Thursday, February 25, 2010

Authoritarianism: Some Clarifications

This week I will be blogging on a very interesting new study, Marc Hetherington and Jonathan Weiler's Authoritarianism and Polarization in American Politics.

My last few posts on authoritarianism have drawn interesting comments - some of which show that I have not done a good enough job of making clear what Hetherington and Weiler mean by authoritarian.

When an individual feels threatened, he or she tends to fear and dislike the source of the threat, favor a harsh and muscular response to the threat, search for information that confirms that the threat is real, and shut out disconfirming information. This is a normal, partly physiological reaction that can happen to anyone, and does happen to just about everyone at some times. When a group fears that the social order is threatened by another group, all these same responses come into play, but on a social, even macro scale. And when a group feels that the social order faces continuous threats, they can develop a whole worldview that shows these same responses. Authoritarianism is a worldview developed in response to a feeling that the social order is under continuous threat.

Authoritarianism is not the same as conservatism, libertarianism, or the ideology of the Republican Party. There are many people in each group who do not feel the social order is in danger, who do not advocate harsh and muscular responses, who are well informed and seek to be even better informed. Nor is authoritarianism confined to the right end of the political spectrum, though Hetherington and Weiler find that there are many more right authoritarians than left authoritarians.

I had left the numbers out of the previous posts in the interests of brevity. However, some commentators thought the claim that authoritarians are less politically well informed was simply bias, rather than empirical. To test their theory, Hetherington and Weiler constructed an authoritarianism scale, based on the above definition, which they then compare with responses to factual knowledge questions about politics in several different surveys.

The National Election Survey is the benchmark political survey used by scholars of American elections. In 2004 the NES asked respondents to identify the offices of four men then prominent in political life: Dick Cheney, Tony Blair, William Rehnquist, and Dennis Hastert. The order ranges from most correct to least - 86% of Americans knew that Cheney was Vice President, while only 11% knew Dennis Hastert was Speaker of the House. However, there were large gaps in knowledge between the least authoritarian and the most.
Cheney: 99% vs. 70%
Blair: 91 vs 45
Rehnquist: 55 vs 16
Hastert: nonauthoritarians 3 times more right than authoritarians (percent not given)

In 2006 Hetherington and Weiler conducted their own survey of American adults. They asked whether weapons of mass destruction had been found in Iraq, and whether Saddam Hussein was directly involved in the 9/11 attacks. Here they report not the responses of the people at the poles of this scale, as they did above, but the more generous standard of below or above the midpoint of the authoritarianism scale.
WMDs (% wrong): 15 vs. 37
Hussein 9/11 (% wrong): 19 vs. 55

This survey is especially helpful for today's post because they also report Republican responses, showing that GOP and authoritarian are not the same. They do not report Democratic responses. The lower half vs. upper half of the authoritarian scale (Republicans only):
WMDs (% wrong): 33 vs. 62
Hussein 9/11 (% wrong): 36 vs. 68


Anonymous said...

Is it fair to ask if the surveys you mention are valid? I bet The Heritage Foundation could easily come up with a survey that agrees with their biases.

You are very intellegent.Your weakness is that you don't see or won't admit your biases. It is probably the former rather than the latter.

Gruntled said...

The NES is a well-established, widely used survey. Hetherington and Weiler are pros, using a professional survey firm. They go out of their way to be even-handed in presenting the data. I have not looked at the mechanics of the survey, any more than I do the Gallup poll. I accept these as professional surveys that are valid within the normal range used by poll takers.

I also think that the Heritage Foundation would commission a professional poll. They might spin the results, but I would accept their data unless I had a very good reason not to.

Anonymous said...

I think they might spin the questions too. In fact, I think it's a little naive to think they wouldn't.

Gruntled said...

Do you have some examples?

Percy G. said...

I wonder where Greenpeace, PETA, the Earth Liberation Front and anti globalist greenies fit on your authoritarian spectrum? They use violence to reach their goals. They make the Tea Party look like Girl Scouts.

I notice you seldom if ever mention these left of center tyrants. Maybe you haven't heard of them. Sometimes what you don't write about says more about what you approve of than what you do write about.

A true centrist would treat the far left and far right with equal disdain. I don't see that here.

Anonymous said...

A pollster called my house two nights ago. He asked if I approved of the fact that Governor Perry raised our taxes in the last few years. I don't know if he did or didn't raise taxes but I was asked to answer yes or no to that question.

By the third question I knew I was being polled by Perry's opposition.
Polls are full of leading questions.

It is O.K. to be partisan but it is duplicitous and not smart when it's obvious to deny it.

Gruntled said...

To Perry:

There are left authoritarians, such as the ones you mention, as well as right authoritarians. Historically, there have been some powerful, brutal, and tyrannical left authoritarians, including the French Revolutionaries and all Communist regimes.

In the United States today, though, right authoritarians vastly outnumber left authoritarians, and are much more consequential politically. That could change.

To the third Anonymous: Of course polls can be biased. Do you have reason to believe that the polls cited by Hetherington and Weiler are, in fact, biased? Indeed, if you ask someone "What office does Dennis Hastert hold?" how, exactly, could you bias that question?

ceemac said...


This was a very helpful explanation of terms. You sociologists often have differnt meanings for terms than their popular use.

Isn't the "polling" that anonymous #3 experinced called "push polling." It is not done to get information from the person being "polled" but to leave an impression in their mind about the person/topic. It is clealry partisan and is not to be confused with reputable polls like gallup.

Clay Allard said...

Could you please post anything that Hetherington and Weiler suggest as ways to exorcise the fear that is the fuel for these authoritarian social impulses? How does a society recover from polarization?

Rebecca said...

Your posts on authoritarianism have been thought-provoking, though obviously misunderstood at times.

Something lurking at the back of this...does the authoritarian fear of disrupted social order translate into a fear of the creative class? In other words, if ingenuity, newness, and change spawn from the creative class, does that incite suspicion or fear in the authoritarian? If so, do you think maybe that fear is a sort of latent self-consciousness or even a deep-seated feeling of inadequacy and exclusion?

Before I get attacked for posting this, no, I am NOT implying that authoritarian's aren't "creative"...I'm referring to Richard Florida's theory of post-industrial class structure.

Gruntled said...

That is a good one, Rebecca. I think much of what the creative class comes up with does not threaten to disrupt the social order (especially new technologies). Therefore, I don't think authoritarians would have antipathy to the creative class in general.

On the other hand, the creative class is likely to be strongly at the nonauthoritarian pole, because they welcome change and innovation in general.

Percy G. said...

"In the United States today, though, right authoritarians vastly outnumber left authoritarians, and are much more consequential politically."

Really! Any unbiased polling or other evidence to support this statement?

Gruntled said...

Hetherington and Weiler consider the left vs. right authoritarian question, which has been researched for some decades, and reach this conclusion.

Sally said...

Rebecca I hope those knuckle dragging authoritarians don't attack me either. You know how they are!

awhazlett said...

I think it is wrong-headed and morally offensive to "psychologize" political and ideological differences. It is, at best, patronizing. But, the use of pejorative descriptions like "authoritarian" betrays Hetherington and Weiler's own motives and embedded prejudices.

To hold that opposing political views are tantamount to a psychological disorder is itself a hallmark of the authoritarian worldview.