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Our Brush with Authoritarianism

Americans need to become smarter about weighing the claims of leaders who are willing to trade accuracy for certainty.

German academic T. W. Adorno was the lead researcher of the first major analysis of social conditions that give rise to populations overly-enamored with authority figures.1 The researchers, some of whom had escaped from Europe at the start of World War II, traced the origins of a multitude of personality traits, including anti-Semitism, “susceptibility to antidemocratic propaganda,” ethnocentrism (judging others by one’s own values), and predispositions toward fascism. The rise of the Nazi Party and its wide acceptance even among well-educated Germans was the puzzle they wanted to solve.  Are certain kinds of citizens overly susceptible to appeals based on authority, especially “official” sources? Are some types of audiences too willing to ignore the natural ambiguities of everyday life in favor of the rigid ideological certainties of a demagogue (i.e., Hitler’s stereotypes of Jewish “failings”)? And what psychological needs are satisfied when total allegiance is given to such a leader?

One product of their work was a paper and pencil questionnaire called the F-Scale inventory probing for signs of “authoritarian submission” and “uncritical attitudes toward idealized moral authorities.” It consisted of claims, such as the ones listed below, to which a respondent would agree or disagree.

  • Obedience and respect for authority are the most important virtues children should learn.
  • Every person should have complete faith in some supernatural power whose decisions will be obeyed without question.
  • What this country needs most, more than laws and political programs, are a few courageous, tireless, devoted leaders in whom the people can put their faith.

Positive responses to these and similar statements were identified as likely authoritarians.

 

Authoritarian leaders typically overreach their formal powers, distrust the press, and incite citizens against alleged internal enemies.

The researchers found that anti-Semitism, rigidity, ethnocentrism, undue respect for power, and other traits tended to cluster within many of the same people. They theorized that the clustering was tied to styles of family life. They also learned that authoritarianism can be identified in segments of almost any population. Some people may be psychologically hardwired to seek a “place” in a clearly defined social order led by a dominating leader.  It also seems clear that many authoritarians–who can be followers or leaders–want to take ambiguities and uncertainties out of their lives.  They prefer simple answers to complex problems.  As with Adolph Hitler and many others since, authoritarian leaders typically overreach their formal powers, distrust the press, and incite citizens against alleged internal enemies.

The recently concluded political campaign is a reminder that many among us also want simple and magical answers to entrenched problems: all the better if the explanations include scapegoating others.  We have lived through a seemingly endless number of false alternate narratives told and retold about stolen elections, pedophile Washington elites, dead voters who managed to cast a ballot, and all the rest. Presently the political right simmers with many of these fears, as us evident from the compliant silence on wild fantasies expressed by Trump and some of his staff.  Four more years from this puffed-up leader might have been too much for our unexpectedly frail constitution.

Not all authoritarians are on the right. Any number of countries ruled by populist leaders can fall victim to the same patterns. Wherever they come from, they are the enemies of democracy and the values of an open society. As for us, Americans need to get smarter about weighing the claims of leaders who are willing to trade accuracy for certainty.

By the way, you probably noticed that the “F” in the F-Scale Inventory stands for fascism.

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1The Authoritarian Personality. New York: Harper and Row, 1950.

Help Them Turn if Off

We have good evidence from studies that show that heavy news consumption results in higher levels of generalized anxiety.  It the logical outcome of being fed the day’s most dismaying events in a cycle that never stops.

There has been a noticeable increase in mental health problems that have sprung up from the stresses of the long quarantine created by the Covid-19 virus.  It’s understandable that frontline workers, students and parents are facing challenges few would have anticipated less than a year ago. But it is also true that instances of depression have increased dramatically among the old, who would seem to have the means to ride out the effects of the pandemic with fewer daily challenges. In fact, it’s the lack of variety that has affected many seniors, especially those living in facilities which have converted their caution into long periods of virtual lockdowns.  At many senior facilities activities have been cancelled, meals are served only to individuals in their rooms, and chances to mingle with others–including family members–are non-existent or limited.

In the absence of these activities, many consume hours of cable television news: often channels that are easily found on their limited cable services.  This fact makes it important to repeat a central conclusion: heavy doses of cable news can be harmful to an individual’s sense of wellbeing. The world through a cable lens is one wracked with problems, crimes, horrible governmental actions or inactions, and the inevitable screw-ups that have occurred because of the virus. I’m told that many are also worried about the instability of the President.

The obvious antidote is to spend more time in the real rather than the mediated world. 

Seniors are natural consumers of news.  They grew up in an era when newspapers and the nightly newscasts from the three main television networks were on the daily docket. Nearly everyone read a paper and watched Walter Cronkite or David Brinkley. But news then did not sell itself as a 24/7 business. Now, by contrast, the “Breaking News” slides show up every hour as the cable networks compete for ratings against their rivals. Their formula always includes the premise that there is something new and usually shocking to report.  Watch these outlets long enough and all of us are capable of showing symptoms of PTSD.

The obvious antidote is to spend more time in the real rather than the mediated world.  Because national events are pressing in on all of us, it seems like common sense to acknowledge the challenges, but also to frequently step away from the endless news cycle to find alternative evidence of the good and hopeful that is happening around us. If you are regularly in contact with someone in some form of a lockdown, you can help them break out of the limited horizons of their television set.  Some suggestions:

  • Help them get a library card with e-book loan privilege’s.  They can make choices at home using their library’s website, usually keeping a book without cost for two weeks.
  • Give them an Mp3 player loaded with music they might like.  If in doubt, ask them what they would like to hear.
  • Point out the podcasts that are available on their laptop or computer.  In addition to these useful programs that have caught on with millions of listeners, their computer can also access a wealth of video content through YouTube. Give them suggestions of music or videos they would enjoy.  Also, old radio and tv shows of Jack Benny or Bob Hope can be fun. And there are many more.
  • Audible and some libraries provide recorded books. Amazon.com is not the only source, but it is a good place to start to look for materials.
  • Cable channels that carry current and classic films are available on most cable systems. The range of choices and benefits may be worth the modest monthly fee.
  • Ask a senior facility’s activities staff to help your senior set up cable or computer access, if needed. Some may have more time to help, since they are often restricted from organizing group activities.

In the end, the goal should be to help seniors get around the corrosive monoculture of television news.  There are times when we all want to tune in, but surely not all of the time.