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]

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