Tag Archives: 2020 election

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.

Do We Still Know Who We are?

We like to share the fiction that we are “a people,” but it is obviously a rhetorical covering for a far more varied collection of individuals.

A recent survey by Politico asked 35 “thinkers” to summarize what these last few years has taught them about our society.  What had they learned that they did not know? The most common response was about the deep social and political divisions within the nation. But I was especially struck by what Stanford Political Scientist Francis Fukuyama concluded at the end of his statement:

“At the end of Trump’s term, what I’ve learned is that I really don’t understand America well at all.”

Many of us can only add a sigh of acknowledgement that, indeed, the mental pictures we have of our collective selves is badly in need of revision.  The reasons are perhaps less about the mendacity of this hapless President than about the millions of supporters that thought he was on the right track.  Most of the rest of us continued to believe that we were moving away from America’s original sins of racial exploitation, nativism, and our perpetual devotion to paranoid and conspiratorial fantasies. These traits all have their own markers in the nation’s recent and distant past. And many of us hoped beyond reason that we were finally breaking free of them in the Obama years. But it is disheartening that these core features still can make our political life toxic. Our public rhetoric is now filled with statements that implicitly disenfranchise, devalue, or deny Americans that have a right to be acknowledged.  Note, for example, that Trump only wanted a Wisconsin vote recount in liberal Dane County and in Milwaukee, where many African Americans live.

 

Trump was at his most popular when he took an exclusionary approach to problems.

The President as the vessel for many of these conspiratorial and racist views polled weaker than what was actually tallied after the election. One explanation for this discrepancy is that there might be some shame in revealing support for a demagogue. Poll respondents may not want to “own” that kind of association to a questioner. Perhaps it is just my own fantasy, but there may be a level of embarrassment that comes with supporting a candidate intent on ripping up the social contract.

Trump was at his most popular when he took an exclusionary approach to problems.  By now you know the catechism of complaints: jobs taken by immigrants, crime festering in racially diverse cities, “socialism” fostered by our allies, and so on. These ideological dinosaurs can be embarrassing to publicly express. Indeed, the very idea of a full-throated defense of a position with evidence and good reasons has itself become an “elite” standard: a liberal ruse that people filled with more opinions than evidence won’t accept.

Fukuyama’s candid admission is also reminder that any nation-continent is not reducible to personalistic descriptors like “compassionate,” “fair-minded,” diligent,” or other terms that we might use to describe an individual.  We can’t easily use terms of character to describe a mass comprised of millions of people. The nation is too big and too diverse.  We like to share the fiction that we are “a people,” but the phrase is a rhetorical covering for a far more heterogeneous collection of individuals who are variously rich and poor, inner-directed rather than other-directed, honest and manipulative, educated and suspicious of educational institutions, thoughtful and willfully ignorant, generous and selfish. We are all of the above.

It would also be the same if we lumped the nations of the European Union together into a single political entity. As we now know, a plurality of the British will have none of it; their divorce from the EU is almost final. Even Italians have their own problems reconciling the common idea of “sophisticated” northerners sharing a state with more flamboyant citizens living in the south.

These days it  should not be a surprise that many Americans barely recognize the beliefs and attitudes of their compatriots. Our foundational documents are under greater scrutiny for their own biases;  we sense that there is less accepted common ground.  We are also used to mediating our world through digital devices rather than direct personal contact.  All of this makes it more likely that the attitudes of our neighbors may make them seem like strangers.