Understanding American authoritarianism

As part of his PhD research for UMass Amherst, Matthew MacWilliams surveyed the psychological characteristics of authoritarians -- not the people who lead authoritarian movements, but the followers, those who defer to them.

His work echoed the independent research of Vanderbilt's Marc Hetherington and UNC's Jonathan Weiler, whose 2009 book Authoritarianism and Polarization in American Politics concluded that a sizable fraction of the US voting public were authoritarian: people who wanted to be controlled, and wanted their neighbors to be controlled, because they were afraid the status quo was slipping away and they didn't believe that anything better would replace it.

They all posit that there are really three American parties, not two: the Democrats, the Republicans, and the authoritarian Republicans, who aren't conservatives in the sense of wanting tax cuts for the rich or caring about specific religious or moral questions. Rather, they want strong leaders who'll fight change, preserve hierarchies, and talk tough.

Vox's Amanda Taub recounts the long struggle to understand authoritarianism, something social scientists have struggled with since the rise of fascism in the mid-twentieth. She describes many authoritarians as latent, waiting to be "activated" by threats -- demographic and economic shifts, messages of fear and terror.

Vox did its own polling and research to complement the earlier experiments on authoritarianism, concluding that Trump is merely the "symptom": "The rise of American authoritarianism is transforming the Republican Party and the dynamics of national politics, with profound consequences likely to extend well beyond this election."

Back in 2009, I wrote about Bob Altemeyer's "The Authoritarians", a free/open text that summarizes 30 years of research into the authoritarian mindset. I recommend reading it now.

But both schools of thought agree on the basic causality of authoritarianism. People do not support extreme policies and strongman leaders just out of an affirmative desire for authoritarianism, but rather as a response to experiencing certain kinds of threats.

The third insight came from Hetherington and American University professor Elizabeth Suhay, who found that when non-authoritarians feel sufficiently scared, they also start to behave, politically, like authoritarians.

But Hetherington and Suhay found a distinction between physical threats such as terrorism, which could lead non-authoritarians to behave like authoritarians, and more abstract social threats, such as eroding social norms or demographic changes, which do not have that effect. That distinction would turn out to be important, but it also meant that in times when many Americans perceived imminent physical threats, the population of authoritarians could seem to swell rapidly.

Together, those three insights added up to one terrifying theory: that if social change and physical threats coincided at the same time, it could awaken a potentially enormous population of American authoritarians, who would demand a strongman leader and the extreme policies necessary, in their view, to meet the rising threats.

The rise of American authoritarianism [Amanda Taub/Vox]

(via Metafilter)

Notable Replies

  1. I put some feedback on Bob Altemeyer's site, suggesting he comment on Donald Drumpf, and, well, I got a response. I'll just quote it verbatim. He asked me to share it.

    I posted it online here: http://www.dailykos.com/story/2016/03/02/1494504/-A-word-from-Dr-Bob-Altemeyer-on-Donald-Trump-and-Authoritarian-Followers

    Anyways:

    Donald Trump and Authoritarian Followers
    Bob Altemeyer*

    In 1998 I tried to explain why social scientists who are worried about our freedoms have focused on the crowd that would lift a dictator aloft rather than the autocrat himself.

    “Wanna-be tyrants in a democracy are just comical figures on soapboxes when they have no following. So the real…threat lay coiled in parts of the population itself, it was thought, ready someday to catapult the next Hitler to power with their votes.”

    That apprehension was well-founded, it turns out. Research suggests that 20-25% of the adults in North America are highly vulnerable to a demagogue who would incite hatred of various minorities to gain power. These people are waiting for a tough “man on horseback” who will supposedly solve all our problems through the ruthless application of force. When such a man gains prominence, you can expect the authoritarian followers to mate devotedly with the authoritarian leader, because each gives the other something they desperately want: the feeling of safety for the followers, and the tremendous power of the modern state for the leader.

    I would not say that all of the people trying to carry Donald Trump to the presidency are authoritarian followers. But they likely compose his hard core base. Furthermore, many authoritarian followers presently support Senator Ted Cruz for religious reasons. You can expect most of them to slide into the Trump ranks once Cruz drops out of the race. By summer, the vast majority of authoritarian followers in the United States will likely be for Trump. And so will many others for various reasons.

    We know a lot about authoritarian followers, but unfortunately most of what we know indicates it will be almost impossible to change their minds, especially in a few months. Here are a dozen things established by research.

    1. They are highly ethnocentric, highly inclined to see the world as their in-group versus everyone else. Because they are so committed to their in-group, they are very zealous in its cause.
    2. They are highly fearful of a dangerous world. Their parents taught them, more than parents usually do, that the world is dangerous. They may also be genetically predisposed to experiencing stronger fear than most people do.
    3. They are highly self-righteous. They believe they are the “good people” and this unlocks a lot of hostile impulses against those they consider bad.
    4. They are aggressive. Given the chance to attack someone with the approval of an authority, they will lower the boom.
    5. They are highly prejudiced against racial and ethnic majorities, non-heterosexuals, and women in general.
    6. Their beliefs are a mass of contradictions. They have highly compartmentalized minds, in which opposite beliefs exist side-by-side in adjacent boxes. As a result, their thinking is full of double-standards.
    7. They reason poorly. If they like the conclusion of an argument, they don’t pay much attention to whether the evidence is valid or the argument is consistent.
    8. They are highly dogmatic. Because they have gotten their beliefs mainly from the authorities in their lives, rather than think things out for themselves, they have no real defense when facts or events indicate they are wrong. So they just dig in their heels and refuse to change.
    9. They are very dependent on social reinforcement of their beliefs. They think they are right because almost everyone they know, almost every news broadcast they see, almost every radio commentator they listen to, tells them they are. That is, they screen out the sources that will suggest that they are wrong.
    10. Because they severely limit their exposure to different people and ideas, they vastly overestimate the extent to which other people agree with them. And thinking they are “the moral majority” supports their attacks on the “evil minorities” they see in the country.
    11. They are easily duped by manipulators who pretend to espouse their causes when all the con-artists really want is personal gain.
    12. They are largely blind to themselves. They have little self-understanding and insight into why they think and do what they do.

    I hasten to add that almost anyone would become more ethnocentric, frightened, self-righteous, and so on if their situations, or our country’s situation, changed enough. And studies find examples of these twelve things in lots of others, not just authoritarian followers. But not as consistently, and not nearly as much.

    If, as you went down this list of things experiments have discovered about authoritarian followers, you found yourself saying, “Yeah, you can sure see that in the Trump supporters,” and if you believe that a President Trump would be a very stiff test of democracy the United States, then what can you do—without becoming a highly ethnocentric person yourself?

    Well, it’s not going to be easy changing highly aggressive, dogmatic, insular people who will dismiss you out of hand as “the enemy”? They have been that way for most of their lives, and they have built a lot of supports, including straight-out denial, to keep their views intact.

    Authoritarian followers in America today are tremendously energized by fear and anger. They’re scared, and they want someone really strong and confident to protect them. It’s a very natural, understandable reaction. As well they’re intensely angry about the way their country is changing, and most pointedly furious with the Republican Party which has won many elections because of their support, and then utterly failed to “get things right again.” So they feel betrayed, and that is a very powerful motivator.

    One suspects they will feel even more betrayed if Trump becomes president and turns out to have been conning them all along too. But he is going to keep telling them he’s one of them, and keep them scared and angry while selling himself as the Toughest Guy They Ever Met. Authoritarian followers are always waiting for The Leader, and now they firmly believe they’ve found him.

    But let me not stoke your fears too high, for we do have to fear fear itself. There is a simple way out of this situation: Others can outvote them. But even though most of the American electorate says now that they would never vote for Trump, he’ll become the next President if those folks stay home on election day. If Trump’s opponents do not get as energized as Trump’s very loyal followers are, his supporters will carry him on their shoulders to the highest office in the land.

    *Bob Altemeyer is a retired professor of psychology at the University of Manitoba in Canada. He studied authoritarianism for over forty years during his academic career. His research on authoritarian aggression won the Prize for Behavioral Science Research awarded by the American Association for the Advancement of Science. An accessible, non-technical presentation of his findings on authoritarian followers and leaders is available in The Authoritarians, a free online book available at home.cc.umanitoba.ca/~altemey/

  2. I think the conclusions are far from unique to Americans. There are at least three good 20th century examples to contemplate. Two ended badly, but the Franco régime in Spain ended rather peacefully.

    I keep saying this and I may be wrong, but to me Trump seems the least worrying of the Republican front runners. He may act as a lightning rod for the authoritarian and stress-authoritarian voters, but in power he will have the Republican establishment against him, not to mention Wall Street. Clinton is a Wall Street fifth columnist offering voters some limited progress (by rest of advanced country standards) in exchange for Wall Street continuing its dominance. But Rubio and Cruz know exactly what they want, and it is a very toxic brew of status quo ante (civil rights) bellum. They are authoritarian leaders who want on a small scale what ISIS wants on a larger one - fundamentalist doctrinal purity and a rigid hierarchy of rich and poor.

    We have a mirror situation in the UK where we have a government that continually makes authoritarian noises but is internally divided about actually taking action. (Unlike Blair, they even announce that they are going to bomb Syria and then admit that well, we've hardly used any of those expensive missiles at all.) But in the wings we have our version of Trump - Boris Johnson - who appeals to the populist Right. The difference is that like Cruz and Rubio he has access to the nastiest reaches of the Conservative machine. If he comes to power in the wake of a vote to leave the EU, by the time Americans vote they'll have the example of a charismatic right wing leader presiding over a failing State to contemplate. Complete with special hair.

  3. Thank you so much for getting this straight from the horse's mouth and forwarding it to us!

  4. I have never understood this. A liberal who has been mugged is likely to understand that this is a result of lack of social cohesion, a failed criminal justice system,and possibly a corrupt police force. These are more associated with right-wing governments.

  5. Those questions are deliberately slanted.

    If it doesn't, we have no government since nobody will freely hand over money.

    Let's rephrase that slightly as "Should the government be allowed to tell BP to close off a leaking oil well/stop fracking where earthquakes seem to be happening/ban lead from gasoline". These are all about actions which can harm other people.

    It seems in its attempts to identify authoritarianism of the Left as well as the Right, Political Compass shows us where its real agenda lie. [edit- It seems it was you who was cherry-picking the questions.]

Continue the discussion bbs.boingboing.net

31 more replies

Participants