The 2016 election demonstrated a thoroughly proven but rarely accepted psychological principle: punishment doesn’t persuade.
The American Left has earned a solid reputation for lashing out at anyone whose opinions differ from their own. We all know how it works by now. People who disagree with liberal orthodoxy will be labeled racist, sexist, blah, blah, blah. Pardon my boredom, but Barney the dinosaur was less repetitive than the modern Left.
Sure, some folks on the Right unreasonably dismiss their counterparts with epithets like “commie” or “snowflake,” but silencing dissent has undeniably become a central strategy among liberals. Their weapon of choice is public shame designed to threaten a person’s relationships and social capital. Just ask any conservative who fears the retribution of their professors, their employer, or even their family.
The arm-twisting is hardly subtle. Comedian John Oliver summed up the Left’s collective reaction to the election when he said, “Instead of showing our daughters that they could one day be President, America proved that no grandpa is too racist to be leader of the free world.”
Oliver, like so many of his teammates, has also gleefully proclaimed Trump to be “Klan-backed” and a misogynist. You don’t need to share Oliver’s posh accent to catch his nuance: Trump is deplorable, and so are his supporters. That Oliver…what a fun-loving jester!
That’s the sort of heavy-handed shaming that dramatically backfired on Democrats across the country. There are two reasons punishment doesn’t persuade.
First, punishment teaches the wrong lesson. Suppose I beat my dog for jumping on the couch. He doesn’t learn to avoid the couch; he learns to avoid me. He’ll be sprawled on the furniture the moment I leave the house. If anything, my cruelty makes the couch look all the more comforting.
In a similar manner, the Left has spent years training conservatives and libertarians to be silent. That’s why they were blindsided by election results. People who were planning to vote Republican didn’t avoid doing so any more than the dog avoids the couch. They simply misled pollsters, many of whom wandered into their lives from a media institution that had for years been calling them racist, sexist hicks.
The second reason punishment fails is that people acclimate to mistreatment. It will hurt if you call me a racist once, but do it a thousand times and the word loses meaning. Constant, low-level punishment can even increase disobedience.
As a libertarian, I agree with the Left on social issues as often as I agree with the Right on fiscal policy, but it’s difficult to admit that I agree with the Left on anything these days. It’s embarrassing to be seen with a crowd whose only remaining tactic is the rhetorical equivalent of flinging poo.
It’s unlikely they will abandon that tactic any time soon because punishment is seductive. It looks effective but in reality it only breeds deference, not respect. The dog won’t jump on the couch until I leave the house, and mainstream conservatives apparently won’t speak their mind until they enter the voting booth.
And let’s face it: punishment is fun if you have a little score to settle with the world. You get to mistreat your opponents and feel righteous while doing it. Why change, especially when the alternative involves the hard work of persuasion?
The Left’s shaming tactic hasn’t fully collapsed—I’m sure there are still plenty of people who stifle themselves to avoid punishment—but the election results suggest it is becoming increasingly unreliable.
Sadly for reasonable, mainstream liberals, their more derisive colleagues are subject to human nature, which compels people to double-down on failing strategies even if doing so puts them deeper in the quicksand.
If human nature holds, we can expect an even more aggressively insulting contingent to emerge from the Left as the tactic becomes increasingly counterproductive. I suppose if you enjoyed their crippling defeat last month your advice to them might be: stay the course.
Shawn Smith is a clinical psychologist in Wheat Ridge, and writes about the intersection of politics and psychology for Complete Colorado.