All Commentary
Monday, February 1, 2016

Beware Your Inner Authoritarian

The taste for authority is just beneath the surface

The authoritarian instinct lies within a lot of us. Friends. Neighbors. Maybe even you. We should never be surprised when a leader or would-be strongman taps into that instinct.

Authoritarian instinct? you might be thinking. That’s so twentieth century. That’s just in third-world countries. We’re far more enlightened than that.

But are we?

Those who wanted to chalk up Trump’s rise to stupidity or xenophobia seemed surprised recently when political scientist Matthew MacWilliams discussed his polling and research in Politico. MacWilliams writes:

I’ve found a single statistically significant variable predicts whether a voter supports Trump—and it’s not race, income or education levels: It’s authoritarianism.

That’s right, Trump’s electoral strength — and his staying power — have been buoyed, above all, by Americans with authoritarian inclinations. And because of the prevalence of authoritarians in the American electorate, among Democrats as well as Republicans, it’s very possible that Trump’s fan base will continue to grow.

He’s correct. But no one should be surprised. It’s not that Trump voters are poor, or uneducated, or somehow benighted by their circumstances. It’s that they are a natural bloc that is born into every single population to varying degrees.

And we’re not just talking about Republicans. The same is true for Democrats and Independents:

Not all authoritarians are Republicans by any means; in national surveys since 1992, many authoritarians have also self-identified as independents and Democrats. And in the 2008 Democratic primary, the political scientist Marc Hetherington found that authoritarianism mattered more than income, ideology, gender, age and education in predicting whether voters preferred Hillary Clinton over Barack Obama.

There are authoritarians in our midst. Maybe there always will be.

Got Hierarchy?

Consider the work of Aaron Wildavsky, which was later validated in studies by Dan Kahan and others, in the “cultural theory of risk.”

The heuristic suggests that people can be broken down into types that can predict their opinions on all manner of issues. The four basic types are Individualists, Hierarchists, Fatalists, and Egalitarians. And these can be better predictors of political dynamics even than party affiliation.

The term “hierarchist” more or less stands in for “authoritarian,” and it’s a significant driver of one’s orientation in the political landscape. Hierarchists want law and order, loyalty to country, and respect for the pecking order.

We can also imagine that each of these dimensions has both primary and secondary influences on a person’s outlook. A hierarchist-egalitarian might vote for Hillary Clinton, with her “ends justify the means” style. A hierarchist-individualist could take a shine to Ted Cruz, say. An individualist-fatalist might think that voting and politicians are a waste of time, and instead spend time working on cryptocurrency.

The “Wildavsky Heuristic” doesn’t tell us how malleable people are with respect to their orientation. In other words, most people aren’t reasoning machines waiting to write their conclusions on some blank slate. Indeed, I’d argue our dispositions are less malleable than we think.

The Haidt-ful Eight

More recently, Jonathan Haidt has conducted some innovative research into moral psychology, and become something of a star academic as a result. His book, The Righteous Mind, sets out a theory in which moral-political dispositions are likened to taste buds. In a certain sense, Haidt’s model of moral taste buds is more granular than Wildavsky’s. Consider his eight moral foundations:

  • Care/Harm – Concerned with the pain or distress of others, nurturing, mitigating pain.
  • Fairness – This moral taste bud can be broken into two:
    • A) Equity – Conception of fairness is viewed as whether resources or goods are distributed equality among the group.
    • B) Proportionality – Conception of fairness understood as proportionality; that is, rewards accrue to effort put in, and tracks to our notion of desert.
  • Loyalty – Concerned with solidarity with the ingroup or homeland.
  • Authority – Concerned with strong leadership and pecking order, “including deference to legitimate authority and respect for traditions.”
  • Sanctity/Purity – Concerned with purity and decontamination.
  • Liberty – Concerned with individual freedom; limiting bullies and oppressors in either:
    • A) Economic – Autonomy in the sphere of production and trade
    • B) Lifestyle – Autonomy in the sphere of personal activities, bodies

Extensive surveys show that not every political identity rests equally across these foundations. Libertarians, interestingly, are not quite like either the right or the left. On harm, fairness, and economics, they are closer to (but not quite like) conservatives. On purity, authority, loyalty, and lifestyle, they are closer to (but not quite like) liberals.

Now think about the above and imagine someone with two very big moral tastebuds: Loyalty and Authority. I’d put good money on any given such person being a Trump enthusiast. And yet, it’s not clear from Haidt’s research that self-identified liberals are as authoritarian as self-identified conservatives — which seems partly to contradict MacWilliams above.

In any case, social science might not yet have teased out any human propensity to “look the other way” if our values are being satisfied through authoritarian means, or if there is a latent authoritarian in more of us than we thought, even if we delude ourselves into thinking otherwise.

In any case, the implications of Haidt’s and Wildavsky’s moral psychology, though debatable, are interesting.

First, there’s a real possibility that these dispositions are as much evolved as learned. Haidt seems to think so. Thus, if we thought about these dispositions as levers whose maxima are determined by our genes — but that can move up or down by education and environment — we have to acknowledge that the forces of social change are determined to a great degree by forces set in motion in the Pleistocene Era.

The second big implication of this is that it would be difficult to find some privileged position — a God’s Eye view, if you will — to determine the rightness or wrongness of our political institutions. If your moral taste buds pick up others’ pain and poverty to the exclusion of other values, you might not be as likely to see the value of the Constitution as a way of constraining authoritarian power, much less enshrining the blessings of liberty. We’re mostly stuck with our moral tastebuds. And with apologies to 18th and 19th Century moral philosophers, there is no way to stand outside of them, or apart from them, to see the One True Morality in the light of Reason.

Interestingly, though, various forms of political liberalism or libertarianism have the best prospect of balancing our moral dispositions while allowing for peaceful pluralism. Political freedom becomes less about morality per se, and more a superstructure that allows more people to live among those who don’t necessarily share our moral tastebuds.

In other words, people and institutions that tolerate competing values and conceptions of the good end up decentralizing power, and allowing for smaller, more localized, more diverse moral communities to form. (Writers such as Aaron Ross Powell have pointed out this fundamental asymmetry between libertarianism and other moral communities, for example.) Seeing political liberalism as a latticework, as opposed to a sports team, splits the baby to some degree. But I digress.

A Taste for Authority

I am probably hopelessly biased in the conclusions I’m about to set out. But I dare say, we should all try turning down the inner howls of our political consciousness to consider these parting thoughts.

First, if you’re not an authoritarian, you should give strong consideration to the importance of checking political power of all kinds — even if those checks make it less likely that you’d have a socialist Utopia under President Sanders, or an upstanding, Christian nation under President Huckabee. Because if authoritarianism wins the day, the next guy will have the power to rip up all your gains and become your oppressor. That is why, for example, we should all be horrified by the unconstitutional use of executive authority. Don’t look the other way.

Now, if you are an authoritarian — maybe a nationalist concerned with loyalty and hierarchy — I realize I’m writing from behind different moral taste buds. But consider that we might have a lot of dispositions within us that make less sense in the context of modernity. Hierarchy, for example, emerged when powerful clans needed to act in unison under a single strategist in order to defeat enemies competing for territory and resources. Today, our competitors are also assets to us. We’re far more networked, and power is distributed.

Leaders in distributed and commercial systems emerge not so much from battle glory or seniority, but from good ideas, savoir faire, and a demonstrated ability to inspire people to good ends (none of which is what presidents are made of). Might our conversation be headed for a clash of moral tastebuds? I don’t know.

If you can accept that at least these issues are worth discussing, congratulations on reining in your inner authoritarian — for now, anyway.

  • Max Borders is author of The Social Singularity. He is also the founder and Executive Director of Social Evolution—a non-profit organization dedicated to liberating humanity through innovation. Max is also co-founder of the Voice & Exit event and former editor at the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE). Max is a futurist, a theorist, a published author and an entrepreneur.