceptions toward this party, meaning that the distance between party and voters reduces.

One should bear in mind that a radical-right party often emerges in an old party system. In other words, radical-right party voters are usually previous non-voters or voters who defected from other parties. Following the proximity model, these voters cast their ballots for a radical-right party because they think that their positions on certain issues, such as immigration, are close to those of a radical-right party. The proximity model of voting fits one’s intuition if the voters hold the assumption that their position and the party’s position on an issue largely determine their vote choice.

Subsequent studies in political psychology have challenged this assumption by demonstrating that vote choice can conversely constrain our political attitudes. As such, the train of thought of the proximity model is totally reversed: Voters’ choice of a party can shape their attitudes toward political issues. Cognitive dissonance theory, for instance, asserts our internal need for consistency. Applying cognitive dissonance theory means that voters may change their attitude toward an issue after they chose to cast their votes for a radical-right party.

A voter might be rather moderate when it comes to immigration before an election. But once he or she casts a vote for a radical-right party, cognitive dissonance theory holds that the immigration attitude of a radical-right-party voter would change afterward, as he or she follows the party’s position on immigration. In current political psychology literature, this process is usually called the persuasion effect.

In the past decade, scholars have followed up on this by finding that individuals, when exposed to electoral campaign and media messages, would be informed about different parties’ positions on certain issues and subsequently follow their preferred party’s position. Yet much of this research is US or UK-based and has not expanded to those countries with a proportional electoral system, which Pippa Norris suggests is most favorable to the breakthrough of a radical-right party into an established political system.

However, in order to avoid cognitive dissonance, the persuasion effect is not necessarily the sole psychological process at work. In fact, it is equally plausible that after voters decided to cast their votes for a radical-right party, their position on immigration remains more or less the same. Instead, it is their perceived position of a radical-right party that changes so that the party’s position on immigration aligns with their own.

This psychological mechanism is normally called the projection effect. That is, partisans project their own attitude on a certain issue to their preferred party. This phenomenon may be slightly counterintuitive from our perspective given that we normally assume that a radical-right party holds xenophobic attitudes — after all, immigration is supposed to be an issue this party family owns. But we need not exclude this possibility because it is possible that voters can simply treat a radical-right party as being rather skeptical toward immigration rather than xenophobic or racist. As such, a radical-right party is regarded as socially admissible from its voters’ point of view.

Persuasion and projection effects are not mutually exclusive. In fact, it is very hard to disentangle the two processes. Using cognitive dissonance theory to understand the psychological consequence of voting for a radical-right party is still rather scarce, so there is potential to analyze the persuasion and projection effects on voters in the future.

*[The Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right is a partner institution of Fair Observer.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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