the rise of American authoritarianism

More than two years ago Amanda Taub, a journalist and former human rights lawyer, published an amazing article that I somehow missed. Drawing on the work of several political scientists, Ms Taub explains why Donald Trump was elected, and why we can expect US voters to elect authoritarian figures similar him in the future. In other words, Trump is not a passing phenomenon.

Trump was able to succeed because of the rise of authoritarianism in the USA. Latent authoritarianism is not easy to measure, not least because surveyed respondents are seldom truthful, but in the early 1990s Stanley Feldman, a political scientist at Stony Brook University, “developed what has since become widely accepted as the definitive measurement of authoritarianism: four simple questions that appear to ask about parenting but are in fact designed to reveal how highly the respondent values hierarchy, order, and conformity over other values”.

1. Please tell me which one you think is more important for a child to have: independence or respect for elders?

2. Please tell me which one you think is more important for a child to have: obedience or self-reliance?

3. Please tell me which one you think is more important for a child to have: to be considerate or to be well-behaved?

4. Please tell me which one you think is more important for a child to have: curiosity or good manners?

These four factors correlate closely with the appeal of authoritarianism, and surveys over time reveal an increase in the number of people in the USA who value in children respect for elders, obedience, good behaviour and good manners over the alternatives of independence, self-reliance, empathy and curiosity.

[T]he rise of authoritarianism as a force within American politics means we may now have a de facto three-party system: the Democrats, the GOP establishment, and the GOP authoritarians.

And although the latter two groups are presently forced into an awkward coalition, the GOP establishment has demonstrated a complete inability to regain control over the renegade authoritarians, and the authoritarians are actively opposed to the establishment’s centrist goals and uninterested in its economic platform.

Over time, this will have significant political consequences for the Republican Party. It will become more difficult for Republican candidates to win the presidency because the candidates who can win the nomination by appealing to authoritarian primary voters will struggle to court mainstream voters in the general election. They will have less trouble with local and congressional elections, but that might just mean more legislative gridlock as the GOP caucus struggles to balance the demands of authoritarian and mainstream legislators. The authoritarian base will drag the party further to the right on social issues, and will simultaneously erode support for traditionally conservative economic policies.

Amanda Taub, “The rise of American authoritarianism“, Vox.com, 1 March 2016.

There is much more in her full article, which is quite long, not gated, and highly recommended. In lieu of a summary, here is the table of contents:

I.    What is American authoritarianism?
II.   The discovery
III.  How authoritarianism works
IV.  What can authoritarianism explain?
V.    The party of authoritarians
VI.   Trump, authoritarians, and fear
VII.  America’s changing social landscape
VIII. What authoritarians want
IX.    How authoritarians will change American politics

Ms Taub draws on the work of political scientists and other scholars, especially on these three books:

Karen Stenner, The Authoritarian Dynamic (Cambridge University Press, 2005). Stenner is an Australian political psychologist who, when this book was published, was a professor of politics at Princeton University.

Marc J. Hetherington and Jonathan D. Weiler, Authoritarianism and Polarization in American Politics (Cambridge University Press, 2009).

Hetherington is at Vanderbuilt University and Weiler is at the University of North Carolina (Chapel Hill).

Matthew MacWilliams The Rise of Trump: America’s Authoritarian Spring (Amherst College Press, 2016, open access).

Matthew MacWilliams, “The Rise of Trump: America’s Authoritarian Spring” (Amherst College Press, 2016)

MacWilliams is at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst.

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