A new experiment can help us understand why voters might choose a candidate who lies. And the reasons can point to larger underlying problems.
by Brian Eastwood MIT
In the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election, many Americans have wondered both publicly and privately how voters could support a candidate who tells obvious lies and who flouts basic norms while stoking private prejudices — the very definition of demagoguery.
After all, President Donald Trump was elected to office in spite of a record of provably untrue statements and rampant norm-breaking. And while his opponent, Hillary Clinton, had a better record of truth-telling, her supporters looked beyond her lies as well.
Analyses of the election results tend to focus on how various factors — cultural differences, media bubbles, partisan commitments, and gender stereotypes — could lead some voters to disregard a candidate’s lies or demagoguery.
But a recently published article suggests under certain circumstances, voters appreciate a candidate precisely because they recognize him as a “lying demagogue” and thus perceive him to be their “authentic champion” for challenging a political establishment they regard as illegitimate.
Remarkably, the claim of “The Authentic Appeal of the Lying Demagogue: Proclaiming the Deeper Truth about Political Illegitimacy,” published in the February issue of American Sociological Review, is such “aggrieved” voters may recognize a candidate as insincere and inconsiderate but support him because of his perceived authenticity.
“The key to our model is when a candidate asserts an obvious untruth especially as part of a general attack on establishment norms, his anti-establishment listeners will pick up on his underlying message the establishment is illegitimate and, therefore, that candidate will have an ‘authentic’ appeal despite the falsehoods and norm-breaking,” said Ezra Zuckerman Sivan, a professor and deputy dean at MIT Sloan.
Lying demagoguery as symbolic protest
The paper, co-authored by Minjae Kim, PhD ’18, as well as Oliver Hahl, PhD ’13 and assistant professor at Carnegie Mellon’s Tepper School of Business, points to two types of legitimacy crisis that can give rise to a lying demagogue.
In a “representation crisis,” a political establishment that claims to govern for everyone is seen as advancing its own interests, or the interests of an incumbent social category. One historical example is Louisiana Sen. Huey Long’s opposition to Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, which Long alleged did not do enough to help the poor recover from the Great Depression.
Meanwhile, in a “power-devaluation crisis” the political establishment is perceived as favoring outsiders at the expense of a group that had formerly been more powerful. Various nativist groups in American history, including the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s, invoked this type of crisis by framing economic, political, and social changes in the context of federal policies that helped minority groups at the expense of the white working class.
“One of the insights from our study is that our current political situation is a general social phenomenon that has occurred in different times and contexts,” Kim said. “It is easy to dismiss some political events and rhetoric taking place today as abnormal and thus not worth paying attention to, but our study helps us understand an important general driver that lies behind demagoguery in political rhetoric. Insofar as politicians try to appear as authentic champions of their constituents, lying demagoguery will remain as a socially destructive but individually attractive strategy, from any side of the political spectrum.”
In such crises, the lying demagogue’s norm-breaking appeals to the aggrieved constituency because those voters see norms as illegitimately imposed by the establishment. Moreover, denigration of the lying demagogue by the establishment adds to the credibility of the lying demagogue as the authentic (if insincere and inconsiderate) voice of the aggrieved.
“We argue that when voters identify with an ‘aggrieved’ social category — that is, one whose members see themselves as unfairly treated by the political establishment — they will be more motivated to view demagogic falsehoods from a candidate claiming to serve them as gestures of symbolic protest against the dominant group,” the authors write. “When this happens, such voters will view the candidate making these statements as more authentic than would people in other social categories.”
“A credible pariah”
“Key to the contribution of the paper is that we test the theory in a simulated political context, and we can thereby show that the phenomenon is not particular to Clinton versus Trump,” Zuckerman Sivan said. “In fact, we show that Clinton supporters and women act just as Trump supporters and men do in our experiments.”
In experiments conducted with online subjects, the authors test the theory in a fictional college student body election with the hot-button issue of banning alcohol on campus. In the experiments, there’s an incumbent and a challenger — the latter being the leader of a fraternity with no student government experience.
There’s also a fictional research paper concluding that rates of sexual assault are lower on college campuses that ban alcohol. The anti-alcohol ban candidate argues that the paper should not be relied upon because it was not peer-reviewed; in some conditions, this statement is an obvious lie, and in other cases, the statement is true. And in some conditions, the candidate denounces the authors of the paper as “feminists … who hate the idea that sometimes girls just want to be girls and a little alcohol helps.”
The lying demagogue appears authentically appealing under two experimental conditions. First and foremost, there must be either a representation crisis (where the establishment candidate appears to be self-serving) or a power-devaluation crisis (where that candidate appears biased in favor of an upstart group). When there is no crisis, the lying demagogue is seen as less authentic than the incumbent candidate, even among the demagogue’s “natural constituents.”
Second, even if there is a crisis, only those subjects who identify with the aggrieved social category (outsiders if it’s a representation crisis; former establishment if it’s a power-devaluation crisis) will see the lying demagogue as authentically appealing.
The authors argue that both crises were at play in the 2016 election. Then-candidate Donald Trump responded to the power devaluation crisis – where the formerly powerful group feels unfairly treated — with his “Make America Great Again” slogan. And Trump responded to the representation crisis — where the establishment seems to favor an incumbent group – with his “drain the swamp” pledge. Both messages had particular resonance with the white working class, as demonstrated by recent research including a recent Sociological Science article by Stephen Morgan and Jiwon Lee of Johns Hopkins University.
“If the key to the authentic appeal of the lying demagogue is that he is signaling a willingness to be regarded as a pariah by the establishment, Trump was certainly a credible pariah,” the paper concludes. “In this sense, his statements reminded his voters that he is a pariah just like them.”
“I need to stress there appears to be nothing special about Trump voters,” Zuckerman Sivan said. “Anyone can find a lying demagogue authentically appealing if they are feeling sufficiently aggrieved. Indeed, our experiments work regardless of whether the subjects were Trump voters or Clinton voters; and whether they were male or female. The larger implication is that we should try and grapple with why so many 2016 voters felt that the system was in a legitimacy crisis.”