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What You Need to Know About Authoritarianism

Amanda Taub was looking at her iPhone at 3 a.m. early this year — she was feeding her baby and just trying to stay awake. That’s when she stumbled on something that could explain what’s going on in our country. Taub, then a reporter for Vox, had found research about authoritarianism — not about political leaders who exhibit those traits, but rather about what triggers people to support them.

Her resulting article — The Rise of American Authoritarianism — detailed how economic, social, demographic and political trends have created a powerful force that could persist well past Donald Trump’s coming presidency.

(Ralph Freso/Getty Images)

Taub, now at The New York Times, spoke to us last week. Here are some highlights from our conversation.

There’s a simple way to test for authoritarian support — and it’s not by asking political questions:

You ask people four questions about their parenting preferences and they’re questions like, “Which is more important, for a child to be obedient or self-reliant?” They sound pretty neutral.

Obedience and self-reliance are things I think most people would say are good things. It doesn’t feel like a trick or a trap. But really they’re designed to figure out how important it is to people that there is a hierarchy of authority and people following rules. You can see how that would be something that would show up in parenting preferences.

That support becomes much more active in the face of perceived threats — physical, economic and cultural. And there are a lot of them nowadays:

We’ve been seeing a number of quite rapid social changes that researchers believe are the kind of thing that would activate authoritarians.

For the last couple of decades, immigrant communities in the United States have been spreading out throughout the country. We had a black President. We have had a number of other changes, including the way that the country’s economy is changing.

Any one of these things wouldn’t necessarily have that much of an effect on its own, but together, they mean that the country is going through really profound shifts. They are shifts that have had particular impact on the less educated white voters. What researchers believe is that those voters, the authoritarians among them, are particularly likely to seek out authoritarian leaders right now because the circumstances have put them under stress.

What the research suggests is that if you have that world view, you are particularly uncomfortable with people who are different, with outsiders, with what researchers often call “out groups.” Authoritarians are much more likely to find that threatening. That is really a key thing to understand about a lot of the things we’ve seen during this election.

Why it all goes beyond Trump — and how money pouring into politics has contributed:

This wasn’t an effect of just one politician, one celebrity or something like that. There was a real demand for this from a large chunk of the American voting public. What that suggested to me is that there would be an opening for other politicians like Trump to embrace that style of politics. I definitely still believe that, particularly because one of the things that tends to keep politics on a fairly even keel and makes really unusual events unusual is institutions.

For politics, one of the most important ones are political parties. Right now, political parties in the United States are quite weak. This is partly due to the way campaign finance works. There’s more and more money that circumvents the parties.

One thing that journalists should take from all this is, don’t assume there’s “some sort of law of physics” that democratic countries will stay that way:

One of the reasons why I call so many academics is this has happened in other parts of the world and this has happened in parts of history and so there’s a lot of knowledge out there. One of the most important things for us to do is to draw on the existing knowledge about what is important in political moments like this, what causes this kind of political behavior, where it can go and really make use of that and bring it to the public’s attention.

We can’t just assume that it’s some sort of law of physics that once a country is a democracy, it will stay that way.

It’s not just about holding powerful people to account. That’s always important, but it’s also about making clear to people the stakes of this. I think that’s not just about the current administration. One of the things that this research has made very clear to me is that this is not just a story about politicians. This is a story about the country and what is going on with the public and voters that we need to pay attention to.

Want to know more? Taub sent us a helpful reading list:

  • Authoritarianism and Polarization in American Politics,” by Marc Hetherington and Jonathan Weiler: This book is long and quite dense, but it’s a worthwhile read if you want to understand how authoritarian personality traits interact with American party politics.
  • Authoritarianism, Threat, and Americans’ Support for the War on Terror,” by Marc Hetherington and Elisabeth Suhay: I think that this is the other piece of the puzzle — a research paper that suggests that everyone becomes more likely to support authoritarian policies if they’re sufficiently scared — the difference between authoritarians and non-authoritarians is how easy it is to scare them, and what they find frightening.
  • Changing Places: Mapping the white British response to ethnic change,” by Eric Kaufmann and Gareth Harris. This report is about the United Kingdom, not the U.S. But white responses to ethnic change are also a factor in U.S. politics today, and Kaufmann and Harris have written an interesting and informative case study on that subject.
  • Trump, Brexit, and the Rise of Populism: Economic Have-Nots and Cultural Backlash,” by Pippa Norris and Ron Inglehart: Norris and Inglehart’s careful research suggests that support for Trump, Brexit, and other anti-immigrant populist politics in Europe isn’t the result of economic marginalization. Rather, it’s a backlash to cultural and social change.

Listen to this podcast on iTunes, SoundCloud or Stitcher. For more, check out How Journalists Need to Begin Imagining the Unimaginable.

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