Saturday, August 06, 2016

An Appetite for Authoritarianism. If It Looks Like Weimar and Sounds Like Weimar and Feels Like Weimar...

Grievances, real or imagined, and social change can give some people a thirst for authoritarianism. reviews chilling research into the rise of American authoritarianism and concludes it's here to stay.

Perhaps strangest of all, it wasn't just Trump but his supporters who seemed to have come out of nowhere, suddenly expressing, in large numbers, ideas far more extreme than anything that has risen to such popularity in recent memory. In South Carolina, a CBS News exit poll found that 75 percent of Republican voters supported banning Muslims from the United States. A PPP poll found that a third of Trump voters support banning gays and lesbians from the country. Twenty percent said Lincoln shouldn't have freed the slaves.

Last September, a PhD student at the University of Massachusetts Amherst named Matthew MacWilliams realized that his dissertation research might hold the answer to not just one but all three of these mysteries.

MacWilliams studies authoritarianism — not actual dictators, but rather a psychological profile of individual voters that is characterized by a desire for order and a fear of outsiders. People who score high in authoritarianism, when they feel threatened, look for strong leaders who promise to take whatever action necessary to protect them from outsiders and prevent the changes they fear.

...Miles away, in an office at Vanderbilt University, a professor named Marc Hetherington was having his own aha moment. He realized that he and a fellow political scientist, the University of North Carolina's Jonathan Weiler, had essentially predicted Trump's rise back in 2009, when they discovered something that would turn out to be far more significant than they then realized.

That year, Hetherington and Weiler published a book about the effects of authoritarianism on American politics. Through a series of experiments and careful data analysis, they had come to a surprising conclusion: Much of the polarization dividing American politics was fueled not just by gerrymandering or money in politics or the other oft-cited variables, but by an unnoticed but surprisingly large electoral group — authoritarians.

Their book concluded that the GOP, by positioning itself as the party of traditional values and law and order, had unknowingly attracted what would turn out to be a vast and previously bipartisan population of Americans with authoritarian tendencies.

This trend had been accelerated in recent years by demographic and economic changes such as immigration, which "activated" authoritarian tendencies, leading many Americans to seek out a strongman leader who would preserve a status quo they feel is under threat and impose order on a world they perceive as increasingly alien.

...Authoritarians are thought to express much deeper fears than the rest of the electorate, to seek the imposition of order where they perceive dangerous change, and to desire a strong leader who will defeat those fears with force. They would thus seek a candidate who promised these things. And the extreme nature of authoritarians' fears, and of their desire to challenge threats with force, would lead them toward a candidate whose temperament was totally unlike anything we usually see in American politics — and whose policies went far beyond the acceptable norms.

A candidate like Donald Trump.

The Big Question

How do people come to adopt, in such large numbers and so rapidly, extreme political views that seem to coincide with fear of minorities and with the desire for a strongman leader?

To answer that question, these theorists study what they call authoritarianism: not the dictators themselves, but rather the psychological profile of people who, under the right conditions, will desire certain kinds of extreme policies and will seek strongman leaders to implement them.

...According to Stenner's theory, there is a certain subset of people who hold latent authoritarian tendencies. These tendencies can be triggered or "activated" by the perception of physical threats or by destabilizing social change, leading those individuals to desire policies and leaders that we might more colloquially call authoritarian.
It is as if, the NYU professor Jonathan Haidt has written, a button is pushed that says, "In case of moral threat, lock down the borders, kick out those who are different, and punish those who are morally deviant."

...When they face physical threats or threats to the status quo, authoritarians support policies that seem to offer protection against those fears. They favor forceful, decisive action against things they perceive as threats. And they flock to political leaders who they believe will bring this action.

...More than that, authoritarianism reveals the connections between several seemingly disparate stories about American politics. And it suggest that a combination of demographic, economic, and political forces, by awakening this authoritarian class of voters that has coalesced around Trump, have created what is essentially a new political party within the GOP — a phenomenon that broke into public view with the 2016 election but will persist long after it has ended.

Stenner's Theory of Activation.

In an influential 2005 book called The Authoritarian Dynamic, Stenner argued that many authoritarians might be latent — that they might not necessarily support authoritarian leaders or policies until their authoritarianism had been "activated."

This activation could come from feeling threatened by social changes such as evolving social norms or increasing diversity, or any other change that they believe will profoundly alter the social order they want to protect. In response, previously more moderate individuals would come to support leaders and policies we might now call Trump-esque.

Other researchers, like Hetherington, take a slightly different view. They believe that authoritarians aren't "activated" — they've always held their authoritarian preferences — but that they only come to express those preferences once they feel threatened by social change or some kind of threat from outsiders.

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.

...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.

...this theory speaks to an oft-stated concern about Trump: that what's scariest is not the candidate, but rather the extent and fervor of his support.

And it raises a question: If this rise in American authoritarianism is so powerful as to drive Trump's ascent, then how else might it be shaping American politics? And what effect could it have even after the 2016 race has ended?

Testing Today's Voters.

The first thing that jumped out from the data on authoritarians is just how many there are. Our results found that 44 percent of white respondents nationwide scored as "high" or "very high" authoritarians, with 19 percent as "very high." That's actually not unusual, and lines up with previous national surveys that found that the authoritarian disposition is far from rare.

The key thing to understand is that authoritarianism is often latent; people in this 44 percent only vote or otherwise act as authoritarians once triggered by some perceived threat, physical or social. But that latency is part of how, over the past few decades, authoritarians have quietly become a powerful political constituency without anyone realizing it.

What America's Authoritarians Really Want.

The responses to our policy questions showed that authoritarians have their own set of policy preferences, distinct from GOP orthodoxy. And those preferences mean that, in real and important ways, authoritarians are their own distinct constituency: effectively a new political party within the GOP.

What stands out from the results, Feldman wrote after reviewing our data, is that authoritarians "are most willing to want to use force, to crack down on immigration, and limit civil liberties."

The responses to our policy questions showed that authoritarians have their own set of policy preferences, distinct from GOP orthodoxy. And those preferences mean that, in real and important ways, authoritarians are their own distinct constituency: effectively a new political party within the GOP.

What stands out from the results, Feldman wrote after reviewing our data, is that authoritarians "are most willing to want to use force, to crack down on immigration, and limit civil liberties."

This "action side" of authoritarianism, he believed, was the key thing that distinguished Trump supporters from supporters of other GOP candidates. "The willingness to use government power to eliminate the threats — that is most clear among Trump supporters."

Post-Election America

...authoritarians, as a growing presence in the GOP, are a real constituency that exists independently of Trump — and will persist as a force in American politics regardless of the fate of his candidacy.

If Trump loses the election, that will not remove the threats and social changes that trigger the "action side" of authoritarianism. The authoritarians will still be there. They will still look for candidates who will give them the strong, punitive leadership they desire.

And that means Donald Trump could be just the first of many Trumps in American politics, with potentially profound implications for the country.

...The Tea Party delivered the House to the GOP in 2010, but ultimately left the party in an unresolved civil war. Tea Party candidates have challenged moderates and centrists, leaving the GOP caucus divided and chaotic.

Now a similar divide is playing out at the presidential level, with results that are even more destructive for the Republican Party. Authoritarians may be a slight majority within the GOP, and thus able to force their will within the party, but they are too few and their views too unpopular to win a national election on their own.

And so the rise of authoritarianism as a force within American politics means we may now have a de facto three-party system: the Democrats, the GOP establishment, and the GOP authoritarians.

...the forces activating American authoritarians seem likely to only grow stronger. Norms around gender, sexuality, and race will continue evolving. Movements like Black Lives Matter will continue chipping away at the country's legacy of institutionalized discrimination, pursuing the kind of social change and reordering of society that authoritarians find so threatening.

...For decades, the Republican Party has been winning over authoritarians by implicitly promising to stand firm against the tide of social change, and to be the party of force and power rather than the party of negotiation and compromise. But now it may be discovering that its strategy has worked too well — and threatens to tear the party apart.


Anonymous said...

It is utterly ignorant to equate banning Muslims with Hitler's persecution of the Jews. The US is at war with a number of Muslim nations. When it was at war with Japan, what did the Democratic president, FDR, do? He put Japanese citizens in concentration camps after seizing all their wealth. Trump is talking about doing a lot less than what FDR did. Was FDR freaking Hitler?

And whether you agree with Trump's Muslim ban or not, compare this to Hillary's Muslim plan: she plans on bombing more of them! How's that for the progressive, less dangerous option! Ban Muslims: racist evil on par with Hitler. Bomb Muslims: peace, love and understanding!

I don't see civilization hystericalling its way out of its current problems. The establishment has the cattle mooing at its enemies when the cattle should be mooing at establishment corruption and looting which is causing civilization to unravel. Moooo!

The Mound of Sound said...

No, Moooo, what's utterly ignorant is to suggest anyone is comparing banning Muslims with Hitler's persecution of the Jews. The US, to my knowledge, does not claim to be at war with any Muslim nations much less a number of them. Your false equivalency suggests true illogic.

I assume this is Oberst in a new guise.

Dana said...

Pretty safe assumption I should think.

Orburst, and probably lots of other Bernie fanatics, can be filed under authoritarian preferences as well actually.

Their authoritarian preference is different but not dissimilar in character.

Pamela Mac Neil said...

When an intellectual culture abandons serious ideas and replaces that culture with religious dogma, anti-intellectualism becomes the norm.The philosophical root source of authoritarianism requires the destruction of reason and ultimately the destruction of the conceptual human mind. Authoritarianism is world wide, but never more so then in the US.

In order for a society, or part of a society to embrace authoritarianism, they must abandon critical thinking. The horror of authoritarianism is that it is the ignorant, even the mindless that have the power over others. All that is required to survive is obedience.

Watching the unravelling of American culture is truly disturbing. Canada's government has latched on to American imperialism almost in totality. When the US pursues it's biggest power grab,the TPP it will implement its Neoliberal authoritarianism over the American public, also the Canadian public and as many other countries that it can control.

The goal of the US Neoliberal government both domestically and internationally has been to destroy sovereign, independent nations. Their almost there. It does not get more authoritarian then that.

The Mound of Sound said...

Dana, I somehow prefer "Oberst" for this character. It carries a better rounded connotation.

Point well taken about the preference being different but not so much the character.

The Mound of Sound said...

Pamela - suppression of critical thinking is a prerequisite to the rise of authoritarianism. Reason breeds nuance and cannot be tolerated.

I really welcomed the Vox article. As I've written many times since my childhood I've been vexed by how the German people could have fallen in behind a monster like Hitler and why we seemed to assume we were and would always remain committed to liberal democracy. Gradually, over the span of several decades, I came to realize we weren't as democratically pure as we maintained. Along the way I read Sinclair Lewis' 1935 classic, "It Can't Happen Here."

It wasn't until I read the research referenced in this Vox article that I came to appreciate authoritarianism as a "bottom up" phenomenon, a malaise that can lie dormant and concealed until triggered or activated by adverse change and exploited by some suitable charismatic (despot). Now it all makes sense.

Pamela Mac Neil said...

Authoritarianism as a "bottom up" phenomenon is a really interesting observation. I've always thought of authoritarianism as being Top Down and those who supported it as being more followers then anything. I never thought of them as also being authoritarians.

Freedom and what is required to sustain it has been something I have questioned for many years now. Authoritarianism throughout history seems to rise and obliterate freedom. This seems to have happened throughout history, right up to present day.

It's the reasons however that people in a democratic society allow their governments to destroy freedom and take control through different variations of Authoritarianism that I've tried to understand.

I never thought that a charismatic demagogue was exploiting the authoritarianism that existed within his/her very supporters. This "bottom up" authoritarianism puts a whole different meaning on those who embrace it. They seem less victims and more authoritarian allies.

This theory is definitely worth exploring. It may take me down a different intellectual road and answer some long unanswered questions for me.Thx.for posting. Sinclair Lewis in "It can't Happen Here" saw the seeds of authoritarianism buried deep in the American psyche long before other writers.

Dana said...

And then there's this:

the salamander said...

.. amazingly informative article, thanks ! A great perspective from which to view politics,
voters & political animals & bullshit artists pretending to be public servants
acting in our behalf.. while really just servicing their need & greed & 'values'

Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

Anyong....Well now.. we have here in good ol AB, Jason Kenny driving around the province in a bright blue truck attracting Albertans to vote for him. I would wager Kenny and Trump would get along like a house on fire. Once again Kenny has put his foot in it regarding abortion, but no doubt it will fly like a new plane. I doubt if Kenny has even heard of "Earth Overshoot Day" or even thinks how close he comes to Authoritarianism. But never mind, everything will come out in the wash.