Sunday, April 29, 2007

Republicans and the Spiral of Silence

Kevin Drum notes an L.A. Times article reporting that among the desperate straits of the GOP is the fact that Republicans in New Hampshire Republicans are so ashamed they won't even participate in surveys.

What this represents is an extraordinary opportunity for progressives and Democrats. There's a theory in communication research called the Spiral of Silence, devised by Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann, a German professor and longtime advisor to the Christian Democratic Party. The theory is about how political minorities can become smaller and smaller if the majority is vocal enough. In a nutshell, the majority is more vocal, and the minority fears social isolation, so it won't speak up. The majority keeps persuading people, and the minority gets smaller and smaller, and less and less willing to stand up for itself.

Let's set aside the theoretical basis for the Spiral of Silence (some tendentious readings of earlier research on the fear of social isolation), and the less-than-unanimous support for it among communication researchers. But there is at least some there there. The relation to our current situation is this: conservatives are on the run. If there was ever a time to make them feel ashamed of who they are and what they believe, it's now. Send them into the Spiral of Silence.

Bonus fun fact: Noelle-Neumann has been accused of having a Nazi past. Without going into the details, which I don't remember well enough to discuss with authority, she claims she didn’t really believe the stuff she said and wrote during the 1940s. The question of her Nazi sympathies was the subject of the tensest academic conference panel I ever attended, in which Noelle-Neumann faced off against the young, untenured assistant professor who had written an extraordinary j'accuse of an article that had appeared in the Journal of Communication, the most important journal in the field. No blood was shed, but all the thirty or so people in the room kept looking at each other with "Can you believe this is happening?" expressions on their faces. I had to admire the young professor, who risked his entire career to accuse one of the field’s most respected members of basically being a Nazi. (If you have an interest in this kind of stuff, he has a page withe some of the documents on which he based his attack on Noelle-Neumann.

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