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Five Minutes with Michael Milburn and Sheree Conrad

Politicians routinely amplify and misdirect voters’ anger and resentment to win their support. Why do these tactics work? First published in 1996 (as The Politics of Denial), Raised to Rage offers a compelling and novel explanation for political anger and the roots of authoritarian political attitudes. This timely book was recently reprinted with a new introduction that updates the empirical evidence and connects it to the current presidential campaign. In this post, authors Michael Milburn and Sheree Conrad discuss the relationship between childhood punishment and support for authoritarianism and what it means for this political moment.

Based on your research, what have you found to be the relationship between childhood punishment and support for punitive political initiatives and authoritarianism?

In our research, we have found that individuals who report having been physically punished frequently in childhood are significantly higher in authoritarianism and in support for punitive public policies like the death penalty and the use of military force. Our model is “affect displacement,” that emotion from one source, in this case, childhood, can be carried into adulthood and displaced onto adult political attitudes. Political attitudes are complex and have many different influences, including education, income, and the attitudes of one’s parents. In our study published in 2014 in the journal Political Psychology, we controlled for background demographic variables that have been found to influence authoritarianism, and we examined the relationship of childhood experience to authoritarianism, controlling for the political ideology of their parents. The significant impact of childhood punishment remained significant, such that individuals whose parents were liberal, but who also used physical punishment, were significantly higher in authoritarianism than those individuals whose parents were liberal and did not use physical punishment. 

It has been twenty years since your book was first published. How is the book relevant today? In what ways have you revised or revisited your original thesis?

In the last twenty years, major economic and political events at home and abroad have fueled anger among American voters. The attack on the World Trade Center on 9/11, the economic crash of 2008-9, terror attacks by ISIL: all have created a world that is much more frightening than the world we lived in 20 years ago. Such threats only heighten the call for extreme authoritarian and punitive measures from a segment of the American voting population. Events such as these confirm the feeling among individuals who were raised by authoritarian, punitive parents that the world is dangerous, and that the rage they feel is an appropriate response to current reality, rather than a displacement of the rage they felt (and still feel) for their parents. The displacement of rage from the family to politics becomes more invisible to them and to the population in general in such a climate of fear and realistic anger. What’s more, the very real threats facing us allow demagogic politicians to activate fear and anger stemming from childhood in order to convince voters to go along with simplistic, authoritarian prescriptions for a host of social and political problems.

In our research since the original publication of the book, we have only found more support for the affect displacement theory and more evidence of the dangers of affect displacement for American politics. For example, in a 2014 study published in the journal Political Psychology, we found that individuals who reported higher levels of physical punishment in childhood were not only significantly angrier but were also more likely to succumb to hostile attribution bias, the tendency to assume that neutral or ambiguous actions and events are actually motivated by hostility. In addition, our recent research has shown clearly that there is a causal relationship between childhood physical punishment and individuals’ support in adulthood for punitive public policies, regardless of the political views of such individuals’ parents.

Are we indeed seeing more emotion and vitriol in the 2016 presidential elections than ever before, as the media have suggested, or is there historical precedent to the current campaign?

Elections have always generated highly emotional responses. That’s why your mom told you not to talk about sex, politics, or religion at cocktail parties—because people can get so emotional about these topics. However, as is well documented in our original work, dozens of studies show that authoritarianism in a society increases in times of economic or social unrest. The economic crisis that began in 2007 undermined the economic security that many Americans had felt. This crisis, combined with the election of a black President in 2008 whom many white individuals regarded as “other,” and thus illegitimate, helped fuel such an increase of emotion among individuals. Our recently published study in the journal Political Psychology found that higher authoritarianism is associated with negative emotion, such as higher levels of what psychologists call “trait-anger” (measured by agreement with statements like, e.g., “I slam doors when I am angry”), and higher levels of a hostile attribution bias (agreeing with statements like, “I have often felt that strangers were looking at me critically,” and “I often wonder what hidden reason another person may have for doing something nice for me.”), seeing the world as a more dangerous and fearful place.

We would expect higher levels of emotion, particularly among individuals pre-disposed to support Trump by their childhood backgrounds. As we have shown in our research, childhood experiences of harsh punishment, when unacknowledged, can provide additional emotional energy that amplifies support for punitive public policies and scapegoating of different groups. Trump’s claim in the first debate with Hillary Clinton that gangs of illegal immigrants terrorizing the populace plague inner cities in the U.S. is a clear example of this. 

What can we learn about the underlying psychological processes behind political campaigns from the rise of Donald Trump?

In our research we found that rage displaced from childhood physical punishment drives people’s attitudes towards political issues involving retribution against targets seen as deserving of punitive treatment. All too often, those targets are sought among members of despised out-groups. Politicians who offer simple, punitive policies toward such out-groups with the promise of making voters’ lives safer or correcting injustice that has prevented voters from achieving success can tap into displaced rage and the desire for retribution to win support. This is no more true today than it was in previous elections but there is one huge difference about the 2016 election cycle: Donald Trump’s willingness to engage in racist and divisive rhetoric—saying out loud what some voters secretly believe—and his success in defining such rhetoric as “plain speaking” or a lack of “political correctness” rather than hate mongering. Trump’s success in harnessing rage and punitive attitudes towards out-groups regardless of reality—painting all Mexican immigrants as “rapists,” for example, to support his candidacy despite a lack of clear or workable policies testifies to the power of emotion aside from rational thought in helping to define the political landscape and drive the vote.

You originally wrote this book when television and radio dominated political campaigning, and showed how dramatic and emotional coverage affected viewers’ perception of issues. How has the advent of social media impacted viewer engagement with and reception of political issues?

Social media and the internet have created an environment where it is dramatically easier for disparate communities of individuals to find each other and reinforce their emotionally-driven opinions, such as the alt-right movement, encouraging people to reject conflicting information more than they normally would, and strengthening their belief that there is a “silent majority” that will show up at the ballot box to support their candidate. The meme was circulating that polls were underestimating support for Trump because many people who supported him didn’t want to admit that to pollsters who called. Since computer-administered polls are showing results comparable to human-asked questions, this explanation is very unlikely.

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The MIT PressLog is the official blog of MIT Press. Founded in 2005, the Log chronicles news about MIT Press authors and books. The MIT PressLog also serves as forum for our authors to discuss issues related to their books and scholarship. Views expressed by guest contributors to the blog do not necessarily represent those of MIT Press.