Analysis | Minority influence: How a determined few can save democracy

Oliver Mains

A crowd of people gathers near the U.S. Capitol to watch the first hearing of the January 6 committee on June 9, 2022.
A crowd of people gathers near the U.S. Capitol to watch the first hearing of the January 6 committee on June 9, 2022. (Image: Brett Davis on Flickr/Cropped from original)

I wrote recently about what’s driving the growth of what some call the “politics of resentment,” an exclusionary brand of identity politics that empowers illiberal governance around the world. A primary source of the appeal and resilience of this politics is that it’s steeped in the human instinct to vilify outgroups and unite an ingroup around narratives of victimization and revenge. But while human instinct empowers the politics of resentment, it can also open pathways to progress. Ongoing hearings of the January 6 committee demonstrate how a concept social psychologists call “minority influence” can help us understand how to counter illiberal movements, both in the United States and in other countries where democracy is under threat.

How human instinct got us into this mess

As I argued earlier, group competition informs all types of politics, including in healthy democracies. Democracies ask citizens to unite as an ingroup around a shared value set, pitching themselves against outgroups that reject those values. At their best, democracies cultivate and protect that top-level shared identity while allowing citizens to retain a wide range of political and apolitical sub-identities; people can unite behind principles like representative governance and freedom of speech while disagreeing on a host of political issues. As we have seen, that balance is not as easy to maintain as most of us once assumed, but it’s fundamental to how democracies manage the realities of identity politics.

Today’s illiberal movements rely on an exclusionary identity politics that asks citizens to undertake the much simpler task of collapsing their multiple identities into a story about who has victimized them and how they will exact revenge. A defining feature of these movements, no matter where they fall on the political spectrum, is their demand to prioritize political identity over all others. In a healthy democracy, I can play tennis regularly with a friend on the other side of the political aisle, coming together for a moment under the other identities we share. Under the politics of resentment, that tennis game risks getting both of us expelled from our political communities. The casualty here isn’t just my tennis game or my friendship — it’s the tolerance of a multiplicity of viewpoints that any healthy political movement requires.

How human instinct can get us out

How do we counter exclusionary identity politics once it has entrenched itself in a political system? Luckily, humans are just as adept at reshaping our group structures as we are at building them. We do this through what social psychologist Serge Moscovici called “minority influence,” in which a small number of group members converts the majority to their view or establish group tolerance for a diversity of views, even in the face of extreme pressure to conform. That minority influence is at play all the time is intuitive; this phenomenon underpinned the movements for women’s right to vote, the end of the slave trade in much of the world, and many other milestones of human progress that began their lives as fringe viewpoints. What’s less intuitive are the mechanisms by which minorities exert this influence — and that’s where we might find some lessons for combating the current illiberal turn.

Moscovici argued that consistency of messaging — both over time and between individuals — is the primary determinant of a minority’s ability to convince a skeptical majority of its viewpoint. Consistency implies conviction, showing a majority that the minority’s views are fully formed and passionately held. Consistency in a minority message also encourages the majority to undertake what social psychologists call “systematic thinking”: the application of cognition to a viewpoint that had previously been molded by emotion rather than logic. A related criterion for successful minority influence is what Moscovici called “identification.” The majority must see proponents of a minority viewpoint as bonafide members of the overall group to trigger systematic thinking en masse.

The January 6 committee through Moscovici’s lens

Consider how Moscovici might view the ongoing proceedings of the January 6 committee, the most visible attempt in recent memory to exert minority influence against a majority ingroup embracing illiberal politics. The committee’s methodical, narrative-based approach is designed to showcase a coherent and consistent story to skeptical viewers. In Moscovici’s model, this methodical approach, combined with the committee’s unified messaging, could encourage systematic thinking among conservatives who simply “feel” the 2020 election was stolen but have not developed a cognitive logic — an internal explanation — to explain to themselves or others why they hold that view.

Anne Applebaum notes the significance of the decision to make the January 6 proceedings a story “told almost entirely by Republicans,” with Democrats strategically sidelined to allow members of the ingroup minority to “build trust” among skeptical majorities of conservative viewers. This is a wholly Moscovician effort to establish the committee’s “identification” credentials as bonafide members of a broad ingroup that includes all conservatives, including the liberal and illiberal elements of the Republican party.

It’s not at all clear that the January 6 committee will induce a significant shift in the majority view within conservative America that the 2020 election was stolen. The Republican representatives may have started the hearings too thoroughly excommunicated from the conservative ingroup to meet Moscovici’s identification criteria, and even the most compelling and methodical narrative discrediting election fraud claims may not be enough to overcome waves of mis- and disinformation flowing from other sources. But that doesn’t need to be the only goal. Simply rebuilding an acceptance that Republicans who don’t believe the election was stolen are legitimate members of the conservative community would be an enormous victory, setting the stage for more visible minority influence in the longer term. It may sound counterintuitive, but under Moscovici’s minority influence model, getting election deniers and “traditional” Republicans to play tennis together again is a vital first step toward countering an illiberal trend.

Countering illiberalism through minority influence

What can we extrapolate from the January 6 committee’s example for our work abroad as diplomats, and how can we apply the minority influence model more broadly? First, we should recognize that ingroup minorities are better positioned to counter illiberal politics than are outsiders, whether foreigners or members of opposing political factions. This should challenge our assumption that committed democrats will always benefit from high-profile political support or foreign assistance when facing illiberal headwinds domestically, which in some situations can undermine their efforts to frame themselves as legitimate members of an ingroup. This can be tough for Western diplomats, who need to be responsive to domestic pressures to “do something” in the face of democratic backsliding abroad. None of this implies we should disengage from efforts to call out autocrats or establish consequences for illiberal behavior, nor does it mean abandoning committed democrats when they request assistance from international actors. But it does mean considering the impact of every action we take on the identity dynamics of local politics and folding that analysis into decision-making processes.

Second, we should recognize that domestic efforts to combat illiberalism are likely to proceed incrementally and involve moments of cooperation with illiberal forces within broader efforts to contest them. In other words, we should resist the temptation to chastise or pull support when the committed democrats we support play tennis with illiberal members of their ingroup. We should in fact encourage that engagement, recognizing this as a vital early step toward minority influence.

One of Moscovici’s key discoveries was that the initial impact of successful minority influence is often significant but invisible, with many members of the majority converting to the minority opinion but remaining silent given social pressure to conform. As conversion continues, the growing “silent minority” often turns into a wave of visible support challenging the majority opinion. That prospect, and the continued willingness of minority ingroup members to contest illiberal majorities around the world — even under the threat of violence — should remind us that while human nature may favor illiberal politics, it also gives us tools to fight back.

Oliver Mains is a Rusk Fellow at the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy and a career member of the U.S. Foreign Service. He served most recently as Turkey desk officer for political-military affairs, where he led the desk’s work on defense trade, basing, and countering Russian malign influence. Prior to joining the Foreign Service, he was a program associate at the German Marshall Fund of the United States and an Afghanistan field researcher for the Centre for International Governance Innovation. He holds an M.A. in Conflict, Security, and Development from King’s College London and a B.A./B.M. in History and Clarinet Performance from Oberlin College and Conservatory of Music.

While Oliver Mains is a career U.S. diplomat, the views expressed here are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Department of State or the U.S. government.

Read more from The Diplomatic Pouch on democracy and identity-based conflict:

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