Monday, March 01, 2010

Is Authoritarianism a Helpful Idea?

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.”


randy said...

i geuss i've always thought of 'authoritarian/anti-authoritarian' in a more general, cultural context.

for instance, i've read that in ww2, german soldiers-wehrmact or waffen ss alike-were of very high quality overall; tough, brave, capable...BUT if the officers and nco's were all killed early in a skirmish, and if communication w/their chain of command was cut, the germans pretty much just hunkered down. they couldnt really function w/out orders.

yet the same was not true of low-ranking american soldiers in similar situations. they could and did act effectively w/out guidance from those In Charge.

one may surmise from the above that german society is(or was)Authoritarian in that it rewarded willingness to submit to heirarchical organization...and that american society was less authoritarian because it valued individual inititaive.

Gruntled said...

Yes, this is exactly the insight that led to the famous Authoritarian Personality study after the war. In fact, that may be where you read this anecdote. The idea that there is an authoritarian personality, and especially an anti-authoritarian personality, broke down in subsequent research. The predictions didn't pan out. Hetherington and Weiler are trying to resurrect the concept of authoritarianism, but framed in a more universal way that doesn't suffer from the problems that the personality construct did.

What you are suggesting, I think, is that there might be authoritarian cultures. Hetherington and Weiler do not quite test that hypothesis. I think this idea is worth pursuing.

Pat G. said...

"It clearly takes several rounds of talking about what Hetherington and Weiler mean by the term to begin to see what they are arguing."

If only we were intelligent enough!

Gruntled said...

If only I were a clear enough explainer.