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