November 8th 2016 is fast approaching and as Canadians we are patiently awaiting to see whose hands the fate of our southern neighbours will fall into. Although we cannot partake in the vote for the 45th president of the United States of America, it is safe to say that up north we are feeling the heat from the political fire that has been lit beneath us.
Politics as a topic is commonly shied away from, especially in social situations as political opinions are often considered a sensitive and a fairly taboo subject. This year’s American presidential election in particular, is one of the most polarized and controversial debates to take place in American history thus far. There has been an overwhelming amount of attention and media coverage on all aspects of the electoral process leading up to the final vote. The overwhelming media attention has subsequently seeped into our northern boarders, influencing political discourse among Canadians. Since we are a fellow democratic nation, we are not unfamiliar with the privilege and the civic duty to cast a vote for our nation’s leader.
The electoral process for president is one that allows citizens to understand the stance that each candidate has on national concerns. This process too generates an increase in political conversations among and between citizens, including an increased pressure to have an opinion and stand by it in the face of others. Revealing political attitudes can become uneasy when the political climate is highly polarized and toxic, such as the current political conditions in the USA. This atmosphere of firmly divided opinions is one that influences how inclined we are to voice our genuine political opinions to others. In fact, 1/3 of a university sample reported that even a political conversation of agreement both face-to-face and online would cause them some form of stress.
This hesitation to engage in political conversations due to the fear of confrontation is what leads us to stand indifferent or simply take on the other person’s political views that we are engaging with. This phenomenon is also known as political conformity, the notion that we will temporarily abandon our true political opinions as a response to our social setting, such as when conversing with a strong opinion holder.
Whether it is in front of your in-laws, your boss or a fellow coworker, it is not uncommon to choose indifference over a heated political conversation. Consider the following scenario; Jennifer is a good Canadian she always votes, is in tune with current political issues and feels strongly towards a certain political party. From previous exposure she is aware that a group of her colleagues vote the opposite way she does. One day at the office she hears her coworkers engaging in a one sided conversation about the upcoming election, when one asks “ Jennifer I know you’re with us on this aren’t you?” How would you expect Jennifer to respond in this situation?
A similar scenario was given to participants in a recent study on political conformity and likely agreed with you that the individual in the scenario would mask their true political stance in front of a group of others holding differing opinions. The subsequent portion of this political conformity study placed the same participants in a face-to-face situation with people who pretended to hold opposing political views. The focus groups resulted in two thirds of the participants changing their political stance to align with their political counterparts in at least one instance during the focus groups. Results that are similar to longstanding social conformity research by Soloman Asch from the 1950’s. These results may seem ironic considering it is characteristic of Western societies to emphasize individuality and uniqueness… yet when we are placed in a position where our opinions are of the minority we act in ways to save face by political conformity.
So, at this point here is what you’re probably wondering… how is this going to affect the polls come November 8th? The truth of the matter is that these study results are only looking at political conformity in situations where political opinions are openly discussed. When it comes to voting day and privately casting a ballot to elect president, it is hoped that one’s true opinions will withstand any political conformity that may have taken place prior. These results should serve as a friendly reminder to us all this election season, that our own and other’s publicly stated political views may indeed not be as authentic as we take them to be.
Carlson, T.N., & Settle, J.E. (2016). Political chameleons: An exploration in political discussions. Political Behavior, 38(4), 817-859.
- Katharine Constable