‘Why Me?’ The Role of Perceived Victimhood in American Politics

From a new academic paper by Miles T. Armaly and Adam M. Enders:

* Despite growing recognition among journalists and political pundits, the concept of victimhood has been largely ignored in empirical social science research.

* Perceiving oneself to be a victim is ubiquitous in American politics. As Horwitz (2018) remarks, “The victim has become among the most important identity positions in American politics” (553). This is no accident. Victimhood is a central theme of modern political messaging. For instance, a Republican strategist observed, “At a Trump rally, central to the show is the idea of shared victimization…Trump revels in it, has consistently portrayed himself as a victim of the media and of his political opponents…” (in Rucker 2019). However, if you consider Trump’s demographic characteristics (white and male) and his successes (in terms of wealth and being president), he is not a victim by any serious societal standard. While Trump’s supporters may, to varying degrees, be victims of certain social and political circumstances, the rallies at which the president is reveling in their shared victimhood are direct consequences of at least their recent political successes.

This narrative of victimization transcends Trump and other political elites. Regular Americans have broadly been considered, or considered themselves to be, victims—of China (Erickson 2018), immigrants (Politi 2015), income inequality (Ye Hee Lee 2015), and much more. It is in the interest of political candidates to cue victimhood, to make their potential supporters feel as though they have been wronged and that she is the best candidate to rectify things. If would-be constituents can be made to feel victimized, regardless of any “truth” of the matter, it may also be possible to demonstrate the relevance of such feelings to immediate political choices, such as voting or issue positions.

* Actually being a victim is, of course, undesirable. Why, then, might someone fail to eschew the status, or even accept it? We do not argue that one must consciously identify with or project any sort of label—i.e., “victim”—in order to feel victimized. We provide supporting evidence for this below. Generally, selfperceptions of many sorts provide psychological or social benefts to the individual, like a sense of belonging (Huddy et al. 2015) or social connectedness (Wann 2006). Campbell and Manning (2018) argue that in “the contemporary moral hierarchy” victims are seen as morally and socially superior. Horwitz (2018) suggests that victimhood must be established before “political claims can be advanced.” Thus, contemporary norms dictate that victims deserve some amount of social deference that non-victims do not.
In a sense, then, one can achieve greater social or political status by selfdefning as a victim (Zitek et al. 2010). Such a goal is sensible; achieving status has long been recognized as an important behavioral motivation (Harsanyi 1980; Zink et al. 2008). Thus, there is some incentive to portray oneself as a victim, even if that label is not “earned” or explicitly used (i.e., feeling like victim constitutes self-portrayal). If one wishes to assert social or political authority, society may be more willing to listen to a victim (Campbell and Manning 2018; Horwitz 2018). Of course, society may rebuke the victimhood claim and
fail to provide status, but the potential for status should still motivate feelings of victimhood.
Importantly, the contemporary moral hierarchy also allows individuals who feel victimized—but who fail to outwardly identify as such or assert that status—to feel a sense of superiority. By perceiving oneself to be a victim, one is able to mitigate the
negative emotions associated with failure, hard times, or other elements of life—it’s not really their fault! Or, they may fnd someone or something else to blame; they are getting less than they truly deserve of no fault of their own (Fast and Tiedens
2010). Just as partisan motivated reasoning can reduce the cognitive dissonance produced by exposure to counter-partisan information or diminish the anxiety of navigating a daunting information environment (see Redlawsk et al. 2010), we expect
perceived victimhood can make one feel better about their political or social status and guide the formation of attitudes about political objects that might exacerbate or ameliorate feelings of victimhood (e.g., particular policies that asymmetrically
impact citizens, political candidates).

Because victimhood profers social and psychological benefits, some individuals are prone to feel this way—an individual difference in the vein of any psychological trait. But, this is only one element of victimhood. Victims, as individuals or members of groups who have “suffered wrongs that must be requited” (Horwitz 2018,553), require somebody to blame, an oppressor or victimizer…

* All politicians, to some extent, utilize victimhood-cueing rhetoric in making their case to would-be constituents. They portray the masses as victims of all manner of policies and circumstances from the specific (e.g., high taxes, income inequality, rising healthcare costs) to the abstract (e.g., globalization, the media, the establishment). These are the problems that candidates claim they are best equipped to address. In making victim-centered pleas, politicians are able to foster a sense of victimhood in their supporters and potentially gain new supporters by portraying themselves as uniquely capable of identifying and treating that which causes victimhood.

* People who perceive themselves as a victim—in either sense—should hold a generally antagonistic orientation toward political elites and the “establishment.” These are people who – by the vary nature of being “elites” and members of the political “establishment”—have proven successful in their careers, perhaps by unfair advantage or mere luck. Victims should, then, be less trustful of government, exhibit more anti-elitist attitudes, and perceive greater degrees of governmental corruption than non-victims. They should also exhibit less political efficacy—if people listened to them they would not find themselves in the position of victim. We also expect people who perceive themselves to be victims to be more prone to conspiratorial thinking. Conspiratorial thinking is, itself, related to a host of psychological motivations that stem from victimhood, including feelings of powerlessness and a lack of control (Douglas et al. 2017). In other words, those who feel like victims employ conspiracy theories to explain their status, why they cannot seem to get ahead.

Finally, we consider the relationship between victimhood and two of the “Big Five” personality traits: agreeableness and emotional stability. We expect those high in perceived victimhood to be less agreeable and less emotionally stable. Disagreeable people are more self-interested and more suspicious of others (e.g., John et al. 2008), both of which we expect to characterize those high in perceived victimhood. Those low in emotional stability (or high in neuroticism) are more prone to exhibit the same negative emotions—such as anger and anxiety—that we would expect of (perceived) victims…

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been covered in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and on 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
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