How Ideas About
Race & Gender Shape
Public Opinion

Nicholas J. G. Winter

University of Chicago Press, 2008

Studies in Communication, Media, and Public Opinion

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In addition to their obvious roles in American politics, race and gender also work in hidden ways to profoundly influence the way we think—and vote—about a vast array of issues that don’t seem related to either category. As Nicholas Winter reveals in Dangerous Frames, politicians and leaders often frame these seemingly unrelated issues in ways that prime audiences to respond not to the policy at hand but instead to the way its presentation resonates with their deeply held beliefs about race and gender. Winter shows, for example, how official rhetoric about welfare and Social Security has tapped into white Americans’ racial biases to shape their opinions on both issues for the past two decades. Similarly, the way politicians presented health care reform in the 1990s divided Americans along the lines of their attitudes toward gender. Combining cognitive and political psychology with innovative empirical research, Dangerous Frames ultimately illuminates the emotional underpinnings of American politics.

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“This is a very exciting book, and one of the finest pieces of work in the area of politics, identity, and the mass media. It will have a broad impact on the fields of American political psychology, public opinion, political communication, and racial and gender attitudes.”—Nicholas Valentino, University of Texas at Austin


“This is an elegantly designed and smartly argued analysis of how race and gender work in our minds. The core claim—that how an issue is framed can have eye-catching effects on what we think and how we think about that issue—is given a rock-solid empirical underpinning. These findings are made more profound by the additional nuance that framing effects wield a power that extends beyond race and beyond policy issues that explicitly evoke racial and gender considerations. We have, many of us, always strongly suspected that the reach of race and gender in our political psyche is seemingly ubiquitous. Now we have a better sense of why that is the case.”—Taeku Lee, University of California, Berkeley

This book shows how political issues can become associated with race or with gender in citizens’ minds—a process I call “group implication.” Specifically, I draw on cognitive psychology and on scholarship on race and on gender to develop a theory of the conditions under which issue frames can unconsciously engage people’s ideas about race or about gender. This theory suggests that issue frames can—and indeed often will—resonate with ordinary citizens’ ideas about race and gender, even when neither the issue itself nor the framing rhetoric touch overtly on racial or gender matters.

Group implication takes place by analogy. Analogical reasoning is an important way people make sense of novel phenomena: we understand new things by analogy with familiar domains. This allows us to apply knowledge we have from one domain to a new context and to make inferences and judgments without starting from scratch. When our understanding of the source domain includes normative prescriptions or evaluations they are applied analogically to suggest the right evaluation or course of action in the new situation. While we are sometimes aware of analogical reasoning, it can often occur unconsciously; when it does, we are unaware of the influence of the source domain.

The key thing governing analogical reasoning is that the cognitive representation of the source domain and the novel context share structural consistency. I argue that frames impose structure on political issues, and when that structure matches the cognitive representation, or schema, for a social category (such as race or gender), that schema will be likely to govern comprehension and evaluation of the issue.

After developing the theory in Chapter Two, I take up two sets of empirical analyses. In Chapter Three I explore group implication experimentally. This shows group implication in action and demonstrates that extremely subtle changes in rhetoric can induce people to evaluate political issues—that have nothing explicit to do with gender or race—in terms of their beliefs about gender or about race.

Next, in a pair of analyses of opinion in recent American political history, I demonstrate that group implication takes place in the real world of politics and that it has real political consequences. Chapter Four shows that white Americans’ opinions on both welfare and Social Security have been associated with race over the past twenty years. Racially conservative whites are less supportive of welfare spending, and more supportive of spending on Social Security, than racial liberals. Chapter Five shows that the debate associated with health care reform in 1993-94 associated opinion with symbolic considerations of gender, leading gender traditionalists to oppose health care reform and gender egalitarians to support it. In both chapters, I demonstrate how the frames deployed on these issues served to create race or gender implication, and I explore the larger political impact in each case.

Taken together, the theory and empirical analyses show that even political issues that are not ostensibly racialized or gendered can nevertheless become associated with them in people’s minds. This is accomplished by subtle and non-obvious aspects of rhetorical frames, rather than by explicit reference to race or gender: the key is that elite frames create a structural correspondence between an issue and mass schemas.

In the concluding chapter, I draw out the lessons of the book and sketch more broadly its consequences for American politics. My argument and results advance our understanding of the political psychology of public opinion, especially as it relates to the role of group-based attitudes in opinion formation. This has implications for our understanding of race and of gender in American politics, and also points to the importance of their intersection. Importantly, the book embeds that psychological story in the context of political communication, because group implication is governed by the interaction between communication strategies chosen by political elites and the citizens' predispositions.

I also consider the normative evaluation of group implication. I argue that while group-implicating frames may foster engagement and facilitate elite-mass communication under some circumstances, they also raise troubling concerns for liberal democratic discourse, even beyond their tendency to divide society and to reinforce anti-egalitarian political projects.