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What is Backlash?

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  • Written By: Michael Pollick
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 12 September 2016
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One law of physics states that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. This same principle can also be applied to the world of politics, although the reaction is not always equal or entirely opposite. Whenever a controversial political decision is made or an unpopular law is passed, there is often a reaction called a backlash. A political backlash may occur within hours of an action, or it may take years to form.

The term backlash is generally applied whenever a definite reaction has taken place, not simply when the opposition is feeling disgruntled or disenfranchised. One could view a political backlash as the equally powerful backstroke which follows the cracking of a whip. The whip's tip may hit its mark, but the person wielding it could also get hurt by the whip's return stroke.

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A political backlash cuts across the entire spectrum, from reactionary to revolutionary. When one ideology is in control of a government, those of the opposing ideology often feel powerless to stop certain actions that particular government takes. A liberal president, for example, may decide to enact laws which make private handgun ownership illegal. While many citizens would support such action, others could feel the new laws are far too intrusive. The end result of this disagreement could easily be political backlash, with opponents of the handgun band voting out legislators who voted in favor of the laws. Opponents may also write letters which criticize the decision, or they could organize large public demonstrations.

One of the most famous examples of political backlash occurred in the British colonies during the 18th century. When English rulers decided unilaterally to raise taxes on such common goods as stamps and tea, the American colonists formed a united opposition and declared their political independence. The American Revolutionary War could be viewed as the ultimate political backlash, since the roots of this action can be traced directly back to unpopular decisions made by the English government. Political backlash doesn't always lead to violent clashes or the overthrow of a ruling government, but it does serve to demonstrate the resolve of those who disagree with their political leaders.

Many governments anticipate some form of political backlash whenever a controversial or unpopular action is taken. The decision to use military force, for example, generally creates a reaction from those who oppose war in general or disagree with the government's agenda. When several civil rights laws were enacted during the 1960s, the federal government anticipated a backlash from those who still believed in racial segregation. The protest movements of the late 1960s and early 1970s could also be seen as the result of backlash against American involvement in the Vietnam War. Racial riots in large American cities are also commonly viewed as political backlash during difficult economic times.

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