President Trump’s comments during a roundtable on California’s “sanctuary” law have prompted an uproar. “We have people coming into the country, or trying to come in — and we’re stopping a lot of them — but we’re taking people out of the country,” Trump said. “You wouldn’t believe how bad these people are. These aren’t people. These are animals.” The White House heightened this phrasing in a news release, even as pundits like E.J. Dionne pushed back on the dangers of such language.
This willingness to use dehumanizing metaphors for groups of people we dislike is certainly not new, either to Trump or as a feature of human behavior more broadly. Our research suggests it may have seeped into the hyper-polarized world of U.S. politics. We find many Republicans and Democrats are quite willing to dehumanize supporters of the other political party.
Dehumanization can go hand-in-hand with discrimination, violence, subjugation and genocide
Dehumanization — suggesting or implying an individual or group is less than fully human — has a long history as a tool for justifying discrimination, violence and subjugation. African slaves were profoundly dehumanized by the rhetoric and actions of the individuals and societies that enslaved them. During the Holocaust, Jews were persistently dehumanized in Nazi propaganda, compared with “rats” and “parasites,” with their homes called “nests” and their families called “packs.” Women can be belittled in animalistic terms by being called “chicks” or “bitches.”
Sadly, the list of groups that have suffered this form of marginalization over the years is long. Ironically, dehumanization appears to be a rather common human behavior. The assertion of subhuman status throughout history has often gone hand-in-hand with systematic discrimination or atrocities including pogroms, lynching andgenocide.
More recently, dehumanization has been expressed in more subtle ways. In the 1990s, for instance, juvenile gang violence prompted the coining of the term “superpredator” for young criminals who would be described as “radically impulsive, brutally remorseless.” This term and the implication that these perpetrators lacked certain human qualities was central in the promotion of legislation increasing the number of juvenile offenders treated as adults by the criminal justice system.
Political elites regularly use uncivil language and occasionally slip into dehumanizing rhetoric about their opponents. During the 1932 election campaign, Franklin Roosevelt’s supporters called Herbert Hoover a “fat, timid capon.” More recently, Bill Maher called Republicans “treasonous rats,” and Alex Jones responded by calling Democrats “the ultimate cowardly sacks of garbage.” Harry M. Reid has called President Trump the GOP’s “Frankenstein monster,” and Eric Trump said Democrats investigating his father were “not even people.”
Here is how we studied partisan dehumanization
But has this metaphorical dehumanization spread to rank-and-file partisans? We conducted two studies, which we present in a working paper, to determine whether partisans are willing to metaphorically dehumanize those from the opposing party. Building on work by Nour Kteily, we asked respondents recruited from Amazon’s Mechanical Turk how evolved they think members of their own party and the opposing party are on a scale from 0 to 100. Accompanying the scale was an image of the evolution of humans. The beginning of the scale corresponds to apelike creatures and moves to Neanderthals before ending with a modern human.
Seventy-seven percent of our respondents rated their political opponents as less evolved than members of their own party. Respondents who considered themselves strong partisans were more likely to dehumanize opposing partisans, and Republicans and Democrats were equally likely to dehumanize their opponents.
Our second study featured a nationally representative sample of 1,483 citizens and a survey experiment designed to gauge willingness to dehumanize those from the other party. Respondents were shown a fake news report that included a picture of broken picnic chairs strewn across a lawn and described a Fourth of July picnic where a fight had led the crowd to rush for the exits, resulting in some injuries. The party of those described as involved in the melee was randomly assigned. In some cases, the fracas involved Democrats; in other cases, Republicans; but in both cases, the description was identical.
We then had respondents rate whether they agreed or disagreed with the statement, “these people are like animals.” For starters, we find many are willing to endorse such dehumanizing language, at least in a survey. About 34 percent of respondents either agreed or strongly agreed with the statement.
Democrats and Republicans alike were more willing to dehumanize those in the other party
Notably, both Democrats and Republicans were more willing to dehumanize when the gathering described was of people from the other party. Among Democrats, the difference is 8 percentage points, with 34 percent agreeing the participants are “like animals” if the news report described a group of Republicans, compared with 26 percent if reading about fellow Democrats. Among Republicans, the difference is 12 percentage points. Forty-three percent of Republican respondents endorsed the statement about a group of Democrats, but 31 percent did so when the gathering was of Republicans.
These findings, we should note, do not mean partisans think of their political opponents as nonhuman. But endorsing such metaphors can be consequential and cause for concern.
Herbert Kelman, one of the first psychologists to study dehumanization, argued that dehumanization often precedes violence because if the opponent is not human, the “principles of morality no longer apply.” In other words, dehumanization may loosen the moral restraints that would normally prevent us from harming another human being.
While uncommon, there have been instances of partisan violence. On June 14, James Hodgkinson opened fire on congressional Republicans while they practiced for the Congressional Baseball Game for Charity, injuring four people before Capitol Police shot and killed him. Hodgkinson had previously posted a series of quotes critical of President Trump along with the caption, “Trump is a selfish inhuman with delusions of grandeur.”
Violence is not the only possible consequence of metaphorical dehumanization. Loosened moral restraints in our current hyper-polarized partisan conflict may show up as a willingness to believe anything about the other side or to excuse unethical behavior by “our” side.
Even vile conspiracy theories — say, the idea Democrats are trafficking in children inside Comet Ping-Pong pizza — may be easier to believe when attached to individuals we think lack some measure of humanity. If we are willing to describe the other side with dehumanizing metaphors, we may be inclined to accept otherwise unacceptable measures to keep them from gaining political power.
James Martherus (@JamesMartherus) is a graduate student in the political science department at Vanderbilt University.
Alexander Theodoridis (@AGTheodoridis) is assistant professor of political science at the University of California-Merced and a visiting senior scholar at Vanderbilt University’s Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions.