Saturday, February 27, 2010

Coffeehouse and Pub

This is the fourth and final installment in my Centre Seminar series on Coffeehouses and public life.

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

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Authoritarianism and Nonauthoritarianism

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

Everyone needs some sense of order in society. And everyone can feel that the social order is threatened sometimes. What makes authoritarians stand out is that they think the social order is threatened nearly all the time. They then respond the way most people do when threatened:

  • Feel threatened by, and dislike, outgroups
  • Desire muscular responses to conflict
  • Be less politically well informed
  • Be less likely to change their ways of thinking when new information might change their deeply held beliefs.
Hetherington and Weiler present quite a bit of evidence, their own and from others, to back up these claims. Scholars have been developing the picture of authoritarians since at least the Second World War.

Hetherington and Weiler also present a portrait of nonauthoritarians, a subject that has been less studied. Nonauthoritarians are likely to:

  • See "fairness" as outgroup preference, especially for groups that have been historically discriminated against
  • Have an "accuracy motivation" that makes them seek out accurate and unbiased information, especially about contested issues
  • Have an aversion to ethnocentrism
  • Value personal autonomy over group conformity
Hetherington and Weiler step away from discussions of whether there is an "authoritarian personality" or its opposite personality type. Instead, they are trying to present both authoritarianism and nonauthoritarianism as different worldviews with political consequences.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Authoritarianism and Parties

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

Authoritarians tend to vote Republican these days. But this was not always so. Hetherington and Weiler show that the big partisan gap that we see now, as compared with, say, 40 years ago, is because the Republican strategists have been successful in getting authoritarians to become solid Republicans. They argue that the American electorate is not more authoritarian than it used to be. It is just better sorted into parties now that it was before.

The beginning of this big sort came in the wake of the civil rights legislation, which was led by Democrats but passed by bipartisan majorities. Republicans' suffered a crushing defeat in the Goldwater - Johnson election in 1964. At the same time the Democrats succeeded in shifting black voters to the Democratic Party. Republican leaders then adopted the "Southern strategy" to "go hunting where the ducks are" - that is, to get Southern whites who thought civil rights and integration would upend the social order, to switch to the Republican Party. This strategy worked so well that the GOP successfully recruited other groups who feared that the social order was in danger from the movement for equal rights for women, and today's movement for equal rights for homosexuals.

There are, of course, authoritarians and nonauthoritarians in both parties. But there has been a clear movement of most authoritarians into the Republican Party, which has been a key part of GOP success since 1980.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Authoritarianism: The Spectrum

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.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Beyond Rebuilding: Conclusion

For the last five Sundays I have been responding to the individual essays in Beyond Rebuilding: Shaping a Life Together. Today I want to say a brief overall assessment of this debate.

The core issue is whether the church should seek to build up the authority of its national leaders to lead the whole denomination, or whether it should break down any power accumulating in its national leaders to tell anyone what to do.

I say you can't have authority without power. When Jesus was praised as one who taught with authority, that was not just a personal compliment. His authority was the reason that he should be listened to and followed. When Jesus gave the keys to Peter, he was confirming that Peter had the authority to use the power that is necessary to run the church. The church serves the powerless, but it does not serve them by being powerless.

Every organization needs power to run. The more that power comes from the authority of its leaders, the better. Authority comes from other people recognizing and following. No recognition of authority, no following of leaders, no church.

The best organizations coordinate the authority of individual leaders into a group that works together, following a coherent vision, for the good of the whole organization. They seek to reproduce that coherent group of leaders for the good of the organization in the future. That is an Establishment.

I think it is clear that the church should seek an Establishment. Whether it will find one even then is still unknown. But I think it is clear that if we do not even seek an Establishment, if instead we undermine any possible Establishment, then we will have a weak church that continues to decline.