Anti-establishment sentiments are a key component of political opinion and behavior in the United States and are distinct from traditional indicators of political ideology, according to new research. The findings indicate anti-establishment viewpoints have played a key role in some beliefs that came to prominence during the Trump era, such as the QAnon movement.
“I was interested in this project because it increasingly seemed to me that polarization and political identities were increasingly bearing the brunt of the blame –– perhaps erroneously –– for socially undesirable beliefs and actions that were probably the product of other orientations, like conspiracy thinking and a tendency to view politics as a struggle between good and evil,” said co-author Adam M. Enders, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Louisville.
“American politics seems to be different than in previous decades and we wanted to know why,” added co-author Joseph E. Uscinski of the University of Miami. “Many people blame current political problems — conspiracy theories, fake news, political violence — on polarization. But, we were not convinced that our current problems are the fault of people becoming too ideological or too partisan.”
The authors of the new studies feared that research on polarization and partisan tribalism was too focused on a left vs. right framework. In particular, they noticed that people’s general orientation toward the established political order was being overlooked.
“We believe that efforts to ‘squish’ all opinions, people, and groups onto a uni-dimensional space is unwise,” Uscinski explained. “Many people’s opinions aren’t solely ‘left’ or ‘right,’ but rather a mix. Further, many people have antagonisms toward the political system writ large and this has been vastly understudied. It may not be the case that populism is new in the United States; it may instead be the case that in recent years, more politicians are willing to use populist anti-system rhetoric to build coalitions by activating a set of opinions that are already there waiting to be activated.”
“Especially with the ascendance of Donald Trump, we witnessed a blending of left-right political concerns (e.g., partisanship, liberal-conservative ideology) with antagonistic orientations toward the political establishment,” Enders said. “I wanted to try and disentangle these dimensions of opinion in order to better understand both how they are related to each other and how they differentially promote the beliefs and behaviors that have so concerned social scientists in recent years.”
The researchers developed a measure of anti-establishment orientation that was characterized by conspiratorial, populist, and Manichean worldviews. In other words, people who scored high on anti-establishment orientation strongly agreed with statements such as “Much of our lives are being controlled by plots hatched in secret places” (conspiracism), “The opinion of ordinary people is worth more than that of experts and politicians” (populism), and “Politics is a battle between good and evil” (Manicheanism).
Two national surveys of 4,023 U.S. adults (conducted between July 23 to August 6, 2019 and March 17 to March 19, 2020) provided evidence that anti-establishment orientations were distinguishable from left vs. right political ideology.
The belief that the “one percent” controls the economy for their own good was positively associated with having a liberal political ideology, while the belief that a “deep state” is embedded within the government was positively associated with having a conservative political ideology. But anti-establishment sentiments were more strongly associated with endorsing these beliefs than political ideology. The researchers also found an association between anti-establishment orientations and positive feelings toward both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, but not Joe Biden.
“Not all opinions are left-right, but rather ‘us, the good people’ versus ‘them, the corrupt elites,'” Uscinski said.
Anti-establishment orientations were also associated with heightened levels of Machiavellianism, narcissism, psychopathy, and support for the use of violence. “We emphasize that
these personality traits are but a few of many potential ingredients of anti-establishment sentiments,” the researchers said. “Regardless, it is noteworthy that individuals exhibiting strong anti-establishment attitudes are more likely than others to display the antisocial personality traits oftentimes attributed to left-right extremists.”
Ender and Uscinski’s research published in The Forum, based on a national survey of 1,947 U.S. adults conducted between October 8 and 21, 2020, found that anti-establishment orientations were also strongly related to the endorsement of conspiracies related to COVID-19, QAnon, Donald Trump, and the 2020 election. For example, agreement with statements such as “Satanic sex traffickers control the government” (QAnon) and “There is a conspiracy to stop the U.S. Post Office from processing mail-in ballots” (election fraud) were weakly related to political ideology, but strongly related to having an anti-establishment orientation.
“Some of what we mistake for partisan rancor is really a blend a left-right political identities –– attachments to a particular group or side –– and a deep-seated antagonism toward and disillusionment with the established political order,” Enders told PsyPost. “Historically, neither of these dimensions of opinion are new; what’s new is a mainstream politician intentionally activating and inflaming anti-establishment orientations, effectively blending these once unrelated dimensions.”
“On the one hand, this can be a recipe for electoral success: Donald Trump was able to mobilize people who hadn’t previously been voting because of their dissatisfaction with ‘establishment’ candidates. On the other hand, it can be a recipe for disaster: January 6th showcased the dangers of mobilizing people with high levels of conspiratorial thinking, Manicheanism, anti-elitism, and some of the other personality correlates of anti-establishment views that we find (e.g., support for violence, narcissism, psychopathy).”
The researchers also found that support for Donald Trump was positively associated with anti-establishment orientations, but anti-establishment orientations were simultaneously associated with reduced support for both the Republican and Democratic parties, a finding which provided a “critical distinction” about the events at the U.S. Capitol on January 6.
“People espousing the most anti-establishment views are attracted to Donald Trump, the outsider, not Donald Trump, the leader of the Republican Party,” the researchers said. “This simultaneous attachment to Trump and detachment to the Republican Party is best summed up by the rioters themselves: ‘hang Mike Pence!'”
The findings highlight that not all political behavior can be best explained by left vs. right orientations. But the researchers emphasized that “much more work needs to be done.”
“While we discuss primarily historical and theoretical literature arguing that anti-establishment viewpoints are hardly new, no one has been empirically tracking them over time,” Enders explained. “Our study is a first cut at taking this ignored dimension of public opinion more seriously. We need to track anti-establishment orientations over time to better understand how they ebb and flow. We also need to track them across social and political contexts to see what role these ideas play in other countries with different political systems, economic systems, etc.”
The study, “American Politics in Two Dimensions: Partisan and Ideological Identities versus Anti-Establishment Orientations“, was authored by Joseph E. Uscinski, Adam M. Enders, Michelle I. Seelig, Casey A. Klofstad, John R. Funchion, Caleb Everett, Stefan Wuchty, Kamal Premaratne, and Manohar N. Murthi.
The study, “The Role of Anti-Establishment Orientations During the Trump Presidency“, was authored by Adam M. Enders and Joseph E. Uscinski.