Authoritarianism is back in vogue. Not just the political system (that, too), but the world view and thinking pattern that best describes voters who yearn for a strong leader and make sure to get one.
The single most reliable predictor of voting for a populist candidate is not any of the usual suspects: race, gender, education, ideology or any combination thereof. It is scoring high on the authoritarianism scale.
Due to a combination of socialisation, personal inclinations, and circumstances (recession or a security threat) some people can be classified as authoritarians at some point of their lives. Depending on whom you read, authoritarian thinking pattern includes the following:
- Fondness for order and submissiveness to authority
- Conformity – Fear of difference and the powerful need to homogenise society – materialising in general aggressiveness directed against deviants, minorities, outgroups and scapegoats
- Victim blaming (or more precisely, aggression towards the weak and the underdog)
- Fear of outsiders (xenophobia)
- Admiration of strength
- Taking the viewpoint of the group – resulting in majoritarianism and the loss of one’s own perspective
- An acute feeling of structural helplessness – even when accompanied by loud belligerence on the surface
- Impatience with the rule of law and enabling the strongman (as a proxy to fight one’s own sense of helplessness)
- Conventionalism — a high degree of adherence to the traditions and social norms (another expression for the need for predictability and the reduction of uncertainty)
So why is it dangerous?
Rob Altemeyer (pdf to his latest book), one of the leading researcher of authoritarian thinking conducted an experiment that best exemplifies the dangers inherent in authoritarian thinking. (To read about the experiment in more detail, you may want to jump to page 30 of the book.)
Called the Global Change Game, they have set up a board game (the size of a basketball court) to simulate global political, military, and economic processes. Then they recruited dozens of participants – both from the high and the low end of the authoritarianism scale. They let both groups to play out world politics, deal with economic crises, environmental emergencies, diseases, and the nuclear warheads that existed at the time of the experiment (1994).
The group with low authoritarianism ended up in world peace and widespread international cooperation. They have regularly conferred to solve crises and no wars occured during the simulation. Cooperation ended in a positive-sum game and crises have been dealt with to provide the best outcome for everyone involved.
The high-authoritarianism group, on the other hand, managed to create a global nuclear holocaust. Not once, but twice. (After the first all-out nuclear war ended the simulation by eliminating Earth’s population, they were given another chance – but repeated the results anyway.) The very justification for authoritarians for this behaviour is the existence of other authoritarians – so the results couldn’t be any different.
The authoritarian version of the game was a zero-sum conflict – or even a negative one. The simulation quickly became highly militarised, with no countries choosing to disarm their nuclear weapons, some engaging in price wars, and with their leaders choosing to siphon off as much funds to their private accounts in Switzerland as possible.
Fear ends freedom
States build their legitimacy on delivering economic safety. Authoritarianism is the transmission mechanism that converts economic insecurity into unfreedom (an authoritarian regime or a dictatorship).
For a politician it would be foolish to aspire for economic prosperity, when it’s in the hands of all kinds of forces (and central planning of the economy only makes it worse). But he can always count on the legitimacy from security – even when the threats to our security have to be created manually. Security threats send voters rushing to the safety of a strongman – and they are easy to find, conjure up or create. And that is exactly what a populist politician does.
Now, it would be wonderful to just create a threat-free world and perpetual economic prosperity for these people so that their authoritarian, safety-hungry thinking pattern never re-emerges – but it is impossible. Not just because it is unfairly hard to fix the world for everyone, but because the logic of threat-seeking dictates that there will always be something to fret. The threat doesn’t even have to be real.
The authoritarian threat-fixation is a self-reinforcing downward spiral that ensures that there will never be safety enough to allow oneself to prosper. To aspire. To be free. This is the pervasive view of the hierarchy of needs. When we consider freedom to be a luxury, we will never get it back. Unfreedom doesn’t deliver neither safety nor prosperity.
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