Authoritarianism in America

Jonathan Weiler, a professor at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, started pondering authoritarianism in American politics after the 2000 election and recount. “It got me to thinking more broadly about what differentiated the left from the right in America,” Weiler said, and he and his co-author eventually realized, as they explore in Authoritarianism and Polarization in American Politics, that the concept of authoritarianism explains much about American politics. Below he tells Zócalo what authoritarianism is, how American politics has come to be determined by it in the last four decades, and how it makes our politics more rancorous.

Q. How does authoritarianism manifest in American politics, and what do you mean by the term? It seems the U.S. can’t be very ‘authoritarian,’ particularly compared to other countries.

Authoritarianism and Polarization in American PoliticsA. We have these four questions about parenting that have been asked on many surveys and forms over the past several decades. There are four pairs of qualities, and people are asked which of each pair is most important for children to have: independence versus respect for elders, obedience versus self-reliance, curiosity versus good manners, being considerate versus being well-behaved. We observe how people answer these four questions – the four authoritarian answers, if you will, are respect, obedience, good manners, and being well-behaved. That’s how we measure authoritarianism.

One thing we try to clarify is the number of people in the U.S. who, let’s say, score high in authoritarianism hasn’t really changed that much over time. What has changed is how clearly authoritarians and non-authoritarians have sorted themselves out between the two political parties. Twenty years ago, an authoritarian was about as likely to identify as a Democrat as they would as a Republican. What changed over the last 20 years is the degree to which authoritarians so clearly defined themselves as Republicans, and non-authoritarians defined themselves as Democrats. It’s that sorting out that we think has given politics the kind of intensity and irreconcilability that seemed to have happened in the past few years.

Q. What has happened in the last 20 years?

A. There has been a series of issues. We look at this as a 40-year arc of issues that have emerged one after the other, making it increasingly clear which party makes sense for authoritarians to belong to, and which party it makes sense for non-authoritarians to belong to. It starts with race in the 1960s – and the clear identification of Democrats with a liberal view of race and civil rights and the Republicans with something different – then in the 1970s, the rise of feminism and women’s issues, and the increasingly clear and distinct positions that the two political parties took on those issues.

I should back up here and say – and I know this is hard to imagine now – but in 1972, the Equal Rights Amendment passed both houses of Congress by overwhelming majorities. Republicans were as likely to vote for it as Democrats, just about. If you look at the party platform from that period, the Republican Party is still strongly endorsing the ERA. Starting around 1980, the Republican Party platform starts to take on a dramatically different tone with respect to the issue of abortion, and more generally the notion of tradition, the values issues of the last few years.

It evolves slowly over time, but these are the issues: race, feminism, family structure, and in the 1990s particularly gay rights and illegal immigration – which has become a kind of polarizing partisan issue in the past 10 or 15 years or so – and then the 9/11 attacks. These are gut-level issues on which people have a very clear feeling and emotional response. All of them are issues that authoritarians and non-authoritarians would see very differently. As those issues began to define the political agenda, and the parties began to take positions on those issues, the parties became increasingly distinct. They continue to line up in the same way – Republicans take the more traditional authoritarian position, and the Democrats take the opposite. The signal they’re sending to voters is increasingly clear.

Q. How is this harmful, if at all?

A. I’m not sure everybody would think it is harmful. I think some people think the parties having these very clear and distinct positions makes it easier to figure out who best represents what they think and believe, that our politics are more clarified now, and we don’t have this muddled bipartisanship that keeps us from making the kind of significant changes that need to be made.

But what I would say it has made our politics and political debates more extreme. I think this tone that our politics have makes it seem like people are on opposite sides of this vast divide, viewing one another as having completely unreasonable and impossible to fathom ways of thinking about the world. There’s no possibility of common ground or compromise because what we’re really talking about is a difference of opinion, based on the most gut-level instinctive differences about how the world should be. It really is the most intense kind of value divide that you could imagine. I think that clearly makes for a more acrimonious polarized way of thinking about the world.

From my own partisan perspective, what this has done on the Republican side in particular is made the party increasingly beholden to an authoritarian and I would say an extreme base. I think a good example of that was the Sonia Sotomayor hearings this summer. The Republican party was in serious trouble with Hispanic voters in the U.S. They voted for Obama by two to one last fall, and they are by far the fastest growing significant population group in the country. So Republicans certainly can’t afford to continue alienating that group. Then at the hearings, they trot out one Southern white male after another to badger her in ways that were sure to alienate Hispanic voters. Sure enough by the end of those hearings, approval of the Republican party by that part of the population was like 10 percent. There was no political rationality to doing that. The only way it makes sense is that the base itself had become so dominated by an authoritarian black-and-white, us-versus-them hostility to outside groups.

Q. How do authoritarians regard leaders, given that by your definition, it certainly seems they don’t blindly follow them?

A. We wrestled with using the term authoritarian, partly for the reason you’re raising and the question you’re asking. Traditionally the studies of authoritarianism going back 60-odd years to the end of World War II assumed that what authoritarians would do is blindly follow, say, fascist leaders, or any leader. I don’t think that’s necessarily completely wrong, but it is an oversimplification. As we’re seeing clearly right now, groups of voters we think are authoritarian-minded hate the current president of the United States. In fact, we say in the book that Obama represents everything that non-authoritarians would like, from his kind of complex – often referred to as exotic – background, his speaking style steeped in nuance and grey. These are thinks an authoritarian cognitive style would hate. The idea that there would be unabashed loyalty to authority is just wrong. Only under certain circumstances are they going to show that sort of followership.

What happened during the Bush years is maybe an example of some of the ways in which authoritarian-minded folks do want a strong government hand a strong leader, because they didn’t have much complaint about Bush. There are measures in the book to show that, if given the choice between security, or promoting things like surveillance, and maintaining what civil rights we have today, authoritarians were much more likely to say, “Forget those rights, we can’t afford those.” In some ways the relationship is clear enough, but in terms of how authoritarians respond to leaders, I would say, they respond well to leaders whose approach and cognitive style and worldview is consistent with their own. Otherwise, they would be tremendously contemptuous of political leaders.

One distinction we tried to make is that the authoritarian or non-authoritarian personality dimension doesn’t necessarily explain every aspect of a person’s political perspective. There are issues like tax policy, the economy, that I’m not sure authoritarianism explains in the same way as the issues I mentioned earlier. There’s that whole part of American politics, what some people call the New Deal dimension, that I think authoritarians and non-authoritarians have a different relationship with than what we’ll call the New Issue agenda or Cultural Issue agenda.

Q. How did authoritarianism play out during the 2008 election?

A. Starting with the primary fight between Hillary and Obama, we did find what we thought was an interesting relationship between authoritarian and Democratic primary support for Hillary Clinton over Barack Obama. The popular narrative especially after Super Tuesday was that Hillary started to adopt this hard-edged attacking style, running what some called an implicitly racially charged campaign, and drinking beer and shots at a bar in Indiana. A lot of people argued that Hillary was appealing to the white working class, and Obama was appealing to the college-educated among Democratic primary voters.

It’s not necessarily wrong, but it misses the real story. If you look at just white working class voters, that is white voters who have a high school education or less, those who are low in authoritarianism were 20 points more likely to vote for Obama than white Democratic primary voters with college educations who were high in authoritarianism. It wasn’t really their demographic and socioeconomic background that determined whether they preferred Obama to Hillary – it was their level of authoritarianism. There are more authoritarian voters among non-college-educated white voters, so that narrative wasn’t entirely wrong. It just missed the more subtle story. It shows how viscerally this kind of personality-based political divide works. You can’t really argue that people preferred Obama to Hillary because of profound differences on the issues. There were no differences really.

In terms of the general election, it followed from our perspective a pretty predictable pattern: a mixed-race intellectually-minded guy was going to be highly appealing to non-authoritarian voters, and loathsome to authoritarian voters. John McCain did have a reputation as a relative moderate – and I’m not sure that was warranted – but he relied on it during the primaries, and then after he won the nomination, he went to the base. Most candidates do the opposite. The base loved Sarah Palin, who was the perfect illustration of the authoritarian mindset. Everyone else couldn’t stand her.

Q. You mentioned that the college-educated tend to be less authoritarian. What are some other correlations – are people of a certain race, religious affiliation, or gender more authoritarian?

A. The most authoritarian subgroup – and again I’m only talking in terms of how people answer those four parenting questions – by a wide margin is African Americans. They obviously don’t fit the dynamic we’re talking about. They’re by far the most loyal Democratic voting group in the country. With the argument we’re making we’re talking about non-black voters, which we justify in part because we’re trying to explain political change in the U.S. over the last generation or so. African Americans are not the sources of that change; the changes really are largely a product of changes in white voting behavior. We have reason to believe that African Americans answering those four questions is not authoritarian in the way a white person answering those question is – but that’s for another project.

The relationship between church-going and authoritarianism is extremely high. Those who are self-identified evangelicals, those who attend church regularly, score much higher on authoritarianism. Another interesting wrinkle in all this is that Jews are probably the least authoritarian of all the groups in American society. I myself am Jewish and it’s an interesting phenomenon. I think it explains, actually, why there was so much discussion last year whether Jews were going to vote for Obama because of his less-supportive position of Israel. In the end they did what they always do, vote Democrat overwhelmingly, even more than they did for Kerry.

In terms of gender there are some differences between men and women on this score, but they’re pretty small, actually. That might be changing, but up until now, there has not been much of a difference.

I think there’s an interesting new dynamic just beginning to unfold, where issues that were formerly not necessarily authoritarian are becoming authoritarian. Everything is now being folded into that dynamic. Environmentalism, really starting last summer with Sarah Palin, is becoming an authoritarian issue. The phrase “Drill, baby, drill” takes an issue that ideologically cross-cuts liberals and conservatives, historically speaking, and reduces it to a cognitively clear issue.

Q. Do you see American politics evolving beyond this divide?

A. I think the way I see out of this – and again maybe this is just my own partisan bias-  but the way I see out of it is that the Republican Party is clearly reaching a demographic dead end. By 2042 or whatever the year is we’ll be a majority-minority country. There is no way that one political party can survive being this antagonistic toward “minority groups.” I think at some point, the Republican Party will find a new generation of leaders and new leaders. I can’t imagine they can keep going like this and still win national elections.

*Photo courtesy afagen.


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