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Authoritarianism and American politics
Political values include general attitudes toward humanity -- whether and whom to trust, and whether to obey or rebel.


Note -- originally posted in 2009, but it still seems relevant.

Quote:by Tom Schaller @ 12:35 PM

I'm reading a compelling new book, Authoritarianism & Polarization in American Politics, co-written by Marc Hetherington and Jonathan Weiler. (Disclosure: Jon is a longtime friend; we were in grad school together at Univ. of North Carolina.) The book is an examination of how authoritarian tendencies among American citizens inform and explain attitudes toward government, public policies and their fellow citizens. It is impossible to summarize the book properly in a blog post, but I wanted to hit on some of the points that struck me, many of which were unsurprising and yet startling to see demonstrated empirically.

The first point Hetherington and Weiler make is that authoritarianism is really about order--achieving it, maintaining it, and affirming it--and especially when citizens are uncertain or fearful. This, they say, is why authoritarians seek out and elevate, well, authorities--because authorities impose order on an otherwise disordered world. They provide a useful review the existing literature on authoritarian traits, which have been connected to negative racist stereotyping, a belief in biblical inerrancy, a preference for simple rather than complex problem-solving, and low levels of political information.

Hetherington and Weiler expand and update the authoritarian literature by applying it to contemporary controversies. For example, what they measure and define as "maximum authoritarian" types show much lower support for gay marriage and gay adoption (19 percent, 28 percent) than do "minimum authoritarians" (71 percent, 89 percent). Maximums are three times more likely than minimums to support the government use of wiretaps without a warrant in the war on terror (60 percent to 19 percent), and four times more likely to say it is unacceptable to criticize the president about fighting terrorism (33 percent to 8 percent).

And what do authoritarians look like? The table above--which I have reproduced from Table 3.2 (p. 39) of their book--shows average levels of authoritarianism by descriptive characteristics that, taken together, produce a composite image: rural, southern, under-educated, evangelical Protestant churchgoers. Is it any wonder that when George W. Bush was down to his bottom 30 percent of public support during his second term so much of that support derived from people fitting this profile? And although there is a strong connection between authoritarianism and conservatism (and thus Republicanism), as Hetherington and Weiler caution, authoritarianism is not bounded by party: Among 2008 Democratic primary voters there were significant splits on issues of race and immigration, smacking of authoritarian impulses, that played a role in support for either Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama. "There is strong suggestive evidence that authoritarianism was a core reason for the voting behavior of nonblacks" in the Democratic primary, they conclude.

As for the current debate over health care, some of the same cleavages exist. In a recent piece for the Huffington Post, Weiler talks about race and authoritarianism in the context of the health reform debate: "In sum, there is reason to think that beneath the arguments about government intrusion into the health care market, death panels, and such, a much more visceral dynamic is at work. To be perfectly clear, it is far from the case that every opponent or skeptic of significant health-care reform is a racist or racially motivated in her or his thinking. But there is, at the least, very strong circumstantial evidence that views of race and beliefs about health care reform are linked significantly among many Americans, which probably explains why the debate on health care reform has caused a much stronger uproar in 2009 than it did in 1994."

Reading the book, I kept hearing echoes of Glenn Greenwalds's book, A Tragic Legacy. Greenwald's book is a character study of Bush43 and the Bush White House, its Manichean worldview, and what that meant for public policy. But an us-v-them, good-v-evil governing mentality is only possible in a democracy where authoritarian currents run deep enough to sustain (and re-elect) such leadership. The governing atmosphere Greenwald describes makes even more sense after reading Hetherington and Weiler.

Average Authoritarianism by groups:


Evangelical Protestant .709
Catholic .571
Mainline Protestant .530
Secular .481
Jewish .383

Church attendance

Weekly or more .689
Less than weekly .549


South .657
Non-South .457

Population area

Rural .603
Small town .584
Suburb .524
Large city .502
Inner city .549


Less than HS diploma .749
HS diploma .590
College degree .510
Graduate degree .370

It's not for any of us to decide "which" authoritarianism is good and which is bad. Nobody is choosing between Stalinism and Nazism or the Klan.

One cornerstone of authoritarianism is an adherence to a supposedly-superior culture and its traditions. Some traditions and cultures are less hostile in their attitudes toward outsiders: such peoples as Orthodox Jews and Old-Order Amish well recognize that their ways of life aren't for everyone and that outsiders must be judged on universal principles instead of similarities to themselves. They would tell outsiders to live according to the highest ethical standards of their groups and when we meet we will get along. Fundamentalist and evangelical Christians would see anyone not like themselves not as quaint, but instead as "sinful'.

Some of the divides beg explanation. I suspect that authoritarianism implies insularity -- less likelihood of meeting people of dissimilar backgrounds under conditions that preclude judgment of others. People in insular environments may be in such places by choice -- out of fear of meeting people dissimilar to themselves or likely to show hostility toward "exotic" types. Outsiders, one learns early, are the untrustworthy people who do things to one instead of collaborating with one.

Education is obvious: people with little formal education are less likely to show social mobility and are likely to be stuck in rural areas and inner cities. Their interactions with outsiders is likely to be unpleasant because of the economic realities among the undereducated, and they are likely to think inside some rigid box because anything else is not accepted. Behavioral standards are rigid, and punishments for violations of the norms are severe. Undereducated people often have poor impulse control, learning disabilities, and proclivity toward violence, none of which fits well into bureaucratic environments (including schools). At the other end, graduate students are likely to meet people of widely-diverse cultural heritages even at the undergraduate schools that feed graduate and professional schools. First-rate schools attract international students who don't have the same ethnicity, ideology, or culture. You can only imagine what attitudes form among graduate students toward homosexuality, interfaith and interracial relationships, and big government (one likely depends upon government grants at the least for research). Rational, flexible thought is a necessity, and part of it entails the ability to deny impulses when appropriate.

A college degree is not enough to shatter authoritarian tendencies; lots of mediocrities now get college degrees (blatant example in politics:the former Governor of Alaska). Someone who attends a second-rate or worse college is likely to be around cultural peers and see little diversity, and if there is any, likely to separate from it. Many college graduates have seen college entirely as a backdoor to Corporate America, a way of having a chance to go into management training in a box store after six months as a store clerk instead of twenty if at all. Big Business is extremely hierarchical, and authoritarian types might fit in far better than might more open-minded people. The drop-off between "college degree" and "high school diploma" isn't so sharp as the one between "college degree" and "graduate degree" or between "high school diploma" and "less than high-school diploma".

The political consequences of authoritarianism include the inability to see political solutions outside a "comfortable" list of "normal" politicians. People who had difficulty voting for Barack Obama would have had difficulty voting for not only a half-African product of miscegenation, but also an Asian, Jewish, Latino, or LGBT candidate for the Presidency.

Some people need rigid direction. It's obvious enough with scoundrels; they need it imposed from above (as in a prison) because they merit no trust from others or from a bigger and more powerful scoundrel (like a higher-ranking Crime Boss like Al Capone or Adolf Hitler). Some impose it because such allows them to get what they want from people whom they have few incentives to offer. Those are the sorts who must make others feel so insecure about themselves that they would never abandon an exploitative environment for something better. Fear remains one of the most powerful tools of control. Maybe you have had some boss who warns you frequently that if you quit that organization you would fail anywhere else.

Poorly-educated people often find themselves under the harshest conditions of employment. Some carry the sorts of educational pathologies -- poor impulse control, inability to defer gratification, a low threshold of frustration, laziness, and rebelliousness. People with those traits need intense supervision just to achieve even the barest of objectives, They might get accustomed to it and accept it as the norm of human existence. People without such traits can get along quite well without such supervision and thus reject authoritarianism.
The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the dedicated Communist  but instead the people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction, true and false, no longer exists -- Hannah Arendt.


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Authoritarianism and American politics - by pbrower2a - 05-08-2016, 09:11 PM

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