Authoritarianism

In an essay entitled “three kinds of ‘Conservatism’”, Karen Stenner refers to “status quo” conservatism, Laissez-Faire conservatism, and authoritarianism as psychological tendencies in the form of enduring predispositions within individuals with regards to change, redistribution, and diversity — as distinct from their political “packaging”. In her analysis, these three forms of conservatism are significantly different in definition and consequence.

Considered separately, these predispositions relate to an inclination to favor stability and preservation of the status quo over social change ("status quo conservatism"); a persistent preference for a free market and limited government intervention in the economy ("laissez-faire conservatism"); and an enduring predisposition, in all matters political and social, to favor obedience and conformity (oneness and sameness) over freedom and difference.

Authoritarianism is most directly evident in child-rearing practices. When asked what qualities should be encouraged in children, authoritarians tend to prioritize obedience, good manners, and being well-behaved over things like independence, curiosity, and thinking for oneself. Authoritarianism tends to produce a characteristic array of stances all of which have the effect of glorifying, encouraging, and rewarding uniformity and disparaging, suppressing, and punishing difference. Because enhancing uniformity and minimizing diversity implicate others and require some control over their behavior, these stances ultimately involve actual coercion of others. Authoritarian predisposition to intolerance of difference brings together certain traits: obedience to authority, moral absolutism, intolerance, punitiveness toward dissidents and deviants, racial and ethnic prejudice, and these predispositions tend to become expressed in conditions of “normative threat,” which basically means a threat to the integrity of the moral order (as they perceive it). “It’s as though some people have a button on their foreheads, and when the button is pushed — when they perceive a certain kind of threat — they suddenly become intensely focused on defending their in-group, kicking out foreigners and non-conformists, and stamping out dissent within the group.” But as Stenner reminds us, “Authoritarianism is a natural variation in human "political character," largely heritable and relatively immutable, and, most importantly, pretty much immune to—and, in fact, more likely to be aggravated by—democratic experiences/socialization and the promotion of multiculturalism.

What is the relation between Authoritarianism and the resurgence of Nationalism? Nationalists feel a bond with their country. They think their country and its culture are unique and worth preserving — but not necessarily superior to others. As many defenders of patriotism have pointed out, you love your spouse because she or he is yours, not because you think your spouse is superior to all others. But according to Jonathan Haidt, “Globalization and rising prosperity have changed the values and behavior of the urban elite, leading them to talk and act in ways that unwittingly activate authoritarian tendencies in a subset of the nationalists.” One reason that Haidt proposes is in the relative importance of the five basic moral values: Care, Fairness, Loyalty, Authority, and Sanctity. In the graph below, the relative importance of these values is graphed against political orientation, with extremely liberal to the left, and extremely conservative to the right. The most important difference between the extremes is that care and fairness are far more important for liberals than are loyalty, authority, and sanctity. As one moves to the right (in the direction of conservatism) the former values stay high but decrease somewhat, whereas the latter values increase in strength, with all five values coming strongly into play in the conservative extreme. For Haidt, a significant failing of liberals is to dismiss those three social bonds and to demean and dismiss the very conservative, or to label them as “deplorables.” And as Stenner points out, “The most fundamental point is that a true democracy cannot just demean and dismiss a third of its citizens, and simply fail to take any account of (even allow the free expression of) their preferences.”