Opinion Backlash and Public Attitudes: Are Political Advances in Gay Rights Counterproductive?

The forthcoming article “Opinion Backlash and Public Attitudes: Are Political Advances in Gay Rights Counterproductive?” by Benjamin G. Bishin, Thomas J. HayesMatthew B. Incantalupo and Charles Anthony Smith is summarized by the authors here:

With the Supreme Court scheduled to hear oral arguments in the spring of 2015, setting up a decision that could legalize same-sex marriage across the United States, some suggest that the Court should be careful and not go too far, for fear of opinion backlash—a favorable gay rights ruling might lead to a surge of anti-gay opinion. For decades, scholars have suggested that opinion backlash impedes policy gains by marginalized groups.  Public opinion research, however, suggests that widespread attitude change that backlash proponents theorize is likely to be rare.

Our paper, “Opinion Backlash and Public Attitudes: Are Political Advances in Gay Rights Counterproductive?” develops a clear definition of backlash as a large, negative, and enduring shift in opinion against a policy or group that occurs in response to some event—like a Supreme Court ruling—that threatens the status quo. We are the first to empirically investigate the effects of public opinion backlash resulting from institutional policy change using both experimental and observational evidence.

We examine backlash against gays and lesbians using a series of on-line and natural experiments about marriage equality, and large sample survey data. We randomly assigned respondents to receive one of three treatment and one control vignettes. The vignettes contained a fictitious news story about gay rights in Oregon being legalized by the court, being legalized by the state legislature, a story about a gay pride parade, and a story about gun control policy.  Follow-up questions confirmed they accepted the treatment, and respondents were asked about their warmth toward gays and lesbians, support for same-sex marriage, as well as the importance of that issue to them personally.

We also “arranged” for the Supreme Court to announce opinions on two key same-sex marriage cases in June of 2013.As these decisions were broadly favorable to gay rights and highly publicized, they presented an opportunity for a natural experiment to test for opinion backlash. In the days immediately following these decisions, we re-ran our control condition on a new sample.

Across our experimental conditions, we find no evidence of opinion backlash among the general public, by members of groups predisposed to dislike gays and lesbians, or those with psychological traits that may pre-dispose them to lash back.

Our results call the backlash narrative into question as we find no evidence of backlash by the public as a whole or among relevant constituent groups. Using observational data, we show that plausible alternative explanations for our results, such as backlash occurring only early in an issue’s life cycle, or among particular data sets that are not nationally representative, cannot explain our findings.

Our results thus contribute to the academic literature on minority politics, social movements, law and society, and public opinion, and offer proscriptive advice to minority rights advocates. These findings also raise questions about backlash as a more general phenomenon.  Does opinion backlash occur against groups other than gays and lesbians?  Does backlash occur in ways other than opinion change, perhaps by leading to changes in behavior?  Or, perhaps, opinion backlash occurs not among the public or the other groups we examine, but among elites or interest groups?  Our ongoing research is just beginning to tackle these questions.

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The American Journal of Political Science (AJPS) is the flagship journal of the Midwest Political Science Association and is published by Wiley.

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