Political Correctness and Elite Prestige

A nervous young man makes a gesture of zipping his mouth shut

Picking up random individuals from one society, we will find a variety of views and opinions, from major topics that affect everybody, such as politics, to less involved ones, such as movie preferences. While diversity is common, people’s expressions may not be as diverse. Some social processes can prevent a person from expressing her own view, especially when her view is relatively uncommon within the group, and for this reason deemed not to be sufficiently “politically correct”.

In Barcelona School of Economics Working Paper 1375, “Political Correctness and Elite Prestige,” Esther Hauk and Javier Ortega study how political correctness in the expression of views can arise within a group and relate this phenomenon to the prestige elites might have. 

Peer pressure and the expression of heterodox views

To begin with, the authors construct a model of a society with many views, and assume it is possible to say if two views are (very) similar or (very) different by locating these views within an imaginary line. For instance, the line may represent the extent to which the person supports parental rights for same-sex couples, the degree of support for measures against climate change, or the views of the individual on how integrated the UK should be within the European Union, or Catalonia within Spain.

In this study, orthodox views are the views that most people in society find acceptable, and individuals with these views can express them freely and get satisfaction from saying what they think. Instead, individuals with heterodox views face a trade-off: if they say what they think, they experience some satisfaction (get some utility) from doing so. However, hiding their views (“self-denying”) has also some advantages, which is in this case to avoid being identified as somebody with socially unacceptable views. In addition, the authors assume the payoff from self-denying to be particularly high if other heterodox individuals choose to do the same, as social pressure for political correctness is then very important.

What happens then? If nobody self-denies, peer-pressure is inexistent, and thus all heterodox individuals say what they think. However, the same society may end up in an equilibrium situation in which all heterodox individuals hide their views, as self-denial by some individuals builds up peer pressure for self-denial by others. 

When the prestige of orthodox views is linked to the prestige of the elite…

The authors then consider a society which includes an “elite”. Members of the elite can choose between behaving well or being corrupt, and it is assumed that any misbehavior on their part can only be imperfectly detected.

The elites are the guardians of orthodox ideas and can be originators, representatives, or defenders of these views, and for this reason the authors assume that their reputation as a group is linked to the reputation of orthodox ideas. This relation then comes into the model in two ways. 

First, if the elites are caught misbehaving, then the prestige of orthodox ideas is damaged, and it becomes easier for heterodox individuals to freely say what they think. Conversely, if orthodox views are very prestigious because all heterodox individuals self-denial, this translates into a high prestige of the elite and detecting any corrupt behavior on their part becomes more difficult.

In this new context, the presence of the elite and its reinforcement of political correctness can generate self-denial even if peer pressure is low. In addition, if heterodox individuals care a lot about the behavior of the elite, a situation where they systematically hide their views becomes the unique social outcome, no matter whether the payoff from corruption is high or low. More specifically, if corruption pays a lot, the outcome is a situation where full adhesion of the heterodox individuals to the ideas of the elite results in full corruption by the elite

The empirical evidence is compatible with the mechanism presented in the model.

In 2016, two months ahead of the election of Donald Trump, Gallup asked 1,904 Americans on the telephone about their political views. One of the questions that this Survey of American Political Culture asked was whether each interviewee agreed or disagreed with the statement, “Political correctness is a serious problem in the U.S., making it hard for people to say what they really think.” Who should agree more with this statement? According to the model, this should be those individuals who lose more from hiding their ideas, i.e. those whose ideas are more different from the American orthodoxy and/or those who have a more negative a priori view about the elite. 

In the data, distance to the orthodoxy can be measured with a question asking the interviewee how much they believe their beliefs to be different from those of subgroups of the population. In turn, the views about the elite are measured by the authors by the extent to which the respondent agrees with the statement “The most educated and successful people in America are more interested in serving themselves than in serving the common good.”

Consistently with the model, the U.S. data show that those individuals who see themselves as more distant from society and those who consider the elite to be more self-interested are more likely to believe that political correctness is a problem. 

Should we expect people to hide less and less their views as history ‘progresses’?

Imagine there is a historical evolution of societies by which more and more views tend to be socially acceptable, i.e. the orthodoxy becomes larger. Does this also mean that less people will end up hiding their views? With elites, the answer can actually be ‘no’. Why? As the orthodoxy becomes larger, ideas that were initially extreme, become less so (while remaining heterodox). For the individuals holding such ideas, self-denial becomes now less costly as they can self-deny by making statements which in the end are not too different from what they think. This initial decrease in self-denial tends to lower the prestige of orthodox views and the elites, which makes corruption more easily detectable, improves the behavior of the elite, and actually ends up raising self-denial as the higher prestige of the elite translates into a higher prestige of orthodox views.