Authoritarianism and Polarization in American Politics
Marc J. Hetherington, Jonathan D. Weiler
Cambridge University Press
Paperback, 234 pages, $23.16
Kindle edition 9.99
Considering our story up to now, we believe we have adduced powerful evidence for the increasingly central role that authoritarianism has come to play in structuring party competition, mass preferences and the relevant issue agenda of the past forty years.
Basic premise: Polarization in the electorate can be seen as a consequence of worldview, with more authoritarian voters favoring selected candidates perceived as being "tougher" or stricter, and with authoritarian and non-authoritarian voters having such different worldviews that passionate disagreement and polarization ensues even when political differences are small. It applies between parties (Bush v Kerry) and intraparty (H. Clinton v Obama.)
Authors: Marc J. Hetherington and Jonathan D. Weiler are academics, Hetherington in the Department of Political Science at Vanderbilt and Weiler in International Studies at University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Hetherington has previously authored Why Trust Matters: Declining Political Trust and the Demise of American Liberalism and co-authored Parties, Politics, and Public Policy In America. Weiler has authored Human Rights in Russia, and blogs at Weilerblog.
Readability/quality: This is an absorbing read, though it is best tackled chapter by chapter to absorb the numerous charts, tables and references. The authors have tried to make this accessible to the general audience while keeping a scholarly tone, and mostly succeeded. The thesis is heavily supported by empirical data, which makes it especially impressive.
Who should read it: political junkies; anyone interested in understanding why the 2008 Democratic primary aroused such passions (my favorite chapter in the book); anyone trying to predict how the oil spill crisis will play out politically; David Broder, Lanny Davis, and anyone else who really wants to understand what happened to bipartisanship.
Interview with the author (Jonathan D. Weiler – jweiler – will be available on line here for questions between 9 and 10 am ET):
Daily Kos: Your book is about authoritarianism, not so much in the persona of a particular candidate but rather in the worldview of the voting constituents. You also distinguish between authoritarianism and conservatism and note it can cut across parties in surprising ways, leading to significant polarization. Have you an easy definition of what you mean by authoritarianism?"
Jonathan D. Weiler: Most succinctly, we mean by authoritarianism a tendency to see the world in simple, clear, black and white terms in support of a social order that prefers sameness and uniformity over diversity and difference. It also tends to prefer the concreteness of military conflict over the subtleties of diplomacy. A tendency to disdain complexity and nuance and to evince intolerance of outgroups are typical (though, of course not universal) features of authoritarian-minded individuals.
The polarization we've argued is now under way is a product of the degree to which this particular worldview, once broadly distributed between the parties, has now increasingly found a home in one party, the Republican Party. And to emphasize, we also identify a non-authoritarian worldview, one characterized by a preference for thinking in shades of gray and privileging diversity and difference over sameness and uniformity. That worldview, likewise, was once more broadly distributed between the two parties and has increasingly gravitated toward one party, the Democrats.
To be clear, we don't argue that all authoritarians are Republicans and all non-authoritarians are Democrats. But the degree to which they've sorted themselves out between the parties, in response to historical events and the way the political parties have crafted their appeals to voters, makes this particular dimension - one's level of authoritarianism - a powerful explanation of people's political preferences.
Daily Kos: One of the more fascinating examples of authoritarianism leading to polarization was the 2008 presidential primary (you devote a full chapter to it in the book), with similar ideologies between the candidates but passionate differences between the supporters? Where’s the passion gone in 2010? How has this particular dynamic evolved?"
Weiler: I think the dissolution of passion in 2010 is a product of the dissolution of the dynamics that drove the intensity in 2008 - the desire to boot out the incumbent party from the White House after eight years, the presence of two very dynamic, impressive candidates, but also the fact that they displayed dramatically different styles, offering a contrast not in policy terms, (there was very little daylight between Obama's and Hillary's positions in 2008, save on health care and, of course, the recently-passed bill reflects Hillary's position more than Obama's) but in terms of how they framed issues, the words they used, the sensibilities they projected. My guess is that a fair number of those more authoritarian-minded Hillary voters would not have voted for Obama against McCain and that a larger number, who did, quickly came to have buyer's remorse, as they were unhappy with the status quo but were never comfortable with Obama for a variety of reasons.
Of course, Obama has also disappointed a lot of progressives - his too-cozy approach to the financial sector, his complete reversals on campaign pledges concerning national security/civil liberties issues (which he hasn't even tried to defend) and, more broadly, his failure to articulate a clear vision for how America, under his guidance, can be a better place from a progressive perspective (more inclusive, more fair, more just) than it was before he took office. All of this has surely sapped a lot of pro-Obama passion. But anti-Obama passion, certainly on the right, is driven, I believe, by some of the authoritarian dynamics as we describe them - most clearly evinced in the Tea Party movement, which has largely reduced criticism of Obama to its most elemental, simple, broad and visceral terms - that Obama represents an alien ideology and agenda that is destroying the traditional social order in America.
Daily Kos: Throughout the book, you use scholarly reference, but also frequently cite political reporting to illustrate examples of how worldview plays out. But reporters and journalists have their own narrative, which they use to contextualize their reporting. "Washington is broken," or "Obama is like [fill in past President]". Do you see the same dynamic in reporting as you see in the voting patterns of constituent groups?"
Weiler: What I find most notable about reporting from the perspective of authoritarianism's role in polarization is the degree to which he-said/she-said reporting really precludes American political journalism from providing any context for how extreme the base of one political party has become. Of course, I am going to sound like a rabid partisan myself when I say that, but so be it. If you think about the kinds of things Sarah Palin repeatedly said during the 2008 campaign - from drill, baby, drill, to "real Americans," to repeated overheated warnings about Obama and socialism, and then on to her post-campaign rhetoric, including death panels, etc, it's extraordinary really. This is not some fringe person, but a woman with a major political following who was the vice-presidential nominee of a major political party. And if you think about the heroes of the most vocal elements of the GOP today, the Tea Party (and yes, I regard them as a passionate faction of the GOP, not a meaningful alternative to either party), folks like Glenn Beck, who are trumpeting the most absurd, outlandish stuff imaginable, it's quite extraordinary that political journalism still acts as if the center of gravity of our political discourse can simply be calibrated in the same way as always. The Democrats say this, the Republicans say that, and the truth must be somewhere in the middle.
I heard Joe Scarborough, who passes for reasonable these days on the right, say the other day that he found Rand Paul too extreme in his views of the role of government in exactly the same way that he found Paul Krugman too extreme - one never wanting government involvement, the other always wanting it. This was, in a nutshell, what I'm talking about. Paul Krugman is, despite his emergence as a major liberal pundit, a completely conventional economist - not a Marxist or a socialist in any historically valid understanding of those terms - a believer in the way markets function that is in line with the (pro-capitalist) profession as a whole and a famous supporter of things like free trade. In a crisis, of the sort we're now in, yes, he prefers a Keynesian approach. But the idea that his view of the relationship between the government and the economy is the polar opposite of Rand Paul's is just absurd.
Political journalism has failed miserably in contextualizing the changing center of gravity in political discourse, including (though not limited to) its failure to apprehend the increasing authoritarianism of the GOP.
Daily Kos: Millennials are different than their elders. How do they fit in with your overall thesis? Will uncertain times push them to be more authoritarian in outlook?
Weiler: It's a good question. Though we don't come right out and say it (because we just don't know), we think that people's worldviews are a product, to some significant degree, of pretty deeply ingrained personality dimensions. That said, there has long been a discussion in the literature on authoritarianism that people's breadth of experience can change their outlooks.
As it relates to young people, it seems most likely to cut in two different directions. Having been exposed to diversity of varying kinds - ethnicity, inter-racial dating, sexuality – they are going to be much less likely to feel threatened by things in the social policy sphere than, say, their parents. So they are going to be unlikely to find the conservative position on issues like this particularly attractive in the future.
The effects of authoritarianism in the foreign policy world might be different. Crisis and uncertainty, we believe, push most people toward more authoritarian thinking. But, even so, that tends to be a temporary phenomenon. In the short run, elites might be able to take advantage of the role that 9/11 has played in this generation’s lives. But, absent another attack, this cohort’s opinions ought to snap back to usual.
A key point here is that we do not really think that different generations will possess significantly different levels of authoritarianism. But their preferences on issues might be "authoritarian", even among those who by disposition aren’t particularly authoritarian, if they feel a significant amount of threat from the world around them.
The underlying, more lasting dynamics associated with the rapid changes taking place in America may be more relevant in the long run to the political worldviews of the millennials. Of course, the fact that we will become a so-called majority/minority nation in the next thirty years or so, certainly has profound implications for the role that authoritarianism will play in our politics. But the key point here is that millennials will, on average, be less concerned about such changes than prior generations because they are less threatened by diversity, having grown up with more of it.
Daily Kos: Rand Paul, Sarah Palin and the tea party are newer phenomenon, but spark intense polarization. Would you comment on how they fit in to the authoritarian and polarization idea?
Weiler: I think Palin is pretty straight-forwardly everything we talk about when we describe an authoritarian worldview and I think we'll find, once we have the data, a very powerful relationship between authoritarians and tea party support. Paul is, perhaps, a bit more complicated, though I suspect that he will end up being a more conventionally right-wing politician appealing to the kinds of things that more authoritarian-minded folks care about. Take militarism. Yes, he's said he would not have voted for the war in Iraq. But he's also running TV ads emphasizing that national defense is the number one responsibility of government and highlighting how pro-military he is. His views on defense procurement are actually pretty good from a progressive perspective (at least according to one interview on his website), but I will be very surprised if he spends much time, if any, emphasizing that part of his program. What he will present to voters will be a pretty clear appeal to a traditional authority, in this case the constitution and a sovereign people under God, with a dog-whistle racial politics (like the flap over his views on the civil rights act), plus views on things like gay marriage that will appeal to social conservatives and authoritarian-minded voters.
Daily Kos: Does this oil spill and overall trend of difficult to solve problems bode well for the GOP in November in terms of driving voters to a more authoritarian worldview?
Marc, my co-author, has done very well-respected work on trust in government. I think the overall decline in trust toward government, and disdain for its performance will be what really hurts the Democrats in the Fall, as Marc has shown quite clearly that trust tracks with support for liberal policies and lack of it tracks with support for the GOP and its agenda.
Authoritarians tend to be, by nature, distrustful people. What we have found most interesting is what seems to underlie that distrust, cynicism, and anger about Obama’s government. Health care is not an issue that has very often had much to do with race. But people’s opposition to it became highly racialized during the health care debate. Images of Obama wearing a loin cloth with a bone through his nose were everywhere. Racial epithets were hurled at African-American members of Congress on the eve of the vote. What seems to be new about the distrust in government we are seeing, then, is a real racial animus at its core, which interacts with declining trust in a way that will create a potent vote against Democrats. This isn't to prognosticate the outcome of the 2010 mid-terms, but crisis, uncertainty and distrust certainly will push people in a more authoritarian direction, other things being equal.
Daily Kos: Thank you, Jonathan D. Weiler.