Newswise — A new study found that mass movements that successfully prime American inclusiveness can have a lasting impact on policies that target racial, ethnic or religious minority groups, such as President Trump’s 2017 "Muslim ban."

The study, published in Political Behavior, suggests that policy attitudes related to stigmatized groups, such as Muslims, are more malleable than previously assumed.

Researchers from three universities found that public opinion regarding the ban turned quickly after mass protests received ample coverage on cable news and other outlets. They argued that an influx of information depicted the ban as distinctly un-American and in violation of the principle of American religious freedom, which invoked meaningful and new evaluative criteria about the policy. This, in turn, provoked attitude change, particularly among those who had a strong sense of pride of their country and in values such as equality and religious freedom. This group likely saw a clear incompatibility between American values and the executive order.

The present study builds on the previous research by examining whether shifts against the ban lasted over an extended period of time. If opposition to the ban dissipated since 2017, it would mean the impact of political communication on opinions may be just temporary. But, if opinions remained relatively stable once altered, fairly significant and one-sided changes in the information environment could have longstanding and substantively meaningful impact on citizens' preferences.

"One of the most important take-away points from our study is that mass movements can make a difference in changing existing narratives surrounding a policy,” said co-author Kassra AR Oskooii, an assistant professor of Political Science & International Relations at the University of Delaware. “In the case of the travel ban, protesters were able to successfully frame the ban as singling out a religious minority group and highlight how antithetical such action is to cherished American values." 

After examining coverage on cable news and in national newspapers between February 2017 and January 2018, researchers found that the ban not only remained on the agenda, but that coverage was highly critical of it and did not present a significant counter-narrative in favor of the executive order. Relying on a timely, three-wave panel dataset, they then found that those who strongly identified with American values, who shifted against the ban in the days after it was announced, remained less supportive one year later.

The study indicates that mass movements that focus on American inclusiveness can durably move individuals to oppose policies that target minority groups. In an era of intense partisan polarization, the study offer hope that citizens are still open to considering new evaluative criteria that may challenge their priors. 

Journal Link: Political Behavior