Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Gordon Hodson Ph.D.
Gordon Hodson Ph.D.

Becoming a Minority Fuels Conservatism

U.S. Whites become more conservative when faced with losing power

The racial demographics of countries such as the US have faced considerable change given an increase in immigration from countries that are largely non-European in ethnic and racial makeup. What psychological effect does this have on the White population? A recent series of studies by Craig and Richeson (2014) addresses this question using nationally representative datasets.

In their first study, the authors found that when Whites self-identifying as political “independents” were informed that Whites in California are a numerical minority, they shifted their political responses to the right. That is, racial-shift threat shifted their leanings toward more Republican (vs. Democrat) support. Interestingly, this effect was stronger among those on the West coast (and thus more directly affected by this particular racial shift).

Their second study also employed a nationally representative sample. White Americans were informed that Whites would soon be in the minority (racial-shift condition) or that people generally were moving more within the US (control condition). The previous results were replicated: making it salient to Whites that they will become a minority fueled more politically conservative reactions. Interestingly, this effect occurred not only for policy attitudes relevant to race issues (e.g., affirmative action) but also for non-racial issues (e.g., defence spending). The authors refer to this as a “generalized conservative shift”. Critically, this study uncovered why this effect occurred: the racial shift manipulation increased conservatism by threatening Whites’ sense of group status (i.e., dominance). The next two studies then provided compelling evidence that this effect largely concerns worries over power and dominance (not numerical minority status per se). Specifically, the racial-shift effect on conservatism was diminished substantially if Whites were told that they would still retain higher status (i.e., power, influence, privilege) if they became a numerical minority. This effect is therefore about power.

These findings are of interest to psychologists who seek to understand the origins of political ideology. But they should also be of interest to politicians and policy-makers for several reasons. First, American elections are often very “close”, meaning that “independents” often decide election outcomes in the US. This research shows that Whites’ attitudes can meaningfully shift toward the Republican side of the equation when others make salient their (potential) minority status.

Politically, Republicans are aware that their overall message is less appealing to minorities, relative to Democrat messages. With demographics shifting, increasing the number of non-White Americans, this can increase the Democrat base. But, as this research demonstrates, the remaining White voters, including independents, are very likely to shift to the right (which could “compensate” for weakening Republican support). In the short-term we can therefore expect elections to continue to be rather close, with more Democrat-voting social groups but more fervent and dedicated Republican-voting Whites. But relying on a racial shift as a political strategy would prove a losing strategy in the long-term for Republicans, and not only because the numbers-game will eventually favor the Democrats. With the influx of more racial groups and increased contact with racial minorities, Whites will feel increasingly less threatened, more trusting, and less anti-outgroup in nature, in keeping with the Contact Hypothesis (see Hodson & Hewstone, 2013, for a recent review). In fact, those with right-leaning tendencies are particularly likely to benefit from the positive effects of contact (see Hodson, 2011). The real trick, of course, will be to convince the dominant White group to cede some of its power in addition to merely liking these groups more (Dixon et al., 2014). If history teaches us anything, dominant groups are very reluctant to share power, even if they come to like and respect their outgroups.

References and Suggested Readings:

Craig, M.A., & Richeson, J.A. (2014). On the precipice of a “majority-minority” America”: Perceived status threat from the racial demographic shift affects White Americans’ political ideology. Psychological Science, 25, 1189-1197. DOI: 10.1177/0956797614527113

Dixon, J., Durrheim, K., Kerr, P., & Thomae, M. (2014). ‘What’s so funny ‘bout peace, love and understanding?’ Further reflections on the limits of prejudice reduction as a model of social change. Journal of Social and Political Psychology, 1, 239-252. doi:10.5964/jspp.v1i1.234

Hodson, G. (2011). Do ideologically intolerant people benefit from intergroup contact? Current Directions in Psychological Science, 20, 154-159. DOI: 10.1177/0963721411409025

Hodson, G., & Hewstone, M. (Eds). (2013). Advances in intergroup contact. London, UK: Psychology Press. (click here). Paperback: 978-1-84872-114-2; Hardback: 978-1-84872-054-1

About the Author
Gordon Hodson Ph.D.

Gordon Hodson, Ph.D. is a professor at Brock University.

More from Gordon Hodson Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today
More from Gordon Hodson Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today