The Authoritarian Personality of the Sanders Campaign and Supporters


This is part of a series of posts I’m making about the major psychology principle or theory behind each of the five major presidential candidates personalities, campaigns, and supporters. The candidates are the Ol’ Pussy Grabber, Handsome Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Pete Buttigieg. Hopefully, I’ll finish before any of them drop out of the race.

Full disclosure: I’ve always been ambivalent about Bernie Sanders as a Democratic candidate for president. I love many of his positions on the issues: Medicare for all, college tuition and debt forgiveness, avoiding needless wars. You know many of the progressive issues that are popular today that were pushed by Sanders in 2016.

The chief concern I have about his candidacy and potential presidency is his tendency towards authoritarianism. I’ve written about authoritarian personality before, so let’s recap using some old posts! That’s recycling, so it’s good for the environment, right? After all, climate change is a concern for us all.

The Authoritarian Personality

Way back in the 1950’s, Theodor Adorno wrote out a list of authoritarian characteristics. At the time psychologists were very concerned about Nazism and genocide and the Holocaust and stuff, so he was thinking a lot about the qualities that the authoritarian rulers of the 1930’s and 40’s had in common AND the qualities that their followers had as well. This second part is important, especially for understanding my reticence of Sanders enthusiasm.

I’ll list them here and makes some comments concerning Sanders and his followers, you know, for efficiency, which is good for the environment and climate change.

  • Aggression towards those who violate conventional thinking or who are different
  • A professed belief that all people are bad and will lie, cheat, and steal in the right circumstances
  • A love of strong leadership and displays of unbending power
  • Using simplistic solutions and polemics to address problems
  • Black and white thinking, an inability to see gray areas
  • Projecting feelings of rage, fear, and inadequacy onto a specific group
  • Being preoccupied with violence and sex
  • Willingness to submit to an authority
  • Conventional morality

Bernie Sanders, Authoritarian Personality

Dogma

What is the evidence that Sanders has an authoritarian personality or at least authoritarian leanings? We’ll start with his dogmatism. He is a fervent believer in democratic socialism. Don’t get me wrong. I like democratic socialism. We are a rich country and can afford to take care of every member of our society. But, dogmatism is different than that.

Dogmatism is the arrogant assertion of opinion as the only truth. There is no gray area. There is no room for compromise. Compromise, I’ll point out, is the very heart of democracy. To make democracy work, you have to provide space for the minority point-of-view and compromise with the opposition party to enact laws. The lack of willingness of the Repubes to compromise is exactly what is wrong with our democracy.

Sanders insistence of Medicare-for-All, for example, is the perfect example of his dogmatism. His dismissal of the approaches that others take, including Elizabeth Warren, suggests that has a high degree of intolerance for the views of others.

In 28 years in Congress (16 as a representative and 12 as a senator), he has been the primary sponsor of seven bills that have been passed:

  1. S. 885 (113th): A bill to designate the facility of the United States Postal Service located at 35 Park Street in Danville, Vermont, as the “Thaddeus Stevens Post Office”
  2. S. 2782 (113th): A bill to amend title 36, United States Code, to improve the Federal charter for the Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States, and for other …
  3. S. 893 (113th): Veterans’ Compensation Cost-of-Living Adjustment Act of 2013
  4. H.R. 5245 (109th): To designate the facility of the United States Postal Service located at 1 Marble Street in Fair Haven, Vermont, as the “Matthew Lyon Post Office Building”.
  5. H.J.Res. 129 (104th): Granting the consent of Congress to the Vermont-New Hampshire Interstate Public Water Supply Compact.
  6. H.R. 1353 (102nd): Entitled the “Taconic Mountains Protection Act of 1991”.
  7. H.J.Res. 132 (102nd): To designate March 4, 1991, as “Vermont Bicentennial Day”.

To be fair, only 4% of all bills introduced into Congress get passed, and most legislators co-sponsor bills. By comparison:

  • Sanders: 7 bills in 28 years
  • Warren: 7 bills in 7 years
  • Booker: 6 bills in 7 years
  • Harris: 4 bills in 4 years

It doesn’t look so good. Maybe Clinton’s recent criticism wasn’t that far off after all: No one liked him. No one would work with him. He got nothing done.

Dogmatism basically covers four of the nine criteria:

  • Aggression towards those who violate conventional thinking or who are different: That would be conventional democratic socialist thinking or whatever the Sanders supporters say it is.
  • A love of strong leadership and displays of unbending power: Sanders: One of the features of Sanders’ appeal is his dogmatic insistence that he is right, which is interpreted as strong leadership even though his legislative accomplishments say otherwise.
  • Using simplistic solutions and polemics to address problems:Sanders: Sanders tendency to reduce racial problems to class issues is troubling. And, the frequency with which his followers repeat his policy ideas without really understanding what they mean.
  • Black and white thinking, an inability to see gray areas: Again, repeating his policy ideas and insisting that these are the only solutions for those problems. And, his followers don’t tolerate any criticism of Sanders or his ideas.

With these four, Sanders and his followers are classic authoritarians. Essentially, we’re to accept that this is the best approach and solution without question. There is no room for discussion or debate, that’s key.

His Followers Authoritarian Tendencies

We’ve covered some of his followers authoritarian tendencies above, but there is more that pertains exclusively to them.

  • In 2016 a substantial number of his followers (1 in 10) voted for Trump instead of Clinton.
  • Only 53% of Sanders supporters said they’d vote blue no matter who. Every other major primary candidate supporters were over 85%
  • And 16% said they would not vote blue no matter who. They’d only be voting for Sanders or what? Sitting out the election? Voting third party, Tulsi the Jill Stein of 2020 Gabbard? Voting for Trump in a redux of 2016?

The Other Authoritarian Qualities

Sanders has been dogged by accusations and suspicions of sexism and racism. This isn’t helped by some of his followers and endorsers — Joe Rogan, anyone — being clearly racist, sexist, homophobic. Sanders early writing about women and sex. His very parochial remark to Warren about a woman not being able to win the presidency in 2020. His inability to understand race from anything other than a classist point-of-view.

He makes great statements about all these subjects and has great advisors and has supporters in each of these groups, but he’s awkward, slow, and a bit tone deaf on these issues. They’ll continue to dog him.

Being a woman and running afoul of the Bernie supporters online, from what I understand, can be a very sobering experience. According to Clinton in THAT documentary: It wasn’t just him, it was his major supporters, his online advocates. They were relentless, ruthless not just in attacking me but people who supported me. You need look no further than the snake emoji and accusations of being a liar or worse being flung at Warren.

If nothing else, you can conclude that he has some of the ugliest and worst behaved supporters.

These qualities, behaviors, beliefs seem to support the remaining characteristics of an authoritarian personality:

  • Projecting feelings of rage, fear, and inadequacy onto a specific group His followers are projecting onto Warren and other Dem rivals as well as onto conservatives and moderates.
  • Being preoccupied with violence and sex Sanders early essay on a woman’s rape fantasy, even though he’s disavowed it, still leaves me very disturbed. I know as we age, our thoughts and feelings toward sex and violence change, but it seems to be part of his following.
  • Willingness to submit to an authority I don’t have much evidence about Sanders, but his followers sure seem willing to submit to authority.
  • Conventional morality He seems old fashioned in his approach to race, women, and the LGBTQ+ community. He is awkward and seems very unaware of how he sounds when addressing these communities.

All-in-all authoritarian personality seems to fit Sanders and his followers. I’ve thought this for a long time. I can’t see a Sanders presidency really helping us out of our partisan morass. Sanders seems to think that when his policies begin working, moderates will come round to them. I don’t think it will work that way. It certainly didn’t work that way for Obama.

Image Attribution

The image of Bernie Sanders was found using a Creative Commons search. It was taken from Flikr. It was produced by Gage Skidmore. It is licensed as Attribution-ShareALike 2.0 Generic.

21 comments

  1. I’ve read ‘Snoop’ and use Gosling’s book in thinking about OCEAN, along with other books and papers on the subject of personality, which I’ve been studying for 50+ years. You’re right (about being right) and how fun that is, as well as how tricky to diagnose from a distance. Sanders’ “look” and behaviors could be just something that “works” for him, rather than a strike against conscientiousness. And as you point out, his “winning” has really been small potatoes. Now we’ll see because he’s made it to the big show. I’m hoping that he makes it–becomes the nominee. A Trump v. Sanders match would be earth shaking, yes?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Howdy Mark!
      The real strength of Sanders is his consistency and moral certainty of his positions. These will contrast starkly with Trump. Also, he won’t be as easy to bully and intimidate as some candidates might be.

      Sanders weakness is divisive, especially his followers, as we saw in 2016.

      Huzzah!
      Jack

      Like

    2. Howdy Mark!

      I teach psychology and when the curriculum allows, I teach a unit on personality based largely on Snoop. The assignment is to snoop the desk of a teacher and write up your findings. It is a fun unit. However, I found that Gosling’s book was very poorly written and difficult to derive a method from. It was disappointing because it is a fun Sherlock Holmesian personality test.

      Huzzah!
      Jack

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I agree about the book (I gave it two stars on Goodreads) – great idea/concept, poorly written. Observing how a person presents (with regard to their stuff and how they organize it) is quite telling.
        Where do you teach?
        I made a proposal to teach a class in personality (theory) to both Denver Free University and Front Range Community College – basically no interest. The response was quite revealing.
        Anyway – I’m enjoying your blog.
        Cheers,

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Howdy Mark!

        I teach in international schools — the kids of diplomats, corporate execs, NGO exec, or teacher kids. Currently, I’m teaching in southern China. Next year we’ll be in Cambodia. I’ve taught in Kenya, Vietnam, and South Korea over the past twenty odd years. Luckily, psychology has become quite popular.

        Huzzah!
        Jack

        Like

  2. yeah, Bernie is a piece of work for sure! But be careful to underestimate this old bird… I am from Vermont born and bred just want you to watch because he has been known to rise from the dead (so to speak )…. ( not that I am all that interested in the old coot, …) but he has a record for rebounding back from the political dead…. He is some one that Vermont needs. , but I think that becoming President would probably kill him ……He is still a bit behind and I suspect that his health is less than stellar. I think lt is time for him to retire.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Howdy Francese!

      There are things that I like about Sanders; I just don’t like his tendency towards authoritarianism. And, I especially don’t like his large proportion of toxic supporters. He’s riding along at the tops of the polls right now. He and Biden are the two best known candidates. The mere exposure effect means that people will take them more seriously and will believe that they are more capable. In these times of uncertainty and chaos, people look for what they think is a sure thing. He seems like it to them.

      I also don’t think his health is great. Biden’s is probably better.

      Huzzah!
      Jack

      Like

      1. I so agree. The old man should have retired to the farm a long time ago. But he is a narcissist just like Trump. Of-course, Trump is pure evil. I sure hope Bernie does not get the nomination. Good Lord, are we doomed?

        Liked by 1 person

  3. We already hear some of Bernie’s core base saying they will not support any other nominee and will vote (if they do) for someone other than the Democrat nominee if it is not Bernie. And, the agitation bots are clearly playing the “Let’s you and him fight.” game as they did in 2016, but not about Bernie v Trump. I’m pissed off at Hillary for playing into that, but she might be right. Bernie needs to get very, very clear and insistent in telling his base that he will work seriously and hard to elect whichever Democrat is nominate and that they had damned well better do the same and vote for that person.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Howdy Bob!

      You know, I’m a little embarrassed by my treatment of Bernie. In 2016, I assumed he would lose the nomination fight. I assumed he would go through the motions of campaigning for Clinton. He did campaign for her, but I never followed it very closely. Then in the intervening years, I assumed he wouldn’t run. I was sure he would make all the right noise about running right up until the time he absolutely had to declare and then he would chose not to. If he had had his heart attack a year earlier, I suppose he might have. I always thought he would chose not to because of his age.

      I guess he’s caught the I want to be president disease the only cure for which is death. He and Joe Biden. Another one I thought wouldn’t run because of his age. Anywho, because I was so sure that Sanders would just fade into retirement, I never looked into his personality or history very carefully. But, in the research for this article, I found him to be more hot air and bluster than actual accomplishment. He’s been in the legislature for 26 years and only had seven bills passed. That’s an astonishingly low number. He might have been entering Medicare for all every legislative session and other democratic socialist initiatives, but, still, that’s low. He wasn’t bringing any federal money to Vermont.

      Because he caucused with the Democrats but wasn’t part of the party, he couldn’t ever assume a leadership position in Congress. He could be the chair of a committee, but that would be as a courtesy from the Dems.

      What personality traits and type accounts for such a low level of accomplishment over that amount of time? He’s not very ambitious, yet now he’s making two serious and disruptive runs at the nomination. He has to have a high level of narcissism to sustain that amount of chutzpah. It was only “luck” that he became a thing in 2016. I suspect his 2016 run was a lot like Trump’s: intended mostly to raise his brand so he could sell some books and retire with some style and comfort. That the kids liked him was a total surprise to him.

      As I understand it, his organization or movement is not very well organized. He doesn’t have the greatest ground game in Iowa or other states from what I can gather. You know who does? Elizabeth Warren, which isn’t surprising in the least.

      He’s narcissistic and authoritarian. In terms of the OCEAN personality traits: he’s low on open to new ideas, low on concentiousness (he isn’t very aware of how his behavior affects other), extroverted, low on agreeableness (he doesn’t care about others getting along or group harmony or anything like that), and low on neuroticism (he is fairly stable emotionally and isn’t very anxious). All in all, I don’t think he’s a very good candidate and I don’t think he’ll be a very good president.

      But, he could very well be both.

      Fuck.

      Huzzah!
      Jack

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Oh, yes, he’s caught the bug and loves the applause. As President, he would have one Hell of a time actually getting anything done.

        I ran across this observation from George Bernard Shaw that is worth pondering in regard to both Conservative and Populist (especially Conservative-Populist), and radical politics generally:

        “Marx’s Kapital is not a treatise on socialism; it is a gerrymand against the bourgeoisie. It was supposed to be written for the working class, but the working man respects the bourgeoisie and wants to be a bourgeoisie. Marx never got a hold of him for a moment. It was the revolting sons of the bourgeoisie itself, like myself, that painted the flag red. The middle and upper classes are the revolutionary element in society. The proletariat is the conservative element.”

        I think on it in connection with both Trump voters and Bernie Bros.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Howdy Bob!

        There’s a reason why the fascist and communist parties all have youth brigades: they see things in black and white and have a lot of energy into enforcing what they believe in. There’s also a reason why most of the crime and other trouble in a society is caused by single young men: they’re single and got nothing better to do. The people with time and money on their hands are the children of middle and upper classes before they get married and start raising families. What happened to all the old revolutionaries of the 60’s? They eventually got married and started raising families and didn’t have the time or energy for revolution any more.

        I hadn’t ever put that together with Marx before. It’s a nice connection to make.

        It also suggests that Sanders may be a bit immature given that he’s still carrying his revolutionary zeal into his old age. I’ve read accusations of him not having a job until his mid-forties and living off of his wives. I don’t know the truth of any of that. Although, he wasn’t elected mayor of Burlington until he was in his forties.

        Huzzah!
        Jack

        Liked by 1 person

      3. And, Trump is described as a permanent adolescent who has lived of family money and unpaid debts.

        As for the old revolutionaries, some few of them did become professors and politicians (like a certain twice Governor of California) and shifted to the “change from within” position. But, yes, it is hard to stay an active revolutionary when you have a mortgage and kids who will need money for college. All of which reminds me of a song:

        Liked by 1 person

      4. I like the application of OCEAN. I agree with your assessment of Sanders save perhaps for C. I don’t have enough info on that trait regarding Bernie. Conscientiousness can be thought of also as ‘control’ – of others, things, as well as self. Too much can manifest in being a “control freak”, or inflexible and passive-aggressive.

        Liked by 1 person

      5. Howdy Mark!

        I’m so glad you’ve dropped in. I was far more focused on the interpretation of conscientiousness put forth by Sam Gosling in his book, Snoop: What Your Stuff Says About You. He has described it as being aware of how your behavior impacts those around you. In the end, it is very similar to your interpretation in that people who are chronically late (passive-aggressive) are uncaring about how their behavior affects those around them. In terms of your stuff a la Gosling, it manifests itself in neatness. Judging from Sanders’ unkempt appearance and brusque behavior, I concluded that he is probably low in conscientiousness.

        Trying to apply all these psychological principles and findings from afar has its challenges. It is difficult to do and fraught with errors, but (a) it’s fun and (b) there are great rewards for being right. Although, I’ve yet to reap any of those rewards when I’ve been right. Oh well.

        Huzzah!
        Jack

        Like

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