Plugging the Little Volcanos

The root cause of authoritarianism is fear for the tribe’s way of life — and, ultimately, for the tribe’s survival. When a real, exaggerated, or imagined threat is identified (usually by opportunistic leaders), the resulting anger and resentment compel authoritarians to lash out—and to rationalize their violence and cruelty as self-defense.

The logical point of intervention is at the beginning: reduce the fear, and you reduce the likelihood of reaction. But that isn’t easy. As Robert Altemeyer notes in his book On Authoritarianism, authoritarian leaders relentlessly stoke fear, peers reinforce it, and authoritarian followers are disinclined to seek dissenting opinions. Reasoned, nuanced arguments, no matter how gently advanced, are more likely to be seen as tests of faith than as invitations to join the real world.

Nonetheless, Altemeyer found empirical evidence that three strategies reduce authoritarian fear.

The first is to seek common ground through authoritarians’ deep-seated need to feel normal: “Studies show they will moderate their attitudes and beliefs just from finding out that they’re different from most people.” I think back to an example from my own life that I shared last year: the argument that universal health care increases liberty because it increases job options. This argument gives authoritarians a justification, consistent with their proclaimed values, for endorsing a cause they once bitterly opposed — right as resistance to Obamacare is fading across the country.

The second is for racial, ethnic, religious, and other minorities to remain visible. Altemeyer found that authoritarians who get to know a gay person (or find out they’ve known one for years) are less afraid of the so-called gay agenda often invoked to scare them. Who knew? Turns out that when it comes to authoritarians, familiarity breeds less contempt.

The third is to send authoritarians to college. Altemeyer discovered that four years of college reduce the dogmatism of highly authoritarian students by an average of 15–20%, and the reduction lasts years. (And you wondered why their leaders harbor such hostility toward higher ed.)

But these are one-by-one solutions that take time. We’ve got a problem right now, namely that roughly 40 percent of Americans are either highly or moderately disposed to authoritarianism, and over 70 million voted for an authoritarian leader in the last election.

There is only one solution to that immediate problem: out-vote them. Altemeyer one last time:

[Authoritarians] have the right to organize, they have the right to proselytize, they have the right to select and work for candidates they like, they have the right to vote, they have the right to make sure folks who agree with them also vote. . . . If the people who are not social dominators and right-wing authoritarians want to have those same rights in the future, they, you, had better do those same things too, now. You do have the right to remain silent, but you’ll do so at everyone’s peril.

So whatever you did in 2020 to win the election for Biden and the Democrats? Do even more in 2022 — and start earlier.

A golden oldie authoritarian appeal, Arlington, Virginia, October 2009. (Photo by Ken Mayer)

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For another perspective on authoritarianism and how to deal with it, check out this summary of a lifetime’s excellent work by former Princeton and Duke academic Karen Stenner.