Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Liberals, Conservatives, and Authoritarians

All right, so back to authoritarianism, what is it?  I have suggested in my own taxonomy that liberals prefer social breadth to social depth, conservative prefer depth to breadth, and authoritarians take a hostile or punitive attitude toward outsiders.  We have to be careful here, as Jonathan Haidt often warns, to avoid definitions that simply conflate conservative with authoritarian, definitions like, "People who score high on the authoritarian scale value conformity and order, protect social norms, and are wary of outsiders."

But Haidt does endorse the work of researcher Karen Stenner on the subject.  This overview of her work is interesting.  Critical to the theory of authoritarianism is the theory of activation:
In an influential 2005 book called The Authoritarian Dynamic, Stenner argued that many authoritarians might be latent — that they might not necessarily support authoritarian leaders or policies until their authoritarianism had been "activated." 
This activation could come from feeling threatened by social changes such as evolving social norms or increasing diversity, or any other change that they believe will profoundly alter the social order they want to protect. In response, previously more moderate individuals would come to support leaders and policies we might now call Trump-esque. 
Other researchers, like Hetherington, take a slightly different view. They believe that authoritarians aren't "activated" — they've always held their authoritarian preferences — but that they only come to express those preferences once they feel threatened by social change or some kind of threat from outsiders. 
But both schools of thought agree on the basic causality of authoritarianism. People do not support extreme policies and strongman leaders just out of an affirmative desire for authoritarianism, but rather as a response to experiencing certain kinds of threats.
The third insight came from Hetherington and American University professor Elizabeth Suhay, who found that when non-authoritarians feel sufficiently scared, they also start to behave, politically, like authoritarians. 
But Hetherington and Suhay found a distinction between physical threats such as terrorism, which could lead non-authoritarians to behave like authoritarians, and more abstract social threats, such as eroding social norms or demographic changes, which do not have that effect. 
 Okay, so let's give credit for an important insight here.  People do not desire authoritarianism as such, they turn to authoritarian leaders for protection from threats, i.e., what really underlies authoritarianism is fear.  But people are divided into two either/or categories, ones who are activated only by an actual physical threat, and ones who are activated by any sort of change.

But there is another way of seeing things, treating "activation" not as an either/or, but as a spectrum.  Anyone feeling threatened enough will respond in an authoritarian sort of way.  But different people have different threat thresholds.  And here is where I think the liberal/conservative distinction and the belief that conservatives are more prone to authoritarianism than liberals can be valid.  People who prefer depth to breadth have a lower threat threshold from outsiders than people who prefer breadth to depth.  In other words, people who value depth over breadth (conservatives) take less of a threat to "activate" into hostility toward outsiders (authoritarianism) than people who value breadth over depth (liberals).

Or, put differently, people who complain about conflating authoritarianism with conservatism are right.  There is nothing "anti-other" about conservatism, although it is indifferent and incurious toward outsiders.  But people who equate conservatism with authoritarianism have half a point there too.  The more conservative people are (i.e., the more they value depth over breadth), the less it takes for them to feel threatened by outsiders and be "activated" into authoritarianism.

Recall Robert Altemeyer's iteration of the Global Change Game (pp. 181-182) with a group of players who valued depth over breadth -- conservatives Haidt would say, authoritarian followers according to Altemeyer.  They worked well together in their arbitrarily assigned groups, never showing the slightest aggressiveness or belligerency toward outsiders, but also not showing any interest in cooperation or interaction with anyone but their own sub-group.  "There were no wars on this night, not even a hint of a threat. The basic high RWA attitude seemed to be, 'You don’t bother us, we won’t bother you.'"  In other words, people who value depth over breadth have no desire to infringe on others.  All is well (or at least peaceful) so long as they are surrounding by other people equally unwilling to infringe.  But all it takes is a few belligerent types who want to infringe on others, and suddenly the others have little choice but to become hostile toward outsiders as a matter of self-defense.  (See Altemeyer's book, pages 32-34 and 183-186.  Especially interesting now is 183-186, describing how authoritarian leaders were good at making deals, but never learned to cooperate for the greater good.  Hm. . . ).

I should also add that an excessive emphasis on breadth over depth can lead to a pathologically low threshold of activation.  People who responded to terrorists flying planes into the World Trade Center by talking about loving one's enemies are enough to make anyone roll their eyes.  People who prefer breadth to depth are often uncommonly naive in not realizing that not everyone shares their priorities, that many if not most people in the world out there prefer depth to breadth and would rather just be left alone, and that a significant number are authoritarians and actively hostile to all outsiders.

And some people (not many, but some) are just inherently authoritarian, naturally hostile rather than indifferent to outsiders and eager to offend and intrude for the sake of offending and intruding.  (Or for personal gain).

Next, I will indulge in a bit of whimsy on how science fiction may be said to engage this issue.

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