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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Authoritarianism and the American Political Divide

By Jonathan Weiler and Marc J. Hetherington
Authoritarianism is central both to understanding the nature of the contemporary political divide and why Republican issue appeals, which have been increasingly organized around authoritarian-inspired issues, have been so effective. A lately neglected concept in the social sciences that originally arose to explain the causes of mass attitudes in totalitarian societies after World War II, authoritarianism has gotten some attention in recent months, especially with John Dean’s bestselling new book, Conservatives Without Conscience. While Dean is concerned about the quarter of the public who are extreme authoritarians, the problem for Democrats is bigger. Republican efforts to raise people’s fears about terrorism, gay rights, and immigration make people who are not particularly authoritarian behave more like people who are. This is an important source of Republican electoral advantage. Authoritarianism embodies an entire world view that provides the connective tissue for a range of attitudes on issues that happen now to be at the center of the political fight.
Authoritarianism: A Primer
Authoritarianism has long been understood to encompass a set of personality traits strongly associated with aversion to difference and desire for conformity to prevailing social norms and proper authority. Though many scholars have linked authoritarianism to many attitudes and traits, a handful stand out: a general moral, political and social intolerance, an aversion to ambiguity and a related desire for clear and unambiguous authority.
The issues and policies that ought to engage authoritarianism are those that prompt thinking in terms of difference, like immigration and gay rights, and that engage authoritarians’ antipathy toward complexity and moral ambiguity — such as clear and simply stated solutions to vexing problems, like global terrorism. In more general terms, authoritarianism is a worldview, a set of connected beliefs animated by some fundamental, underlying value orientation that is, itself, connected to a visceral sense of right and wrong. When people say Republicans have better “moral values” than Democrats, they mean that Republicans reflect traditional, time-honored, simple, common-sense understandings of the world.
The original treatment of authoritarianism suggested it was a static personality type, but much recent work suggests that it waxes and wanes according to specific social contexts, especially levels of threat.1 When issues arrive on the agenda that engage authoritarianism, these issues will activate perceptions of threat and difference, making authoritarianism more central to shaping the terrain on which politics is contested even if, as has been true over the past decade, average levels of authoritarianism remain unchanged.
Importantly, issues likely to engage authoritarianism are among the most salient today. In 2004, gay marriage and the war on terror were particularly prominent. In 2005 and 2006, Republican elites served up constitutional amendments to ban flag burning and gay marriage, obstructed extension of the Voting Rights Act over multilingual ballots, pushed English as the nation’s official language, passed congressional resolutions resisting withdrawal from Iraq, and proposed a long security fence between the United States and Mexico in response to illegal immigration. All these issues tap, quite directly, fundamental concerns about the proper structure of the family and authority, the need to quell possible threats to social homogeneity, and the need to use whatever means necessary to protect a suddenly vulnerable-seeming nation. In short, all of these issues tap anxieties central to an authoritarian world view.
The study of authoritarianism received a boost when, in 1992, the National Election Study (NES) introduced its four item authoritarianism index. Specifically, it asked respondents to judge attractive attributes in children. Although at first blush the use of child-rearing values to measure authoritarianism may seem odd, child-rearing values reflect a fundamental understanding of how people view the world. Scholars have long argued for the political import of child-rearing preferences because bringing up children involves fundamental judgments about right and wrong.2
The NES begins its four-item battery with: “Although there are a number of qualities that people feel that children should have, every person thinks that some are more important than others. I am going to read you pairs of desirable qualities. Please tell me which one you think is more important for a child to have.” The pairs of attributes are independence versus respect for elders, obedience versus self-reliance, curiosity versus good manners, and being considerate versus being well behaved. Authoritarian choices are scored as 5 points, while non-authoritarian choices are scored as 1 point. Responses that indicate both are scored as 3 points. The authoritarianism measure is the sum of the four response scores, rescaled so that the measure ranges between 0 and 1. Those who value “respect for elders”, “obedience”, “good manners”, and being “well behaved” score at the maximum of the scale. Those who value “independence”, “self-reliance”, “curiosity”, and “being considerate” score at the minimum
The Effect of Authoritarianism on Contemporary American Politics
With gay rights, terrorism, war, and immigration topping the issue agenda, our theory connecting authoritarianism to party choice suggests that a huge increase in its effect ought to have occurred. Since the NES has only asked these questions since 1992, our time horizon is necessarily constrained to elections between this year and 2004. This time horizon proves useful.
The 1992 presidential election was about, most centrally, the economy. Issues like health care were also important. Although gays in the military received some attention, its importance was secondary to pocketbook and economic policy issues. Importantly for our analysis, pocketbook concerns do not engage authoritarians.
Since 1992, “moral values” and, after 9/11, terrorism — a new 800-pound gorilla — have become much more important. Unlike pocketbook issues, these new fixtures polarize authoritarians and non-authoritarians. For example, issues involving gay rights — including gay marriage and gay adoption — represent a clear challenge to existing social norms, something those especially concerned about maintaining social cohesion and a traditional social order might find particularly distressing. Though concerns about gay rights and worries over terrorism might seem unrelated at first blush, what connects these issues is the clear way they divide authoritarians from non-authoritarians.
A simple illustration tells the story. Consider the difference in support for gay adoption in 2004 between those who score at the low end of the authoritarianism scale and those who score at the top (the same divisions are true on all the gay rights issues). For pure non-authoritarians, fully 87 percent support gay adoption. For pure authoritarians, only 27 percent do, a whopping 60-percentage-point difference. In fact, authoritarianism has a larger effect on support for gay rights issues than does either partisanship or ideology.
Terrorism provides another, and more obviously grave, threat to established American traditions and authority. Since it has the potential to cause chaos and uncertainty — conditions that are particularly troubling to those who desire order and predictability — it is an issue of great concern to authoritarians, who favor a muscular response, while non-authoritarians are more inclined to negotiation and multilateralism. When given the choice to either engage in diplomacy or fight in the face of a foreign challenge, we find that authoritarians favor fighting, whereas non-authoritarians favor diplomacy.
One implication of this discussion is particularly noteworthy. The same type of person who is attracted by the Republicans’ position on “moral values” is also attracted to their position on terrorism. Both positions place a premium on order, strength, established norms and suspicion — if not outright hostility — toward those who are different. When Republicans talk about one, they might as well be talking about both. Reference to the social agenda and security issues tap into the same worldview, which is embodied by authoritarianism. The same can be said for flag burning and illegal immigration — two issues that trigger authoritarians’ aversion to social dissensus and potential unruliness.
The result of this state of affairs is what we call a worldview evolution, in which non-blacks with an authoritarian worldview are gravitating to the Republican Party and people with a non-authoritarian worldview are gravitating to the Democratic Party. To demonstrate this, we predict Americans’ partisanship from a number of their characteristics, using a statistical technique called regression analysis.3 We include authoritarianism, spending preferences, and a range of social characteristics as explanatory variables. In 1992, authoritarianism barely had an effect on partisanship. Other things being equal, authoritarians tended to score about 7 percentage points toward the Republican end of the seven-point partisanship scale. By 2004, however, that 7 percentage point difference between authoritarians and non-authoritarians had ballooned to more than 20 percentage points. Other things being equal, being a pure authoritarian rather than a pure anti-authoritarian translated into a move toward the Republican end of the partisanship scale that was equivalent to 7 percent of the distance between being a strong Democrat and being a strong Republican. By 2004, however, that rightward shift of 7 percentage points had ballooned to more than 20 points.
Authoritarianism’s effect in 2004 was also strong relative to other variables. Its effect was substantially smaller than that of income in 1992. By 2004, its effect was twice that of income. In 1992, its effect was less than one-fifth as strong as the effect of government spending preferences. By 2004, the effects were much closer. It is not that the traditional left-right dimension in American politics is unimportant. What has changed is how relevant authoritarianism has become.
Who are the Authoritarians?
Contrary to the overall story of political change, racial minorities — the most resolute Democrats — are more authoritarian than non-Hispanic whites. Identity politics, however, trumps parental philosophy among members of these groups. Authoritarianism has no effect on their partisanship. Although the relationship of race to authoritarianism is not politically important, the relationship between religion and authoritarianism, not surprisingly, is. Authoritarians tend to be religious. This is particularly true among those who adopt a literal interpretation of the Bible, who appear to have received a double dose of authoritarianism at birth.
Besides adopting a literal interpretation of the Bible, nothing is more predictive of authoritarianism than education. This squares nicely with the parties’ recent changing fortunes. Republicans have made their biggest gains among whites who have less than a four-year college degree. Among whites, stark differences in authoritarianism exist between the college and non-college educated.
Threat and Authoritarianism: Why Republicans Can Hardly Lose
Historically, authoritarians have been the most alienated individuals in the electorate with participation rates lower than most. In 1992, for example, the average level of authoritarianism among those who reported not voting was about 0.7 (remember, all scores are mapped onto a 0 to 1 interval, with 1 being most authoritarian). Among Republican voters, the average was about 0.6. And among Perot and Clinton supporters, it was 0.5. This likely explains the nature of subsequent Republican mobilization strategies. When Karl Rove talked about mobilizing the four million evangelicals who didn’t vote in 2000, he likely had in mind authoritarians. By 2004, even as the average level of authoritarianism in the entire population decreased a bit, Bush voters still registered about 0.6 on the authoritarianism index while the average non-voter clocked in at 0.63. Democratic voters, on the other hand, had an average authoritarianism score of 0.45 in 2004. In other words, appeals to authoritarian issues are mobilizing non-voters into the Republican camp, making non-voters and Republican voters nearly indistinguishable in their authoritarianism. This formerly disaffected group has found a political home.
One might wonder why such appeals do not alienate non-authoritarians. Part of the reason is the role that threat plays in the effect of authoritarianism. Most scholarship suggests that authoritarianism is activated by threat, which is true. But the time-honored understanding, which is based on lab experiments, suggests that threat only affects authoritarians, and this is wrong.
Figure 1 illustrates the effect of authoritarianism on support for gay adoption in 2004 at various levels of perceived threat. Any number of other political preferences work in basically the same fashion. Threat is measured using a question that asks whether “The newer lifestyles are contributing to the breakdown of our society.” The measure ranges from 1 to 5, with 1 indicating strong agreement and 5 indicating strong disagreement. We find that, when even non-authoritarians perceive substantial threat from gays and lesbians they behave like authoritarians. Specifically, when people perceive maximum threat from gays and lesbians (Threat = 1), then the predicted probability of supporting gay adoption is low (less than 25%) and constant across different levels of authoritarianism. At moderate levels of perceived threat (Threat = .5), those who score low on the authoritarianism scale might approve of gay adoption (predicted probability greater than 0.5), but those who are more authoritarian do not. When threat is eliminated entirely (Threat = 0), then those who score from the middle to the bottom on the authoritarianism scale support gay adoption. Lowering levels of perceived threat increases support for progressive goals, which in turn ought to affect Democratic fortunes.
In short, this figure is meant to illustrate the broader point that Republicans always benefit from increasing public fears, whether about gays, terrorism, illegal immigration, or anything that activates authoritarianism. It makes people who only have a little authoritarianism share the preferences of those who have a lot. The political implications of this fact for Republican fortunes are clear.
What is To Be Done?
Republicans have done a masterful job of cultivating cultural anxiety and resentment since the debacle of 1992 by making visceral appeals to people’s most basic fears and concerns. While they have, at times, tried to appeal to a broader middle as well (Bush attempted this in 2000), most often they have been determined to excite their base.
Duke’s legendary basketball coach, Mike Krzyzewski likes to tell his players that people remember 30% of what they hear, 50% of what they see and 100% of what they feel. Since Coach K stumped for Liddy Dole during her 2002 bid for the Senate in North Carolina, it’s unlikely that he’s going to be available for Democratic strategy sessions anytime soon. But, his insight is one that needs to be heeded. America has, at best, an ambivalent relationship to intellectually or rationally-based appeals. Its politics are going to be fought on an emotion-laden playing field and this is evermore true in a post-Cold War, post-9/11 world characterized by evermore rapid social change. Our analysis suggests that the Democratic Party’s tendency to worry about tweaking its issue positions is misplaced. Instead, Democrats need to respond to the emotion-laden appeals of the Republican Party. And, to repeat, at the heart of that set of appeals is authoritarianism.
Knowing what we do about authoritarianism, we suggest several ideas. Perceived threat is what makes those who score in the middle of the authoritarianism distribution act like authoritarians. Democrats benefit if they can make people feel less fear. Without holding the presidency, this will be hard to accomplish. But, candidates like Jim Webb might be able to argue credibly that the nation can only achieve its potential if its citizens stop living in fear.
If it is hard to decrease levels of perceived threat, then the Democrats have to become a credible alternative in responding to threat. During the height of the Cold War, authoritarianism was often not politically decisive for Republicans because both parties needed to confront the Soviet Union. This started to change during the Reagan presidency and accelerated after the end of the Cold War. National security and terrorism appeals work because the public does not believe Democrats will keep us as safe as Republicans will. One solution might be to argue that Republican efforts in Iraq have made us less safe. In addition, it is noteworthy that the administration recently gave up the hunt for Bin Laden. Finally, Republicans don’t spend money on homeland security in the places that are most threatened. In short, Democrats might argue that Republicans aren’t doing the things that would truly keep us safe. And, in fact, some Democratic candidates have begun to go on the offensive on national security matters. Our analysis specifies whose voting loyalties might be at stake in successfully doing so.
As far as moral issues are concerned, it is important to make the Republicans’ implicit appeals to authoritarian concerns about difference into explicit appeals. In her book about the 1988 presidential campaign, The Race Card, Tali Mendelberg showed that implicit racial appeals like the Willie Horton advertisement were effective. Had Republicans made explicit appeals to racial prejudice, however, they would have failed, because we live in an era where a norm of racial equality prevails and very few people want to see themselves as racists. In fact, once Jesse Jackson made the Republicans’ implicit appeals to racial resentment explicit, Mendelberg argued, the tide of the election began to turn, though by then it was too late.
We argue that a similar strategy is worthy of consideration here. We live in an era where, generally speaking, norms of tolerance and opposition to bigotry prevail. Evidence for this norm has been clear in President Bush’s speeches. After 9/11, for instance, tolerance of religious differences featured prominently in his rhetoric. On a more subtle note, a favored Bush phrase over the past two years, in chiding liberals on standards and educational reform, has been “the soft bigotry of low expectations.” It’s understood that tolerance is good, as a rule, and bigotry is bad.
Republicans have avoided being tagged with these negative labels because Democrats haven’t called them on it in any global way. When Republicans raise the issue of gay marriage, they raise it as a matter of defending the family and the social order. Perhaps Democrats could get traction by arguing that such appeals, at bottom, are rooted in bigotry and social divisiveness. The goal here would not be to paint with the brush of bigotry and intolerance every voter who opposes gay marriage. Rather, it would challenge as bigots those individuals who repeatedly make an issue of it. If Rick Santorum can call gay relationships the effective equivalent of bigamy and bestiality, then why not argue that Santorum’s real quarry isn’t defending marriage, but instead, fomenting hatred and intolerance more generally. Making explicit what has been allowed to remain implicit in the intolerance, fear and deep-seated pessimism under-girding the authoritarian worldview might change the terms of debate, forcing Republicans to either defend their positions on these issues in more explicit terms — “we do fear difference, and won’t stand for it” — or backing off.
Most Americans, we believe, may be ambivalent about some of the individual issues in question here — whether illegal immigration or gay marriage. The point is not to vilify them. Instead, it’s to call the Republican Party on its increasing and strategically-motivated single-minded appeals to the worst in our natures.

Jonathan Weiler is Director of undergraduate studies and a faculty member in the Curriculum in International Studies at UNC Chapel Hill. His book, Human Rights in Russia: A Darker Side of Reform, was published by Lynne Rienner Publishers in 2004. He is a regular contributor to the Gadflyer political blog.
Marc Hetherington is associate professor of political science at Vanderbilt University and is the author of Why Trust Matters: Declining Political Trust and the Demise of American Liberalism. In 2004 he received the Emerging Scholar Award from the Elections, Voting Behavior and Public Opinion section of the American Political Science Association.

1Feldman, Stanley and Karen Stenner. 1997. “Perceived Threat and Authoritarianism,” Political Psychology 18 (4): 741-770. Stenner, Karen. 2005. The Authoritarian Dynamic. Cambridge Press.
2George Lakoff, Moral Politics (University of Chicago Press, 1996); J. G. Martin, The Tolerant Personality (Detroit, 1964).
3Regression is a method that allows us to estimate the effect of a set of explanatory variables on a dependent variable while holding all other potential causes constant. This is a powerful tool, especially when our explanations for various phenomena are related. For example, we know that both party identification and ideology predict how people feel about George W. Bush. Regression can tell us the effect of each, independent of the other.

4 comments on “Authoritarianism and the American Political Divide

  1. Chris Glaze on

    vorkosigan1- Yeah, i realize that was a little out of left field. I certainly wasn’t trying to make a direct analytical point there. The rhetoric coming from Cheney et al. is part of this larger effort to characterize Democrats as soft. I’m suggesting that Dems make a proactive effort to cast an overarching “personality” that is consistent with our values and policies while conveying strength. George Lakoff and Maureen Dowd have described the Dem party as the “mommy” party, and if its true, its an awful dichotomy for Dems to have to live with as long as national security is a top issue (sexist or not).
    I’m saying, we can answer the strong, authoritarian personality with a strong, authoritative personality that has the benefit of wisdom. Just as authoritative parenting more effective than authoritarian, authorative leadership may also be more effective, both in substance and stytle.

  2. vorkosigan1 on

    I strongly agree with your basic point: the need to decouple “authoritarian” and “safe and secure”.
    Minor point: I think you may be confusing the effectiveness of the authoritative style in raising well-adjusted children with its effectiveness in persuading voters. I’m not aware of any data suggesting that one style is better than the other

  3. Alicia Siegel on

    Re: Authoritarianism and the American Political Divide
    Mssrs. Weiler’s and Hetherington’s analysis provides a clear, dispassionate explanation of authoritarian personalities. This is an important topic in our current political climate.
    I’d like to make a comment about responding to the Rick Santorums among us. I think that pointing out his bigotry may only shame any of my fellow listeners who support him. Embarassing people may prevent them from hearing my point of view. Instead, I’d (1)paraphrase one of his more outrageous remarks adding words like “consenting adults” when comparing gay relationships to bestiality. (2)I’d ask:”How does he know?” (3)I’d answer:”He doesn’t.He’s just baiting people because he’s a smart enough politician to know that people are afraid of the unfamiliar. He also knows that if we get a chance to think about it, there’s a possibility we’d realize that gay or straight, we’re all human. If he can’t scare us, then he’ll actually have to come up with some policies that help people instead of trying to scare us into voting for him.”
    If the person I’m speaking to is secretly homophobic, I hope they’ll take time to think about their feelings.
    Thank you for your time.
    A. Siegel

  4. Chris Glaze on

    So this is a great piece, put the prescription misses the point. Non-authoritarians vote like authoritarians when they perceive threat, because this mindset quells anxieties. But why? Maybe this link stems from other traits that covary with authoritarianism. People seek strength and stability when they feel threatened, and the basic task is to uncouple “authoritarian” and “safe and secure”.
    First, Democrats need to make an emotional case that authoritarian policies are reckless and risky, they have gambled with our future. Of course Republican strategy in Iraq has failed, but this message will carry more weight if it were, indeed, put in a much more emotional context, along the lines of “look—this is what happens under rash, arrogant leadership. we need to wise up”.
    Second, Democrats need to make forceful, consistent arguments for the value of diplomacy and prudence in GWOT. Just the fact of having these arguments could really help them combat the link between authoritarianism and safety. Democrats need to *show* voters they are strong, not just tell them.
    This all reminds me of research in psychology on parenting styles and moral reasoning in children. Overall, the data indicate that *authoritative* styles are much more effective than either authoritarian or indulgent. I think Jim Webb was just brilliant on MTP for precisely this trait. He came across as calm, intelligent and confident. More Webb, please.


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