Pretend for a minute you are a bigot who has uncomfortable feelings about Jews.
If you were a bigot, you might think things like Jews are “shady,” “shifty” or “greedy.”
This might be true even if you weren’t a full-fledged bigot but just had some vague unease about Jewish people that you couldn’t quite place – maybe feelings that were a result of media images you have seen about Jews.
But you are smart enough to know that saying such things isn’t done in polite company. You probably wouldn’t even tell a pollster your feelings if one asked you.
So what would you say instead to mask your bigotry or how might you express your discomfort in other ways?
You might instead talk about the business and banking interests of Jews. Or you may say something unrelated to money. You might use code words.
A few years ago, some scholars at Princeton and MIT looked at how voters link discredited stereotypes with more legitimate ones — like Jews are too liberal instead of shady.
In a series of survey experiments, they described a hypothetical candidate, Howard Wilson, in differing ways that sometimes brought out the old Jewish stereotype of shady. And the effects were real on voter choice. Even when the political opinions of the various “Howard Wilsons” were the same, the shady Jew received less support.
They wrote: “The results here suggest that when campaigns cue stereotypic social traits — even those widely discredited — they may prompt indirectly a process of stereotyping by which Jewish candidates could lose political support.”
I thought of these experiments this week when I read a remarkable article in politico.com. According to the author, President Obama’s "re-election campaign will portray the public Romney as inauthentic, unprincipled and, in a word used repeatedly by the president's advisers in about a dozen interviews, ‘weird.’”
What does that have to do with the experiment about Jewish candidates?
Well, these terms are linked with old Mormon stereotypes.
In 2007, researchers at Pew did the best study about the public's perceptions on Mormonism during Romney’s last campaign. They used a wonderful survey technique and asked people to provide the first word that came to mind when they heard the word “Mormon.” Not surprisingly, polygamy was near the top.
But would it surprise you that of the negative terms used, words like “weird” and “secretive” also came up regularly?
So, in framing Mitt Romney as “inauthentic,” “lacking core convictions” or “weird,” the political operatives proposed, it seems to me, to link him indirectly to these old Mormon stereotypes, whether they are doing so with deliberate malice or not. (Isn’t a publicly inauthentic person hiding his true self? Isn't he being secretive?)
To be sure, Romney has changed opinions on important issues, and that is a legitimate concern for some voters. And it is fair to say our Mormon beliefs are supposed to make us "a peculiar people." Our beliefs are different, and that is a good thing.
And Republicans may have used this tactic of potentially linking latent stereotypes to real-world politics in invidious ways too. For example, you can make the case that an advertisement during the 1988 campaign aired by George H.W. Bush, who I admire a great deal, about Willy Horton, a black man on furlough who committed a crime, was both potent and subtly racist.
That doesn’t change the fact that calling Romney, a Mormon, "weird" is nasty politics.
Romney has been hit by this kind of framing before, so he should be used to it by now.
A 1994 article in the Boston Globe about Ann Romney described the family's home and life as something out of "The Twilight Zone."
Columnist Margery Eagan at the Boston Herald in 2002, admittedly while trying to be funny, made up a character for a column, a character she called MittMan No. 1:
“Referring to Romney's placid, calm, Mona Lisa-like demeanor Tuesday in the face of O'Brien's pummeling, [MittMan No. 1] said, ‘I want a piece of that action. To be that chilled, that sedated. Like the Thorazine shuffle. Hey, now that the Catholics are on the ropes, what's the deal? Do these Mormons chant? Watch Lawrence Welk? I want to know: What makes these people not tick?’”
Then there was Jon Stewart’s allegedly funny description of Romney in 2008 as a “Salt-and-pepper, man-shaped-polymer-casing for a spiritual vacuum.”
Whoever started this weird thing in 2011 wasn’t being very original.
Now it is great news that David Axelrod, President Obama’s political adviser, said the use of the word “weird” was now a fireable offense in the Obama campaign and that the term didn’t come from the campaign itself. Good for them. I commend them for it.
But that some of the president’s operatives or supporters implanted stereotypic weirdness into the public consciousness in the first place about Romney is worthy of rebuke. Whatever else it was, it certainly wasn’t hope and change.
Lane Williams teaches journalism and communication at BYU-Idaho. He is a former journalist whose scholarly interests include Mormon portrayals in the media, media and religion, and religion and politics.