UMN researchers seek to understand influences on human rights opinion

Following the 2016 U.S. presidential election, research partner Human Rights Watch felt it didn’t understand the opinions of Trump supporters.

Elexis Trinity Williams, left, Nora Radtke and Alyce Eaton meet at Dunn Brothers Coffee shop to discuss research findings on Sunday, April 8. Researchers from the University are partnering with Human Rights Watch to find how people come to their views on human rights and how those opinions can be changed.

Easton Green

Elexis Trinity Williams, left, Nora Radtke and Alyce Eaton meet at Dunn Brothers Coffee shop to discuss research findings on Sunday, April 8. Researchers from the University are partnering with Human Rights Watch to find how people come to their views on human rights and how those opinions can be changed.

Ella Johnson

In partnership with Human Rights Watch, University of Minnesota researchers are working to better understand U.S. views on human rights following the 2016 presidential election.

By surveying a broad group of the U.S. population, HRW seeks to understand influences on U.S. citizens’ human rights opinions. HRW researchers hope the project, which is currently underway, will help them appeal to a wider audience.

After President Donald Trump’s election, HRW sensed it didn’t understand the opinions of Trump supporters, said James Ron, a lead researcher on the project and frequent collaborator with HRW.

The researchers want to understand current human rights opinions of the U.S. population, as well as factors influencing those opinions. They will also test how the individuals’ opinions can be changed.

Howard Lavine, University professor of political science and psychology, said the researchers will ask participants questions about their political predispositions, political reasoning and personality traits, which are all factors known to influence political opinions.

The participants are representative of the U.S. population, Lavine said. However, the HRW is surveying a disproportionate number of Trump supporters to better understand their opinions.

Ron, a sociologist and political scientist, said Trump’s supporters have strong values that are nationalistic and at odds with the universal values traditionally tied to human rights. The universal idea of human rights is the belief that all people deserve equal treatment.

The HRW is considering changing its messaging because it struggles to communicate a universal message to nationalists. 

Barbara Frey, director of the College of Liberal Art’s Human Rights Program, said messages that may be successful include individual stories about vulnerable groups, such as children, as well as framing protections for human rights as protections that keep the government less involved in the lives of citizens.

Frey said she is not optimistic that HRW will make Trump voters supportive of human rights by changing its messaging, given the group’s power. But Trump voters who interact with more diverse groups of people may be more receptive to HRW’s messaging changes, she said.

The universal idea of human rights dates back to World War II, but only recently took hold in American politics, Frey said. Conversations in the U.S. historically centered around human rights abroad.

She said that in the past fifteen years, influenced by the human rights abuses by the Bush administration in response to 9/11, organizations such as HRW have been doing more work focused on human rights violations in the U.S.

Many organizations working to promote social justice in the U.S. use human rights as a basis for their campaigning, Frey said.

The 2016 election represented a drastic shift in the human rights world, she said.

Frey said Trump has been vocally anti-human rights, such as by supporting the president of the Philippines who murdered thousands of citizens for drug-related offenses.

Past polling showed Trump supporters are against or indifferent to human rights, Ron said.

Organizations working for social change will depend on information from studies such as this one to continue using human rights as an effective argument for human rights protections.