This is the last that I will be blogging on a very interesting new study, Marc Hetherington and Jonathan Weiler's Authoritarianism and Polarization in American Politics.
Some readers have objected that "authoritarianism" is simply liberal prejudice against conservatives dressed up in academic language. A reader offered that "it is wrong-headed and morally offensive to 'psychologize' political and ideological differences." It clearly takes several rounds of talking about what Hetherington and Weiler mean by the term to begin to see what they are arguing.
The core of H & W's definition of authoritarians are those who see the world in black-and-white terms, who fear that the social order is being disrupted, and who want a muscular response to restore order. I think that position may be fairly characterized as "authoritarian."
It also makes sense to me that people who are fearful will act the way we all do when afraid. That includes asserting your view of the world as a dangerous place so forcefully that you ignore, don't seek, and don't know inconvenient contrary facts. We don't do our best thinking when we are afraid. I don't think it is right to call fear-driven politics "authoritarian." It does, though, make sense to me that the fearful are more likely to see the world in black and white and want a muscular response.
So, IF people who think social order is in danger from evil forces and want to fight forcefully for good are "authoritarians," then we would expect that ALL people could be authoritarian sometime, but SOME people are authoritarian all the time.
Hetherington and Weiler report that when they surveyed Americans on whether there is a struggle between good and evil in the world, on a seven-point scale 30% took the extreme "yes" position, while only 12% took the extreme "no" position. When they separated the High Authoritarians from the Low Authoritarians, 40% of the former said yes to the max, while 25% of the latter said no to the extreme. Authoritarianism is not the only important factor in American politics, but I think Hetherington and Weiler have clearly demonstrated that it is an important factor.
The main point of their book is this:
“Political elites are polarized on the issues, but ordinary Americans are only better sorted, not polarized.”