Ravell Call, Deseret News
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.
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