Authoritarianism and Polarization in American Politics
Marc Hetherington and Jonathan Weiler’s new book re-examines the recent course of American politics. They tell us about how authoritarian politics – especially on the right – have helped give rise to increasing polarization between Republicans and Democrats. This is an important contribution to debate among political scientists about polarization, but deserves a much wider readership. If they are right – and the differences between authoritarians and non-authoritarians are the key factor driving polarized politics – then many of the received wisdoms of the punditocracy are flat out wrong. Right wing columnists like Michael Gerson and Clive Crook, who deplore the increasing extremism of American politics and especially of the left, are missing out on the ways in which right wing politics are increasingly based around authoritarianism and intolerance.
First though, it is necessary to be clear about language. Authoritarianism, as political scientists define it, is different from the every day sense of the word. For Americanist political scientists, authoritarianism does not necessarily denote hostility to democracy. Instead, it refers to a syndrome of attitudes which emphasize traditional authority, depicts politics in black and white terms as a struggle between good and evil, and involves hostility towards groups (gays, immigrants) who are seen as disrupting the social order. Hetherington and Weiler argue that it is best measured by looking at how people think about family and child rearing. Those who emphasize discipline and obedience are likely to be authoritarians. Those who instead want to encourage their kids to be curious and self-reliant are likely to be non-authoritarian.And there are lots of authoritarians in America – there are more strong authoritarians than there are strong non-authoritarians. For Hetherington and Weiler, the story of American politics over the last several decades has been one of a political realignment around the differences between authoritarians and non-authoritarians. It used to be as best as we can tell (the opinion survey research that this book relies on doesn’t have good data before the early 1970s) that authoritarians were not especially associated with any one party. Indeed, the kinds of politics that emphasizes authoritarianism was submerged by the New Deal and debates around it. However, Nixon and his successors saw that it was possible to build a new political coalition, which would make Democratic-leaning authoritarians into reliable Republican voters. They did this by emphasizing race, law and order and ‘strength’ in foreign policy. The last few decades have seen this strategy work out. Authoritarian Democrats – especially in the South, but among white ethnic voters in the North too – became Reagan Republicans.
A second important element of their story involves external threats. Some political scientists have argued that authoritarians are likely to be most visibly different from the rest of the population in times of crisis, where they will over-emphasize the dangers posed by threats to social order, external enemies and so on. Hetherington and Weiler argue instead that it is just at these moments that lots of other people start to look like authoritarians. When non-authoritarians are traumatized by a shock such as September 11, they may become more authoritarian in outlook as long as the relevant threat seems politically salient. This is why authoritarian politicians (who are today mostly concentrated in the Republican party) do well in times of external threat – they get not only the regular authoritarian voters, but non-authoritarian voters, who have been primed by the crisis, too.
Hetherington and Weiler argue that there are still some authoritarians left in the Democratic party. They suggest that the battle between Obama and Clinton for the Democratic nomination is best interpreted in terms of authoritarianism, since the two candidates’ actual policies were nearly indistinguishable from each other. Obama was as non-authoritarian a political figure as you could imagine – he tried to appeal to voters using a complex message of healing and unity, and was culturally exotic. To attack him, Clinton started using the language of authoritarianism, depicting herself as strong, rooted in traditional American culture, able to swill beer and with roots in a hard-scrabble town.
This is an interesting and important set of arguments. I won’t focus on the political science elements – but I do want to push them on some questions.
First – how well does your framework explain the dynamics of the Presidential election after the primaries were over? In your postscript, you appear somewhat hesitant, and suggest that many authoritarian voters swallowed their values and voted their economic interests, supporting Obama because of the economic crisis. It may be that events since then (Obama’s loss of support among working class voters) can be explained by a return to authoritarianism, but it may also be that this is explained by the ways in which his economic policies emphasized the soundness of the financial system over visible job creation.
Second, and a follow-on to the first – how do the teabaggers fit into your story? On the one hand, they look like the most obviously authoritarian political movement we have seen in the US in the last few decades. On the other hand, they are mainly mobilized around the kinds of New Deal issues – bailouts, social policy, health care etc – that you see as having been replaced by the authoritarian divide. Do you need to update your definition of authoritarianism to include economic cleavages too? Or does it make sense, alternatively, to re-examine existing attitudes to social policy etc (as many political scientists do) in terms of attitudes towards race, which you see as linked to authoritarianism.
Third – How does this link to politics in the blogosphere? I suspect that you see right wing blogs as often involving strongly authoritarian politics and expressing authoritarian attitudes. How are they distinguished from the left? You take care to distinguish authoritarianism from the kinds of vigorous partisan rhetoric seen in blogs like this one, or dKos (which you mention in passing). You cite Glenn Greenwald as a source. It would be nice to see a more explicit analysis of why you think (as I believe you do) that the kinds of impassioned politics on the online left differ from those of the online right.
Fourth – when you say that events like 9/11 can prime non-authoritarians to become more authoritarian, do you mean to say that they become more authoritarian on only the issues related to the specific threat (e.g. terrorism and foreign policy in the case of 9/11), or authoritarian on a whole host of issues unconnected to that threat (e.g. gay rights etc). Obviously, these are pretty different effects. And if, to quote Michael Bérubé, there are a lot of people thinking everything changed for me on September 11. I used to consider myself a Democrat, but thanks to 9/11, I’m outraged by Chappaquiddick then temporary events may have very broad political consequences.
Fifth – and in defense of authoritarians – are they really as limited as you suggest. You argue that they may very literally be at an arrested stage of development, unable to get beyond parental notions of authority. But some of the evidence that you cite suggests that they can make reasonably subtle distinctions. For example, I was surprised to see that two thirds of authoritarians, despite a general animus towards gay people, support gay people being allowed to join the military. This argues, I think, for a more subtle account of authoritarianism than the one you suggest.