In Defence of Liberty

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American Authoritarianism


Make captions great again. (Edited: Getty Images/Vox)

The incredible rise of Donald Trump within the Republicans has often confounded easy explanation.


Just look at the state of it. (Source: Real Clear Politics)

This is a quote from George H. W. Bush, then a Republican candidate in 1980:

Firstly, we’re creating a whole society of really honourable, decent, family-loving people that are in violation of the law. And secondly, we’re exacerbating relations with Mexico.

(Video: Newsy Politics)

In contrast, Donald Trump, the Republican candidate in 2015, said [1]:

When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you. They’re spending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems to us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people!

Authoritarianism and Polarization

The best known reasons as to why such a politician is now so popular with the GOP has its answers within a work on the relationship between child-rearing beliefs and politics. Professor Marc J. Hetherington and Dr Jonathan D. Weiler co-authored a book entitled Authoritarianism and Polarization in American Politics [2].


The authors recognise that the term authoritarianism is riddled with pejorative connotations, invoking dictators and one respondent “even identified Darth Vader”. What Professor Hetherington and Dr Weiler are intending to mean by authoritarianism is a belief in the primacy of order, social hierarchy and concreteness over other considerations.

The National Election Study introduced a four-item authoritarianism index in 1992, introducing the topic in this way:

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 provided in the survey are independence versus respect for elders, obedience versus self-reliance, curiosity versus good manners, and being considerate versus being well behaved. On the authoritarian scale, those who value “respect for elders”, “obedience”, “good manners”, and “being well behaved” score the maximum. Alternately, those who value “independence”, “self-reliance”, “curiosity”, and “being considerate” score at the minimum on this additive scale.

Each question is weighted the same, with each pro-authoritarian answer earning one point, and a non-authoritarian answer equal to zero. If offered, saying both means half a point. These points are then added together and divided by four to give a score between 0 and 1.

Based on the 2004 American National Election Study, the researchers found that Evangelical Protestants have an average authoritarian score of 0.709, compared to scores of 0.571 for Catholics, 0.530 for Mainline Protestants, 0.481 for secular citizens and 0.383 for Jews. There are notable differences in propensity for authoritarianism when broken down by schooling too: people who do not have a high school education score, on mean average, at 0.754 on the authoritarian scale, whereas college degree owners have an average score of 0.505, with citizens holding graduate degrees have a mean score of 0.373.

What Professor Hetherington and Dr Weiler found that is authoritarianism is a world-view that prefers simpler and snappier understanding, to the confusion and consideration of a complex world. Dealing with outside threats and remaining steadfast against social change underlies authoritarianism. As the authors write:

First, nonauthoritarians evince a dramatically higher need for cognition than authoritarians. This is evident in their greater desire to wrestle complex problems and the greater likelihood that they would have clear opinions about lots of things. The latter in particular could be understood to be a grating quality for many people. A valued part of the American ethos is the idea that people should “do one thing and do it right” and there has long been a particular antipathy toward intellectual know-it-alls.


It is getting close to the time where we stick crayons up our noses. (Source: Frinkiac)

Fear and Fervour

The book has several theses, including that the two parties have now become better sorted by authoritarianism: authoritarian have gravitated towards the Republicans, whereas non-authoritarians have sorted themselves into the Democrats. This sorting is not perfect: black Americans score highly in authoritarianism but remain — for a variety of historical and contemporary reasons — supporters of Democrats. It does explain why, on single issues, the differences between parties has widened: it is not the electorate has become more polarised, but better sorted.

The second thesis is that authoritarianism is a strong and consistent factor in determining support for particular political positions. For instance, when determining support for the public media keeping secrets to assist the fight against terrorism, authoritarianism is a more important factor than race, party identification, ideological self-placement and education.

The third major finding is that, when feeling exposed or worried to threats and changes, non-authoritarians converge on authoritarian beliefs. The researchers cut the support for wire-tapping without a warrant by both scores on the authoritarian scale and the levels of perceived threat from terrorism. Those groups who were “very worried” about being affected by a terrorist attack always supported warrant-less wire-tapping by at least 75%, regardless of how authoritarian they were.

This convergence explains much of politics, such as the typical wave of support for policies diminishing civil liberties in the wake of terrorist attacks. It is not that authoritarians have become massively more determined to back such policies: it is that non-authoritarians act like authoritarians when worried and fearful. This is also true for social changes. Support for gay couples adopting children is at its lowest among those are “threatened” by newer lifestyles, irrespective of where those people might fit on the authoritarian scale.

Similarly, the authoritarian scale — based on the child-rearing batch of questions — is an excellent indicator for backing Donald Trump as the Republican candidate [3]. This support is over 40% for all points of the authoritarian scale, when those people feel strongly threatened by foreign countries like Iran or terrorist groups like ISIS.


Follow the dark red bars. (Source: Vox)

The Republicans have become the normal home of authoritarians in the United States, through being the ‘law and order’ party over many years. Now, this caucus is large enough to determine the candidate. The authoritarians will not leave after Donald Trump bows out of this election.


[1] Walker, H., 2015. Donald Trump just released an epic statement raging against Mexican immigrants and ‘disease’. UK Business Insider. Available from: [Accessed: 27th March 2016]

[2] Hetherington, M. J., and Weiler, J. D., 2009. Authoritarianism and Polarization in American Politics. Cambridge. Available from: [Accessed: 27th March 2016]

[3] Taub, A., 2016. The rise of American authoritarianism. Vox. Available from: [Accessed: 27th March 2016]



This entry was posted on April 6, 2016 by in American Politics and tagged , , , , .
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