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Good to Know: Public backlash

It’s important to understand the role – and risk – of backlash in today’s politics.

- May 6, 2024
public backlash to UK
Marchers in London are part of the March 2023 public backlash to the U.K. government’s tighter immigration laws, (cc) alisdare1 via Wikimedia Commons and Canva.

Backlash has become a ubiquitous term in contemporary media and politics. In April 2024, USA Today reported that Taylor Swift drew backlash for “all the racists” lyrics on her new Tortured Poets album. And a Fox News story focused on voter backlash to the Chicago City Council approving new funds for migrant care. Commentators and politicians alike often warn of public backlash to all sorts of developments. These two examples suggest possible backlash from artistic expression, and from policy reforms in areas like immigration. But what exactly is backlash? And how can we distinguish it from mere disagreement?

What is and isn’t backlash?

At its core, public backlash refers to a strong and potentially counterproductive, adverse reaction among a significant portion of the public to some decision that they perceive as excessive. Previous research identifies four key elements. The public reaction must be intense, enduring, and widespread. And the reaction must be potentially detrimental to the very cause that sparked the outcry, through voting or other means.

Consider again Taylor Swift’s new song “I hate it here,” which features lyrics about “all the racists.” While some listeners clearly disapproved, these lyrics were likely intended as a bold, publicity-driven statement. So, for the negative public reaction to qualify as backlash, it would need to significantly alienate fans and diminish her popularity. This response would have to be not only widespread but also impact her image and appeal. However, such an outcome is very unlikely.

Criticism doesn’t equate to backlash

Indeed, not every negative response to a decision or policy change constitutes backlash, especially if it remains within the bounds of ordinary civic engagement. Reasonable criticism and debate, not to mention mere disagreement by some people, is not backlash. For backlash to be meaningful, it must be substantial and broad-based, not just limited to a small fringe in a large, diverse country. 

In other words, backlash is defined by its potentially counterproductive nature: The public reaction threatens to undermine the very cause or issue. In the case of pro-immigration spending in Chicago, it’s possible that some of the well-intentioned efforts by local governments and advocates may backfire. If, for instance, the proposed expenditures are significantly out of step with broader public concerns, voters could register their disapproval. As a result, this could challenge the actual immigration aid policies. And this could mean weaker support for any other future pro-immigration initiatives.

However, because claiming backlash always involves guessing what might have happened without the triggering event, it’s not always clear-cut. Reasonable people can sometimes disagree about whether a true backlash has occurred in a given situation, which we can only know for sure with the benefit of hindsight. Some even believe that public backlash is not a real thing or at least not a particularly useful concept.

Backlash arguments throughout history: genuine and strategic

Politicians, commentators, and activists have used the idea of backlash in various contexts throughout history, from slavery abolition and women’s suffrage to same-sex marriage and immigration. But people can invoke the possibility of backlash both for good and bad reasons. 

In many cases, public backlash might simply mean an extreme form of thermostatic public opinion. That’s one way political scientists gauge the normal push and pull of people’s attitudes. Voters react against political changes they dislike by shifting their stated opinions and behaviors in the opposite direction. 

In some cases, those seeking to slow the pace of change can also employ backlash arguments strategically. A prominent example is the “white backlash” narrative some opponents of school desegregation pushed in the 1950s. They claimed, often disingenuously, that moving too fast on integration would only boost resentment among whites and ultimately harm the cause of educational equity.

Similarly, many conservatives argued – and many liberals have understandably feared – that rapid advances in gay rights could be counterproductive. We now have abundant evidence that these backlash concerns have been premature in most cases. 

Despite significant conservative countermobilization, broader support for gay rights has steadily advanced in the United States and worldwide. If anything, the passage of same-sex legislation often further legitimized these rights among voters by signaling the new norms. Nonetheless, while broader LGBTQ rights have made major strides in the West, these very advances may have also helped conservative activists to cooperate across borders in resisting and rolling back LGBTQ rights in Russia and elsewhere.

Immigration backlash and counterbacklash

Few issues have become as strongly associated with the specter of backlash as immigration. Across the U.S. and Europe, many attribute the political ascendancy of far-right populists, at least in part, to a backlash against rising immigration and demographic change. Studies have shown a relationship between increased ethnic diversity and support for anti-immigrant parties. These claims might appear to validate the backlash thesis.

However, much of the supposed immigration backlash is confined to narrow types of unauthorized immigration and border issues. The public perceives these situations as chaotic and mismanaged by politicians. Media reports on “asylum crises” in Chicago, New York, and other major U.S. cities offer a good example. What many people strongly oppose often is not immigration itself. Instead, they’re concerned about dysfunctional policies that may strain their communities.

At the same time, not many voters object to the legal migration of immediate family members. Some scholars further argue that the immigration backlash does not extend to policies liberalizing skilled immigrants. Other experts point out that even broader open immigration policies that demonstrably benefit host societies don’t provoke any counterproductive opposition. Moreover, there’s an equally powerful pro-immigration “counterbacklash” among a growing segment of Europeans and Americans. Perhaps in reaction to the rise of the far right, these voters are becoming increasingly positive towards immigration in their attitudes. 

In sum, genuine counterproductive backlash to social and political changes is a real phenomenon. It can also happen to anyone and be either conservative or liberal in its direction. Alabama’s recent Supreme Court ruling granting legal personhood to frozen embryos, for example, prompted a counter wave of pro-IVF legislation. Recognizing the historical reality of backlash and counter-backlash – from civil rights to LGBTQ rights to immigration – is crucial for understanding the often convoluted nature of social progress.

But the idea of public backlash can also sometimes be misused or overused. To prevent this, it’s important to be clear about what it means and avoid overthinking the issue. Any decision can upset some people occasionally, but genuine public backlash is rare. It typically happens to high-profile changes that don’t align with most voters’ views. The crucial question is always whether public disagreement can be so intense and negative that it actually makes the situation worse. If not, policymakers and popular artists alike should all simply proceed to do what they believe is best for their cause, free from the fear of public backlash. 

Further reading:

Alex Kustov is a 2024-2025 Good Authority fellow.

Last updated: May 5, 2024

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