This Week’s Mtg: Authoritarianism in American Politics (6/24/10)

I think this is a very important topic because it’s key to understanding modern politics and yet little-understood.  I know we’re trying to get away from long opening presentations.  But, as we agreed last meeting, they’re appropriate sometimes.  So, I’ll go 20 minutes, and then open it up.  Here’s an intro and some links.

Intro:  “Authoritarianism” isn’t used much in our political discourse.  People think the word is just an insult or that it merely refers to the tiny minority of people who “want to be ruled by a dictator.”   Or, that it’s just a code word for Conservatives, or evangelicals, or People-Who-Act-Angry-About-Politics.  It’s really not.

Authoritarianism is a psychological term for a person whose value system, world view, and cognitive make-up bias them towards a need for order and deference to existing authorities.  They tend to have a high degree of fear, intolerance, and self-righteousness.  Most Americans aren’t like this, of course, and those who are vary in how much they are.  Their numbers are not growing over time, either.

So, why discuss it?  For reasons I’ll get into, I think our political system has evolved to appeal to this personality type to a degree unprecedented in my lifetime.  I don’t think the last 10 years of politics — and especially the last two — can be understood without grasping authoritarianism and the key role it has come to play.  At the least, I think the topic is worth an evening of P&R’s time.

So, I’ll outline (1) what an authoritarian personality is and how authoritarianism relates to politics; and (2) how political developments of the last decade or so have brought this phenomenon to the fore. 


Authoritarianism –  I’ll be relying a lot on this scholarly book (author interview here).  Also, this more controversial book by (seriously) John Dean (video interview here, written excerpt here). 

For harsher and more partisan assessments, see here, and, especially (since these academics claim to have found that “authoritarian” = “conservative”) here.

Examples of It – Look, if we were in 1938 or 1968, we would be talking about Left-wing authoritarians.  They exist.  But, today authoritarianism is ascendant only on the Right:  Tea parties, Palin.  Rush/Beck/Fox.  If you are not familiar with their brand of politics, here’s a taste, from researchers that follow them for a living.

Update:   I want to be very clear here that I am NOT talking about the Christian Right.  In fact, read this short post please.  The Christian Right is weaker and smaller than it’s been in 25 years.  But, rising up in the last 2 years has been an older, just as authoritarian-based brand of right-wing thought, more reminiscent of the pre-1950s right wing.


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