A decades-old public opinion theory developed by German political scientist Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann was aptly named the Spiral of Silence. While the theory was a bit more sophisticated than what is articulated in this column, it essentially explains how those who perceive themselves as holding a minority view are more likely to keep that view unexpressed or even hidden. The spiral happens when fewer and fewer people ascribe to what is assumed to be the less-popular theory because there are fewer vocal champions for it.
These spirals have been spinning for a long time in America, used effectively in past years by the media and to some extent well-funded interest groups able to craft narratives and force agendas. Those stuck inside the spiral typically experience some level of political or cultural exile, often unaware of their peers also existing silently inside. They are made to feel their view is unpopular, even if it is not. Over time, if the spiral continues, the view actually does lose popularity, and significant social change happens if the spiral runs its full course.
A number of political phenomena have exhibited similar characteristics of an early-stage Spiral of Silence. The Bradley Effect emerged when Democrat Tom Bradley — the black mayor of Los Angeles — lost the 1982 California gubernatorial race to white Republican George Deukmejian despite Bradley leading the polls. It is explained that many voters were uncomfortable telling pollsters they were voting for the white candidate over fears of perceived racism.
Another Spiral of Silence-type effect was observed in Great Britain during the 1990’s when pollsters and other psephologists could not at first explain when the Tories, UK’s conservative political party, performed better than polls predicted. As time went on, the electoral gurus realized voters in the UK were keeping their conservative tendencies hidden until election day. They then first coined the term — the Shy Tory Factor — Britain’s equivalent of the Bradley Effect.
Other examples in the nation’s electoral history include Ronald Reagan who, largely not expected to defeat Jimmy Carter in 1980, surprised election night pundits. The 1994 Republican Revolution in Congress during Bill Clinton’s first presidential midterm election was far more dramatic than expected. Of course, much more recently, Donald Trump stunned the world with his defeat of Hillary Clinton on November 8th. I believe a little Spiral of Silence theory can go a long way to explain Trump’s historic victory.
It is fair to say that our president-elect — despite his flaws — grabbed the spiral of silence and unraveled it masterfully on a number of levels. As an aside, let me be the first to say that what may be hidden in the spiral is not always virtuous, nor does it represent an invisible majority. Sometimes the spiral sends ideas to the dustbin of history, where they belong. Other times, virtuous policy and effective ideas (even the truth) get stuck in its vortex, stagnating or dividing a nation because political and media elites have enough resources at their disposal to keep the spirals they prefer intact.
Having said that, there are large numbers of Americans relieved they can again publicly believe in American exceptionalism, and can say words like Merry Christmas and Islamic terror. The examples are numerous of externally ridiculed beliefs that are internally viewed as common sense. Bottom line, Donald Trump turned out to be the Moses leading an exodus of middle America out of the Spiral of Silence on a number of highly-charged issues.
I won’t be so simple-minded to assert that only liberals use a spiral-of-silence dynamic to advantage their own agendas. Bosses, teachers, coaches, clergy, parents — virtually anyone in a position of leadership — can use shame and ridicule along with the human tendency toward social desirability to make individuals feel as though they are alone… when indeed they are not.
Since Trump’s electoral upset, I’ve been pondering this entire issue of which culturally exiled populations will come out of their spirals of silence. Many of Trump’s adversaries are certain it’s the bigots, homophobes, and racists that will emerge and take charge. Histrionics aside, I believe some of that will happen. But I also believe a more traditional American view will return to the mainstream, and those using suppression words like “science deniers” for those who question the global warming narrative, or “xenophobes” for those who want a stricter refugee and immigration process, will find themselves closer to the fringes.
Perhaps the panic, weeping, and wailing we’ve witnessed since Trump’s election has been from those who have become accustomed to purposely fueling various spirals of silence for political expediency, frustrated that so many Americans can breathe a little relief now that a previous oppressive political correctness has been weakened significantly, along with the spirals of silence it created.
Associated Press award-winning columnist Neal Larson of Idaho Falls is also the author of “Living in Spin.” He is a conservative talk show host on KID Newsradio 590am, 106.3 and 92.1fm, and also at www.kidnewsradio.com. “The Neal Larson Show” can be heard weekday mornings from 8:00 to 10:00. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.