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The Language of Human Rights in a Populist Era

March 23, 2018

Portrait of Howard Lavine and James Ron

Portrait of Howard Lavine and James Ron
Photo of Howard Levine (left) by Jack Swift, CLAgency student. Photo of James Ron (right) courtesy of University of Minnesota.

Howard Lavine is the Arleen C. Carlson Professor of Political Science and Psychology and Director of the Center for the Study of Political Psychology at the University of Minnesota. James Ron is the Stassen Chair for International Affairs in the University of Minnesota Humphrey School. Normally one would think that other than seeing each other in faculty meetings, their work wouldn’t overlap. 

However, armed with decades of combined interdisciplinary work, they are teaming up for a project funded by the Human Rights Initiative.

What Brought Them Together

“Retooling Human Rights Work in the US in the Populist Era” came together after Human Rights Watch, an organization Ron has been involved with for years, decided to engage in public opinion research on human rights in the United States after the 2016 election. They turned to Ron to head the project, and he recruited Lavine because of his expertise in the psychological bases of political attitudes. 

The expertise each brings from their sub-field “allows us to work together to accomplish something that neither of us could do alone,” Lavine says. “I bring knowledge of public opinion theories and experience in designing and analyzing experiments and surveys. Jim brings vast knowledge and prowess working on human rights around the world.”

Making a Case for the Common Good

The project’s goal is to increase understanding of the nature and origins of human rights-related attitudes, and maybe more importantly, to gain some practical knowledge about how to change the public’s preferences on such issues.

The grant from Human Rights Initiative will help the team track down 3,000 participants who will represent the entire US population on key political and demographic variables.

Human rights issues will be framed in various ways and will be delivered by various “messengers.” The various frames and cues will be designed to reach either political liberals, political conservatives, or highlight practical consequences apart from any ideological commitments. 

Finding out what sorts of arguments, delivered by which kinds of messengers, change opinions on human rights issues such as immigration, mass incarceration, refugees, torture, and police brutality will be incredibly valuable to human rights workers.

Along with two dedicated graduate students, Lavine and Ron spent the last six months creating the survey that will be fielded during the early spring. After the results come in, researchers will pore over the data and write an extensive report that will be presented to Human Rights Watch in New York City. 

What’s to Come

The work done during this project will lead to three different objectives. First, Lavine and Ron want to provide Human Rights Watch insights on how to develop a campaign to increase public support for human rights in an age of surging populism. Second, it will provide the basis for a book project titled The Nature and Origins of Public Opinion on Human Rights in the United States. Finally, the project will provide training for graduate students in the public policy master’s program at the Humphrey School.

Once again faculty in the Department of Political Science are leading the way on crucial research that will impact human rights work in the United States.