Perceived Reciprocity and Democratic Threats

Paul A. Djupe, Denison University

Jacob R. Neiheisel, SUNY-Buffalo

Once reserved for groups on the political margins, questions of whether to extend basic rights and liberties have entered the mainstream. The last several election cycles were filled with rhetoric raising the stakes of control over the federal government by threatening that the other side will move to strip the losing party of, effectively, their freedom to organize. In one August 2020 rant, then-President Trump asserted that a Democratic administration would “[t]ake away your guns, destroy your Second Amendment. No religion, no anything, hurt the Bible, hurt God” (BBC 2020). This strikes at the heart of democratic politics which hinges on rights reciprocity – respecting others’ ability to express their grievances by voice and vote. Without a belief in reciprocity, there is little incentive to cooperate or afford the government any legitimacy. 

While reciprocity has been discussed in academic literature, it has had no explicit survey measure until now. In one particularly poignant example, Petersen et al. (2011) suggest that the reason some widely disliked groups are tolerated more than others is because they would reciprocate respect for others’ rights. They have no direct measure of this aside from the fact that tolerance of groups is still different even after controlling statistically for many determinants of tolerance though have pre-tests showing that some groups are perceived as being less likely to follow the rules of the democratic game. In effect, the remaining differences are the measure of a group’s reputation for respecting the rights of others. In this post, we assess this claim using a new measure of reciprocity that is set to debut in a forthcoming article in Political Behavior

Our measure of reciprocity is a simple one. After answering a least-liked group tolerance battery, we asked, “What if the tables were turned? Do you think that [your least-liked group] would respect your right to hold rallies, teach, speak, and run for office?” In several surveys, we asked this of only the least-liked group respondents selected. But in one we expanded the list to ask about the perceived reciprocity of a number of groups. 

Shown below in Figure 1, we split the results by partisanship to confirm how deeply divided the US is in 2020. Partisans perceive the lowest levels of reciprocity from their least-liked group (“L”), but the other party is not too far ahead and both are under water – Republicans believe Democrats (“D”) are not likely to respect their rights (the score is under .5) and Democrats believe about the same about Republicans (“R”). Conversely, partisans expect the most reciprocity from members of their own party. And, as has been often remarked, there is an asymmetry in how culture war groups are viewed – Democrats expect more reciprocity from “conservative Christians” than Republicans expect from atheists. 

Figure 1: Responsiveness of Expected Reciprocity to Partisan Ingroup/Outgroup Status. Source: 2016 Panel, June 2017 Wave. Note: A=Atheist, C=Christian conservative, D=Democrats in Congress, L=Least-liked group, R=Republicans in Congress.

Knowing the extent to which voters’ concerns for their rights have been activated may be consequential to their political behavior. But we are also care about how to classify and catalog the impact of this measure – is it distinct from existing concepts of group prejudice and threat?

We pursued these questions in several ways. It is not surprising that perceived reciprocity is correlated with both prejudice toward and threat expected from a group. It would be strange if it wasn’t. But reciprocity is much more strongly correlated with an existing threat measure – we used an index asking if the group was a threat to the respondent personally, to other people’s freedoms, and to the American way of life. Reciprocity is more strongly correlated to the latter two measures than it is to personal threat. In a model of political tolerance, we find that expected rights reciprocity is an important determinant with the same impact as variations in prejudice or education. It has a much stronger effect when the threat index is not in the model, but still has a statistically significant effect when the threat index is included. We take this evidence to mean that reciprocity is a heretofore unmeasured component of threat.

Given that these results were from cross-sectional data, we sought some additional tests to gain greater confidence that the link between reciprocity and tolerance is not spurious or just a reflection of tolerance judgments. Our data from 2016 were part of a panel that included tolerance and reciprocity judgments in multiple waves. We found that people who switched least-liked groups between panels shifted reciprocity to match the group’s reputation. That is, reciprocity dropped when the group had a worse reputation for reciprocity. Moreover, the change in reciprocity from wave 1 in September to wave 2 in November produced a corresponding shift in political tolerance even after controlling for shifts in the threat index and in prejudice.

Importantly, measures of which group an individual chose as his or her “least liked” continue to do a fair amount of work in predicting political tolerance even after taking into account whether members of such a group would respect the civil and political rights of others. To us this suggests that tolerance judgments are motivated, at least in part, by group animus as well as by concerns over whether members of such a group would respect others’ rights. 

Taken together, these findings complicate simple versions of the narrative that a principled intolerance—intolerance of those who refuse to respect the rights of others—is at the core of the public’s unwillingness to tolerate members of certain groups. They also raise a host of questions surrounding how it is that groups gain (or lose) a reputation for not engaging in rights reciprocity. With mediated representations of most groups being the only interaction that the average member of the general public will have with a member of their “least-liked” social group, are reciprocity judgments subject to distortions? What would it take for a group’s reputation to shift?   

Paul A. Djupe, Denison University, is an affiliated scholar with PRRI, the series editor of Religious Engagement in Democratic Politics (Temple), and co-creator of (check out his posts). Further information about his work can be found at his website and on Twitter.

Jacob R. Neiheisel, is an Associate Professor of Political Science at the University at Buffalo, SUNY. He very rarely tweets anything of note, but his account can be found here just the same.

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