Psychologist Robert Altemeyer has done an excellent job with his on line book 'The Authoritarians'. He describes the key characteristics of followers (Right Wing Authoritarians) and leaders (Social Dominants). Briefly these people are unquestioning followers of strong leaders who believe in a hierarchical social structure. There is also a high degree of correlation between such people and a belief in conservative social policies.
We have observed that the strong leaders who have emerged in the past 40 years in the US and UK, for example, have tended to believe in an authoritarian model of government. This has also been coupled with strong tendencies for a corporate-government alliance on issues such as tax policy, social services and environmental regulation. In the US these groups have also become affiliated with the most socially conservative religious sects. Many see parallels between these developments and the rise of Fascism and the Nazis in the 20th Century.
I think there are two questions which follow from the many studies that have been done on why mass movements arise. First, why now? And second, what can be done to prevent the current trends from becoming a full-fledged disaster?
I'm going to try to answer both these as speculations.
What has happened in the US (and in many of its allies) is that the post WWII growth has slowed. Economic measures don't reflect this properly. For example measures of wealth which have shown a sharp rise in the US and UK during the past several decades are based upon the super wealthy having become even more so. But their wealth is mostly in areas where the inherent "value" is arbitrary - stocks and real estate. A house which now sells for $1 million is of no greater utility than it was ten years ago when it sold for $300,000. Similarly the rise in stock prices does not reflect a corresponding growth in the fundamentals of the firms. In many cases the price increases have been due to bidding up share prices by speculators, or monetizing assets by borrowing against them and using the funds for financial risk taking. The rise of hedge funds and other non-productive organizations contributes to this trend.
So while the paper wealth of the super rich has gone up and raised the aggregate figures as well, the average family is living pretty much the same life style as their parents did. There may be more material goods in their lives, but how they spend their time, and what their expectations are hasn't changed much. People expect to go to school, get a job, get married and raise a family. They expect to set up a household and have some time for leisure. A plasma TV is bigger than the 15" one their parents grew up with, but this is a superficial difference.
Then what has changed? Two things. The stability of social structures has diminished. People no longer expect to work in a stable job with a predictable career path and a secure retirement. They no longer feel assured that health care will be affordable or available. They no longer know what will happen to them when they get old and infirm - extended families don't provide support now that many women are out of the home as well. This has raised the level of insecurity and made people more amenable to adopting messages from ideologues who present simple explanations to the causes of such insecurity.
In addition to changes in the domestic society there has arisen increased competition from the newly emerging industrial powers. The first wave of fear was with the rise of the Japanese economy starting in the 1960's. The patterns that US businesses had pursued for a hundred years were thrown into doubt as big industries like steel started fail. More recently the rise of China and India has started to worry the industrialized west as they start to consume raw materials and take jobs away from high cost economies.
The economic model of the west is based upon a consumerist/capitalist model. Companies borrow money to operate, process raw materials and sell the resulting output. The profit from this endeavor is used to pay back the loans and to return something to the stockholders. The model depends upon a cheap (and continual) source of raw materials and a growing market. In order for earnings to increase it is necessary to expand markets. This can be done by moving into new regions as well as creating demand from those who already have been customers. The demand creation is now the domain of the well-understood advertising and propaganda industries. Those in the west are starting to see that this can't continue for much longer. There are the usual stories about declining raw materials, especially oil, as well as the impact on the environment. So once again stress is increased because of fears of threats to our standard of living.
When social structures are under stress it is easy for ideologues to capture the public imagination. Not only do they offer solutions that no one else suggests, but they also have scapegoats picked out who are the cause of the current problems. In Wiemar Germany it was the war reparations demanded by the French, the rising power of the labor movement, and the ideas of the socialists and communists. In the US, and parts of EU these days, immigrants are a good target. During times of plagues in the past "sinners" were to blame. This argument was even used recently to assign blame for the events of 9/11.
How can we curb the ideologues?
Altemeyer deals with this in the last chapter of his book. First he, rightly, dismisses all ideas that require changing human nature either en mass or individually. Then he offers some ideas that he feels have a greater probability of success. These can all be considered a variation of improved education. Having people stay in school longer, interact with people from other ethnic or socio-economic groups, work together with others on common projects and be subjected to information offered during civil protests are all ways to get followers to consider things they have avoided dealing with before.
While a child's home environment and peers have an important effect on how one's attitudes develop we also depend upon school to educate the next generation. That we all think this is effective can be seen by how strongly people hold ideas of what, and how, things should be taught. If education didn't have a profound result then the fights wouldn't be taken so seriously. In the most extreme cases (say the Amish or orthodox Jews) the communities isolate their young so that they aren't exposed to the ideas of society at large. What is the message that schools currently teach?
There are two inter-related messages. First, is the obedience to authority. The movements towards self-directed education favored by early educational philosophers like John Dewey are increasingly being replaced by regimented teaching. Even when children are permitted to engage in activities they chose themselves, the range is limited. One can chose band or drama, but not set up a Marxist debating society. Second, is the training of the next generation of consumers. Advertising pervades the schools, not just the explicit types such as team uniforms being paid for by soft drink makers, or marketing deals for vending machines, but the way children are conditioned to identify with brands from an early age. I've seen pre-schoolers wearing clothing covered with the logos of well-known brands. They can identify these products even before they have learned to read.
So our consumerist/capitalist society demands obedient consumers and these are exactly the type of people who can be most easily led by demagogues. This won't change until society decides to change its goals. We can do this voluntarily or we can have it forced upon us by external forces such as those caused by overpopulation and climate change.
Given that most people are not leaders, real progress will only happen if a new generation of people emerges who can convince people that we must scale back our consumerist life styles and substitute other measures of success in life. Those who continue to consume in excess will soon find themselves being shamed by the change in public attitudes, much like what has been happening with smokers over the past several decades.
I don't know if it can be done, but since we have seen many cases of destructive ideologues emerge it seems possible that those preaching altruism and self restraint might arise as well. Perhaps a Gandhi only happens once a generation, but this may be enough.