Salon Radio: Jonathan Weiler on authoritarianism in American politics

What role does the authoritarian mindset play in shaping America's political character?

Published October 11, 2009 2:12PM (EDT)

Political scientists Jonathan Weiler and Marc Hetherington have an important new book examining the role of the authoritarian mentality in American politics.  Weiler, a Professor and Director of Undergraduate Studies at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, is my guest on Salon Radio today to discuss the arguments they make.

The book -- Authoritarianism and Polarization in American Politics -- examines newly available empirical evidence to contend that America's political culture is more stratified than ever before.  It makes the case that higher levels of authoritarian behavior -- such as all-consuming tribalistic loyalties and rage over group blasphemy (i.e., criticism of the group and its leaders from within or without) -- is the primary culprit, particularly (though not exclusively) among right-wing movements.  

As long-time readers here know, the role played by the authoritarian mindset in political events is a significant interest of mine.  Weiler and Hetherington's analysis builds on and, in many important respects, departs from the excellent books on the same topic by John Dean (which I wrote about here) and Canadian Psychology Professor Bob Altemeyer (which I wrote about many times, including here). What makes this book genuinely impressive is that it remains grounded at all times in hard empirical evidence while simultaneously advancing provocative arguments about America's political conflicts (including a certain-to-be-controversial chapter devoted to the role which authoritarianism played in the Clinton/Obama war). 

I really recommend this book and I think the discussion with Weiler illustrates why.  It is roughly 20 minutes in length and can be heard by clicking PLAY on the recorder below.  A transcript is here.

GG: My guest today on Salon Radio is Jonathan Weiler, who is the director of undergraduate studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he's also a professor of international and area studies, and he is the co-author of a recently released book entitled Authoritarianism and Polarization in American Politics. Jonathan, thanks very much for joining me today.

JW: Thanks for having me.

GG: I want to begin by asking you -- I think a lot of people have a vague sense of what they understand authoritarianism to mean, and there are certain correlations that you discuss that I think would be intuitively true for a lot of people, in particular that people with high authoritarianism, high degrees of authoritarianism tend to see the world in black and white, they have a greater need for order, that people with lower levels of authoritarianism are more comfortable with nuance and ambiguity, and can tolerate greater levels of disorder that high levels of authoritarianism correlate to clear dichotomies between in group and out group perspectives. Those are correlations or attributes -- what is the crux of the authoritarian view? What does it mean to you to describe someone or something as being authoritarian?

JW: I would say that as we were researching and writing this book, I think we increasingly came to think of authoritarianism, not in the kind of Freudian or psychopathological terms that one associates with the authoritarian personality a couple of decades ago. It's really more the cognitive style. So, the sorts of things you mentioned a moment ago, thinking of the world in black and white terms, preferring implicitly to complexity, preferring, we have some measures of need for cognition in the book that ask people whether they like to deal with complex problems or simple problems, whether they have opinions about lots of things or about few things, and authoritarians are overwhelmingly likely to prefer simple problems to complex problems, to have fewer opinions about things than nonauthoritarians, I think cognitively, in many ways, the level at which we think about authoritarianism.

GG: The root, of course, of authoritarianism is authority, and I think people tend to think about concepts when they hear the word authoritarianism that pertain a willingness to place one's faith in authority or power, to believe blindly or at least place one's faith in people in authority. Is that something that you think is an important part of the authoritarian mind, and if so, how does relate to those other attributes that you just described?

JW: You know, Glenn, it's an interesting question because we wrestled a lot with even using the term authoritarianism, and precisely for the reason you're asking about, which is that in some ways, a fealty to authority does not always describe authoritarianism, and one need only look now at authoritarians' reaction to the current president of the United States, which is to see him as wholly illegitimate. So, there are circumstances clearly under which an authoritarian feels very devoted to political leaders, and I think under those circumstances are more likely to, let's say, blindly follow a leader than nonauthoritarians would be. That nonauthoritarians are likely think skeptically more generally about things than authoritarians are. But I think that simply saying that authoritarians prefer authority oversimplifies what we're getting at. And this is why I say I think in some ways a cognitive style better describes what's at the core of authoritarianism than the relationship to authority.

GG: And I agree with that. I think that you can look at the converse of what you just described. That is, people on the right who are called authoritarians during the Bush era are obviously in open rebellion against the supreme actor of authority in our country, which is the president. At the same time people on the left, lots of liberals and progressives who pride themselves on being have low degrees of authoritarianism, having a fair amount of devotion or loyalty...

JW: That's right.

GG: that same individual. So, let me ask you this, then. There have been several books about trying to discuss the concept of authoritarianism in the context of American politics, and there's two in particular that I focused on, and that readers would therefore be familiar, and both of which you discuss. One is the book by John Dean called Conservatives without Conscience, that argues essentially that the conservative movement that he once joined has become unrecognizable because the authoritarian impulses have overridden any ideology or principle. And a more nuanced book I think, by Robert Altemeyer, who's a Canadian psychologist, that describes in a more empirical sense exactly what the authoritarian mind is, and actually John Dean draw on a lot of that work.

But what is -- you have some varying degrees of divergence from each of those, I think more so with Dean. But talk about what your differences are with those two books and what your book tries, the gaps it tries to fill.

JW: I'll start with the last question, which is, I think what we're trying to do is explain changes over time in American politics to say how they're affected by authoritarianism, and we're trying to do that at the mass level. Jean Dean really focuses mainly on elites in Conservatives without Conscience. He talks a lot about people like Dick Cheney and of course president Bush. His focus is on the opinion-makers, and we have a very particular view about that, which is that since we have a particular way of measuring authoritarianism, we can't say with certainty -- we have our hunches -- about whether, say, Bush or Cheney themselves would score high on authoritarianism. What we know, is that they have promoted and advocated for certain kinds of issues which are going to attract people who are authoritarian. What we're interested in is how public opinion has changed over time in relation to this divide between authoritarians and nonauthoritarians, and then how that's affected the party system.

And with respect to Altemeyer -- his work I like a lot, actually -- particularly, though, I'd say, one is kind of a wonky social science issue, which is that we have different ways of measuring authoritarianism than Altemeyer does, which we could get into or not. But the other thing, I would say, is I don't think Altemeyer's work particularly explains change over time. From his perspective, there's this underlying population of authoritarians that have certain ways of thinking about the world -- they're dangerous for a variety of reasons -- but I don't think they get at how political systems evolve. That's what we're trying to explain.

GG: Alright. Let's talk about that, because I think there's a kind of eternal debate, or if not eternal, I guess you could say chronic or common, where people in whatever era they happen to be living in always think that the problems that they face contemporaneously are different than for worse than problems that have existed in the past. And I think there's a tendency for people to think that the political strife characterizing their own country is worse than it ever was before, that it's radically different and more intense, that there was a golden age when people came together, and that people are much more partisan and divided in a way that wasn't true before. And that's an oversimplification of what you think, but you do believe that there are unique to our political culture in terms of how people are sordid and how the strife that exists, that authoritarianism, can help explain and eliminate why that is.

Talk about that, in terms of why you think things are different now than they were in the past, and the role of authoritarianism as you've defined it, what role it plays in that.

JW: It's a good question. Actually, I know you've written some about this and you've mentioned Bob Somerby writing about this question of whether, for example, the true sense that Obama is doing now is any different than the treatment that Bill Clinton was subject to 15 years ago. I guess I would answer you in a couple of different ways. The first is to say that, on a social science level, there's no question that there's been a change in the relationship between one's level of authoritarianism and their party affiliation, between, say, 20 years ago and today. So, 20 years ago, whether you were authoritarian had very little predictive value in determining whether you're Democrat or Republican, and today it has very powerful predictive value.

GG: And before you go to the popular aspect, what is that predictive value?

JW: What is that predictive value?

GG: Right. What is the correlation between Republican and Democrat identity and the level of one's authoritarianism?

JW: I can't give you a exact number in front of me, but I can tell you that were the 1992 regression analyzes that we would do to predict party identification would be no statistically significant relationship between authoritarianism and party ID, and now authoritarianism is essentially a better predictor of political identification than almost any other measure you can think of.

GG: And how does that manifest? Is one more likely to be a Republican or Democrat with high levels of authoritarianism?

JW: If one scores high in authoritarianism, one is now much more likely to be a Republican, and if one is low in authoritarianism, one is much more likely to be a Democrat.

GG: Okay.

JW: I would say, just to back up for second, to the question you asked a moment ago -- we do think this is consequential for the reasons you mentioned. That there's a depth to the polarization and the partisan divide now that isn't nearly issue-based, although that requires some further explanation, but really gets to what we describe in the book a lot is the sort of gut-level worldview, a very basic difference in the way people see reality. So the fact that people are divided along this really core way of seeing the world, we do think has important consequences.

So, for example, 15 years ago, let's say, there was lots of ugliness in politics and the Gingrich revolution and all that sort of thing. I would say there was at least an attempt by Republicans to articulate for example a kind of clear policy agenda in terms of the Contract with America. And I would say that whatever the electoral calculus of that was, one could plausibly argue that that was a winning political strategy. And I'd say you'd be much harder pressed, given demographic changes that have taken place over time, to argue that that's a winning political strategy today. That kind of divide-and-conquer politics that Republicans pursued, and yet they continue to pursue it, and arguably even doggedly than they did 15 years ago.

And I think that speaks to the fact that part of what's happened in this process, is that the Republicans have now cultivated a base of authoritarians who expect then to take stances on particular kinds of issues like gay rights, illegal immigration, civil liberties, the war on terror, etc. They've recruited people to run for office who are increasingly like to buy those things. So this may have started a kind of electoral strategy from the elites. It's now a worldview that has really come to fuse that political party, and I think really constrains them politically and in some ways makes them -- I know I'm going to sound partisan here, but, whatever -- that I think really makes them in some ways even dug in and extreme than they've been in the past.

GG: One of the points that you make in the book that I thought was interesting, is that although high-level authoritarians and people with low levels of authoritarianism end up essentially on opposite side of the universe, seeing the world , perceiving the world differently, that it's actually possible to narrow the gap and even to bring them together to some degree. That the convergence can be diminished in times of threat, perceived threat, to both groups. Talk about what you mean by that, and how that manifests.

JW: Yes, there was something interesting we found, for example, after 9/11. Let me back up for a second and say, your initial question about what's at the core of authoritarianism. We do think that authoritarians and nonauthoritarians -- I think the traditional literatures say that authoritarians are more anxious people in general. And I think what we would say, although we don't have any hard evidence to substantiate this at this point, is to say that authoritarians and nonauthoritarians have different sorts of anxiety. But what I would say, for after 9/11, I mean...

GG: Let me just interrupt you, because that's interesting I think. Talk about that a little bit -- what kinds of fears are authoritarians more likely to have than what types of anxieties are nonauthoritarians more likely to have?

JW: I think that authoritarians are more likely to be fearful of difference, for example. Difference between people. I think they're more likely to be fearful of changes in social norms, destruction of traditional social norms. And surely physical security. I think those are the kinds of things that authoritarians are more likely to be motivated by. I think nonauthoritarians are in some ways more likely to be motivated by or fearful of what we might call, let's say, more abstract threats, whether it's global warming, flu pandemics, that sort of thing.

So I think there are different ways that they're motivated by fear, and I think those different sources of their fear yield themselves different kinds of politics and different kinds of desires for solutions to those fears. If you fear difference, your reaction to immigrants in the United States is going to be very different than if you fear global warming.

But to your prior question about 9/11, we do find that after 9/11 it turns out that there's quite a bit of convergence between nonauthoritarians and authoritarians on how to deal with threats, how to fight the war on terror, for example. And the convergence is in the direction of authoritarians, incidentally. But nonauthoritarians start to look a lot more like authoritarians in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 in terms of their desire for the government to act in certain ways, and their desire for a strong decisive hand in that sort of thing. But what changes is that authoritarians' level of fear about those kinds of things is really a kind of baseline; it doesn't every really recede. Whereas for many other people, that does recede over time, and then other priorities and other concerns become more prominent in their thinking again.

GG: Is the -- part of what I think about when I read your analysis of the ability to reduce the gap and authoritarians and nonauthoritarians using external threat is the ability of political leaders or movements to essentially manipulate consensus, and behind them using that threat, that external threat. And so, in terms of your analysis of the post 9/11 convergence between the groups, and isn't just in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, but for quite some time after that, really leading up to the Iraq War, and even into the Iraq War. It wasn't until that war started falling apart, was there really a return to the political divisions that existed prior to 9/11.

In terms of that, do you think it was the being able to get nonauthoritarians simply to take more seriously the threat of physical harm from terrorism, or was it also an increase in the other markers of authoritarianism, namely fear of others and fear of differences, and that sort of thing. In other words, was the transformation complete from nonauthoritarian into authoritarian or was it just merely the discrete fear that something bad would happen to you if you didn't give in to these policies?

JW: It's a good question, Glenn. I won't say that the transformation was complete, but I would say the spirit of your question is I think on target. It wasn't nearly, wow, it really turns out that terrorism is a serious problem and we need to deal with that. It was surely more than that. People who study brain science and know these issues much better than me could talk about activation of fear centers in the brain and all sorts of things that that might prompt in somebody when they answer questions on a political survey. But certainly it was more than merely fear of discrete threat. It's just, again, those fears do seem to recede over time among people who are in the less authoritarian category, whereas that seems to be a steady state among authoritarians.

GG: Right. Now, let me ask you this as my last question, and there's all sorts of literally thought-provoking topics in the book that I could spend a couple more hours asking about it, and many of them relate to things I write frequently, and so people who are readers of mine will I think find the book very thought-provoking, and there's lots of topics that are independent of those thing and offer a different perspective. So, let me just ask you this last question, with the proviso that there's lots of other topics worth talking about that you raise, and that is one that's probably likely to be controversial, which is, you say authoritarianism actually played a significant role even in the primary war that erupted within the Democratic Party in the first part of 2008 between Clinton and Obama supporters, and that, there was almost as much of a correlation between who one supported in that primary as there is in how political divisions sort, including between Republicans and Democrats. Talk about what you mean by that, and what role authoritarianism as you've defined it played in that contest.

JW: Well, I'm actually glad you're asking about them. In some ways, that primary fight was, there's no such thing as a perfect control in the social science, but it was a really nice way to test our beliefs about authoritarianism, because the issues dividing the two candidates were, let's face it, almost non-existent. We're talking about an entirely Democrat electorate, or mostly Democrat electorate, some independents also, and so partisanship is itself not really at play there. And yet we found an incredibly powerful relationship between authoritarianism and whether you voted for Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama. Specifically, the nonauthoritarians were very drawn to Obama, and authoritarians were very drawn to Hillary, especially after she started really playing up, directly or indirectly, her beer-drinking, white persona. And so, for example, there was a lot of narrative about white working-class voters preferring Hillary, and what we've shown in the book is that that really is not wrong, but it really misses the key part of the story. For example, if you were a white voter with a high school education or less voting in the Democratic Party primary in 2008, you were 20 points more likely to vote for Barack Obama than a college-educated white voter who was high in authoritarianism.

So, that's quite a stark difference that suggests to us that what's really at play even there is that people are making judgments based on very visceral feelings about the candidates. So, Obama conveys this very nuanced, erudite complex style -- in fact in the 2008 primary season, made a comment at one point about we don't do nuance very well, which is probably the first time in American history you have serious presidential candidate indirectly lauded the virtues of nuance. That, to us, is some very powerful evidence of the degree to which, and the deep level on which this way of looking at the world looks at politics and how it's affecting American politics specifically.

GG: Well, that is certainly a provocative and controversial topic to take on no matter what. The Democrat primary still inspires incredibly high levels of passion; I'm sure there's lots of people who would take exception to the idea that authoritarians would be more likely to be attracted to Clinton, I think some people would say, the Obama campaign itself sort of resembled this in group personality cult -- that's the opposite argument -- was more likely to attract people who would find that appealing. But you make empirical arguments, and I think thoughtful argument even in those instances where I wasn't fully convinced or didn't always agree, that makes you think, and I think the book is really worth reading for that reason.

The last point I wanted to make is, I think authoritarianism and these sorts of personality traits play such an underrated role in understanding our political culture, and so the more science there is, the more analysis and research there is into this topic, the better. So I really appreciate your taking the time to talk to me.

JW: Well, thanks. I appreciate you taking the time.

[Transcript courtesy of Thames Valley Transcribe]

By Glenn Greenwald

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