This week I will be blogging on a very interesting new study, Marc Hetherington and Jonathan Weiler's Authoritarianism and Polarization in American Politics.
Hetherington and Weiler say that the underlying factor organizing American politics for the past generation has been a spectrum running from authoritarian to the somewhat colorless "nonauthoritarian." Authoritarians want order. They see the world in black-and-white terms, and want a muscular response to any threats to the social order.
Everyone sees the social order threatened some times. Pearl Harbor and 9/11 triggered a nearly universal sense in the United States that we were under attack and in real danger. People at the authoritarian pole see our social order as being under dangerous attack all the time. People at the nonauthoritarian pole, by contrast, see the world in more nuanced terms, and try to solve problems with negotiation instead of force whenever possible. They are more accepting of difference because they don't see it as threatening.
Partisan politics forces people toward the poles by forcing choices between one candidate, or party, and another. Political elites are more polarized that regular people are. The strategy of political elites is to push and pull the mass in the middle toward one pole or the other.
Social scientists have put much effort into studying authoritarians. An interesting innovation in Hetherington and Weiler's approach is that they focus on the nonauthoritarians. The authoritarians, they argue, are fearful all the time, no matter what happens in reality. What makes for change in politics comes when the middle mass of the spectrum is made more fearful, or more hopeful.
This analysis strikes me as very useful to centrist analysis. I will unfold their argument hereafter.