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Democratic Dehumanization: The Consequences of Dehumanizing Political Candidates With Physical Disabilities

Kyle John Hull, University of Nebraska - Lincoln


How do voters perceive political candidates with physical disabilities? Under what conditions do these perceptions change, and how do they influence voting behavior? To address these questions, I develop a novel theory that empirically tests the effects of dehumanization on political candidates with physical disabilities, including how political ideology and disability origins (naturally occurring disabilities versus disabilities resulting from military combat) influence candidate perceptions and evaluations. I suggest that the broad, negative perceptions of physical disability is a result of dehumanization, a psychological process which results in perceiving people with physical disabilities as being less human. I argue that when people dehumanize persons with physical disabilities, they become less likely to evaluate candidates with physical disabilities positively and to support these candidates. I find mixed support for this theoretical model across several empirical investigations. In a survey experiment, I find extensive support for the disability dehumanization theory such that most people implicitly dehumanize candidates with physical disabilities with many blatantly dehumanizing. Next, I test the implications of disability dehumanization on the evaluation of political candidates who are physically disabled. Contrary to my expectations, an experimental vignette survey reveals an apparent disability “benefit” – voters evaluate political candidates with physical disabilities more positively than abled candidates regardless of how they became disabled. Finally, I test the consequences of disability dehumanization on political behaviors, particularly looking at support for physically disabled candidates as well as for disability-related policies. Using a conjoint experiment, I find that voters prefer voting for disabled candidates over abled candidates as well as veterans over civilians, with conservatives being most likely to vote for veterans regardless of disability status and liberals and moderates most likely to vote for disabled civilians. Despite even disability dehumanizers being more likely to vote for disabled candidates, they are much less likely to support policies which benefit the disability community. I conclude by discussing the implications of disability dehumanization for existing literature as well as the possible solution to reducing disability dehumanization.

Subject Area

Political science|Disability studies|Public policy

Recommended Citation

Hull, Kyle John, "Democratic Dehumanization: The Consequences of Dehumanizing Political Candidates With Physical Disabilities" (2023). ETD collection for University of Nebraska - Lincoln. AAI30488641.