Cognitive Psychology

As the Pendulum Swings: Authoritarianism to Democracy

A few weeks ago when I was still in charge of my life and my urinary tract wasn’t, I was working on this post psysploring the the differences between liberal and conservative mindsets and the periodic shifts that we see in who controls the political system.

The Swings of the Pendulum: From Authoritarianism to Democracy

Way back on 3 March, I read the ever popular Heather Cox Richardson‘s Letters from an American newsletter in which she discusses her interview with Ol’ Handsome Joe. The interview itself is quite good and well worth watching. It started me to thinking about these issues and how we do tend to swing between these two poles. Let me summarize her here:

  • CONSERVATISM is built around defending private property and that is the domain of the Constitution. You know, the whole preventing King George from taxation without representation Tea Party and quartering the damned Red Coats in the domiciles of Americans and only land-owning white men should vote and all that stuff. Yeah. The Constitution is about private property.
  • LIBERALISM is built around equality before the law as articulated in the Declaration of Independence. The All Men [sic] are Created Equal and god-given rights and creating a more perfect union. You see how that works, right? Feel free to opine away in the comments.
  • CONSERVATIVES use a peculiar form of race-based fear mongering to bate the iNdEpEnDeNt white voter into voting conservative any time the liberals start actually creating a more perfect union or equality before the law starts getting to be too uppity. They use all those racist dog whistles and proxies for racism: costing tax dollars, redistributing wealth vis-a-vis socialism. If you give those CoC the vote they’ll want the same schools, roads, and hospitals that we give white folk and then where will we be? We’ll have Blacks and Browns using state sponsored amenities that they didn’t earn and deserve.
  • RESTRICTING THE FRANCHISE goes hand-in-hand with conservatism. If we let the wrong people vote, the wrong people will benefit from government services and handouts. You’re not ever going to convince the wrong people to vote for you if that’s your platform, so it is better to just suppress the vote.
  • DIVIDED WE FALL turns out to be the strategy preferred by conservatives to keep the nation’s wealth flowing disproportionately into the pockets of the wealthy and their political lackeys. And, the racist dog whistle is the best device for keeping white folks voting against their better interests.
  • THE WHEEL TURNS round to the extremes periodically and if we map them out, we’ll see how it matches up with some of the worst periods in American history:
    • The 1850’s led to the Civil War.
    • The 1890’s saw the boom and bust economies and Jim Crow.
    • The 1920’s gave way to the Great Depression.
    • Now we see the gap between the wealthiest at the top and the rest of us wider than it ever has been, racism in the ascendancy, and anti-democratic forces actively trying to supress and nullify the vote.
  • THE GOOD NEWS is that each one of those eras in which we were headed down the road to authoritarianism, we turned back towards democracy. The leaders who answered the call have become some of our biggest heroes: Lincoln and the Roosevelt boys. Now, we have Joe Biden standing tall in the saddle rallying the country and world to the side of democracy.

Conservatives, Cognitive Rigidity, and Interpersonal Coldness

We’ve explored the differences between conservatives and liberals pretty often here on Ye Olde Blogge. We’ve opined that at the extremes radical conservatives and liberals both tend towards authoritarian personalities believing that their views are the correct ones and everyone else should just shut up and do as they’re told. There is evidence to support that. And, Ye Olde Blogge has plenty of anecdotal evidence through direct experience with extreme leftist authoritarian personalities. Bernie Bros, anyone?

However, a recently published study by Jake Womick and Laura King suggested that there is much more asymmetry in the thinking and interpersonal styles of the conservative and liberal split. They tested over 800 voters during the 2020 primaries on four four cognitive thinking variable and two interpersonal variables:

  • Interpersonal variables: Participants were classified as either being interpersonally warm or cold.
    • Interpersonal warmth meant that scores were high on the empathy and compassionate side of the spectrum.
    • Interpersonal coldness, scores were low on the spectrum.
  • Cognitive style: Participants were classified as either being cognitively flexible or rigid based on these four variables.
    • Cognitive flexibility:
      • Open to new experience
      • Open mindedness
      • Low levels of dogmatic thinking
      • An ability to believe that there might be many correct answers or see gray areas
    • Cognitive rigidity:
      • Closed to new experiences
      • Close minded
      • Dogmatic thinking
      • A preference for single right answers.

You can see how this is going to play out, right? The further right you were on the political spectrum the more you were interpersonally cold and cognitively rigid, but the same wasn’t true for the left side of the spectrum. People who were extreme lefties remained interpersonally warm and cognitively flexible. I will note that this doesn’t preclude them from being authoritarians, but it makes authoritarianism much less appealing to them. It also doesn’t say that there weren’t conservatives who were interpersonally warm or cognitively flexible, just that it was rare and the same being true for liberals.

What is interesting is that for each of the measures, the ones measuring cognitive style ticked in the rigidity direction among Sanders supporters. Bernie Bros? We see you.

Conservatives Traits Cluster

It is clear that personality, cognitive, emotional, and behavioral traits tend to cluster. People who are introverted tend to be less open to new experiences, for example. It’s true y’all even though you are an introvert who loves exploring on your own. Looking at the things we know or are at least supported by actual empirical findings, it’s easy to see why people who have a lot of cognitive rigidity and interpersonal coldness would tend to be racists, misogynists, homophobes, and authoritarians, which other studies have demonstrated a correlation between conservatives and these illiberal beliefs . You can also see how they would correlate with the dark tetrad personality characteristics and a tendency towards conspiratorial thinking.

These findings fit nicely with other studies that report the “empathy fatigue” of rural, conservative, Christian, white voters who feel like every time they turn around liberals have found another undeserving group for them to feel sorry for while no one ever feels sorry for them. Trying to appeal to the empathetic side of these mo’fo’s is a hopeless task.

Now, you understand why you can’t reason with MAGA Nation. They just don’t. They got their one right answer and they are going to ride it to the Hurt Blacks First and Worst side of town. Now that Trump and the GQP have given them permission to be as openly racist, misogynist, and homophobic as they wanna be, by golly they are going to do it.

We are once again, though, left with the sad realization that American culture is built on a bedrock of racism that is slowly being excavated but hasn’t been removed completely. It is a sad truth that white voters are exceedingly vulnerable to the racist dog whistles that resonates with their racial animus and causes them to gravitate towards the GQP when voting.

But, when combined with Richardson’s observation of the swinging pendulum of widening wealth gap and increasing authoritarianism until people get a little freaked out over the prospect of losing our democracy and they rally around a leader that can pull us back from the ledge.

Our marching orders for 2022 is to beat that democracy is under attack at home and abroad drum as hard and loud as we can. We have to rally around Biden as the person who can rescue our democracy from the clutches of the authoritarian right. We have to drive home that if the GQP gets a majority in either the House or Senate, we will see no legislation pass, and they will continue undermining our democracy by abdicating their responsibility to govern. We will continue to see them pander to the base as they have with their state legislation attacking abortion, schools, healthcare, and voting rights and in the confirmation hearing of KBJ.

History and poly-sci studies have demonstrated that appeals to patriotism, democracy, and support for civil liberties actually work in the face of authoritarian power grabs.

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Image Attribution

Foucault’s Pendulum” by sylvar is marked with CC BY 2.0.

24 replies »

  1. Don’t Get Cocky has long been a watchword of mine.

    I’ll not argue any of this, we may not be on the same page but we’re all in the same book. I would, however, caution against overconfidence that the pendulum is on the swing back to “democracy.” I lived near Fresno in the sixties and ‘Muirkan Graffiti is not the way it was.

    All of which pales considerably in the face of a far greater organism ridding itself of lice …

    Liked by 1 person

    • Howdy Ten Bears!

      Agreed. Just because it’s worked out the previous four times doesn’t mean it is going to this time. However, it cannot get much closer to authoritarianism without actually arriving, so, knock on something resembling wood, we follow Joe Biden’s lead and pull beck from the edge, again. In some ways Putin has done us a huge favor by waging this grotesque war against Ukraine. It sharpens the boundary between us and them, which helps us all identify as American. It will help break the spell that the Trump and GQP has woven.

      I will note that it took the greatest organism on the face of the planet 40,000 years to rid itself of lice… most of the time.



      • Most of the time? Oregon schools no longer consider it a stay-home malady.

        If we don’t in the next seven or eight years start to turn around our disruption of the no longer potentially toxic gases we live in enveloping the only ball of rock we know of we can live on, if we survive at all it will be in controlled environments. Caves of Steel; perhaps orbiting platforms, moon-bases, or even Mars Bitches!

        Controlled, contained environments. No contact with the outside environment.

        By definition a controlled environment would be authoritarian.

        If we want to save “democracy” we’re gonna’ have to save the world. Start managing the population, moving people indoors, whither it’s under ground/ocean or in space, and that movement will have to be controlled. It may be we can do so authoritatively beneficial, a benevolent dictatorship. Maybe.

        I seriously doubt we’ll be voting on it …

        Alternatively: if we do make it off this ball of rock and survive, we will have turned ourselves out of the garden

        Liked by 1 person

        • Howdy Ten Bears!

          Perhaps the collapse of our climate will resemble Europe after the plague with the population decimated and the social order chaotic. Out of that chaos rose a more fluid social order, wages, and other significant changes. I don’t know that that means democracy dies, but it will be much more difficult to do because desperate fearful people are much more easily induced to turn towards authoritarianism.

          Any way you slice it, though. Our future, short, medium, and long-term, is bleak. We lived through the zenith of humankind. Lucky us.



  2. Conservatives also use fear to get votes from Independent Black Voters. There’s a LOT of conservative Blacks, many more of them than the MSM would have us believe. They may not be registered Republicans but they are out there.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Howdy Silver!

      It’s been long known that scared or worried people tend to make conservative decisions and that includes who to vote for. I’ve seen that same criticism of Republicans before that they should be working to appeal to conservative PoC’s because so many PoC have conservative social values. Unfortunately, the Republican message that seems to resonate best with Blacks is the very macho message with Black men. Hispanics, on the other hand, are very reachable given the conservative Catholic view of abortion and marriage equality.



  3. I think that the pendulum swings largely because of the non-extreme majority, both in political stance and those cognitive and personality measures. It is also possible that Mr. Putin is giving it a bit of a push (unintentionally) away from the authoritarian side with his resort to simple destruction and cruelty when his fantasy plan failed.

    Speaking of the Dark Tetrad, there is this:

    Liked by 1 person

    • Howdy Bob!

      Thank you for the article. It doesn’t surprise that the dark tetrad cluster would tend to reject #COVID-19 mitigation efforts. I keep coming back to the evolution theory that human beings domesticated themselves by ganging up on and killing overly aggressive men, kinda like chimpanzees have been known to do. It seems to me a similar injunction should be made against those with extreme dark tetrad tendencies, but that isn’t really a very acceptable response given our mores and norms. Still, it would help end the damage that they’ve caused us.

      I’m hoping that between Putin’s war and the ungodly and unabashed attacks on what most of us think are our basic rights — they were going after the criminalization of contraceptives in questioning Jackson, for example — will repel most of the suburban white vote. But, once again, we’ll have to wait and see and hold our breath for a very tense election cycle.


      Liked by 1 person

      • Zelenskyy has done a masterful job of framing the invasion and resistance as Democracy versus Authoritarianism, and brought Western leaders and voters with him. Putin is going to keep hammering away and helping keep us in that frame. That has a chance of making a difference in our election IF the Democrats are effective in framing the election in that frame. but not too blatantly.

        The Daily has this:

        Liked by 1 person

        • Howdy Bob!

          The concerning thing with the midterm election is the fickle short memory of the American electorate. Attention is already starting to wane with Putin’s war in the Ukraine. By the time the election roles around, no one will even remember it happened muchless make an issue of it in the election. Of course, it might be different if Putin uses a weapon of mass destruction, commits a large-scale atrocity (something more spectacular than what is happening in Mariupol), releases radiation from one of Ukraine’s nuclear sites, or invades Poland. There are a lot of ways that this can go wrong for Putin and influence the elections here, but if it turns into a grinding war of attrition that has us supplying Ukraine and Russia bombing besieged cities, it’s likely to fade into background noise by the summer.

          There are lots of things on the agenda that could keep the democracy vs authoritarian issues front and center, though. Clarence Thomas leaving SCOTUS and another justice being appointed. Jackson’s confirmation hearing won’t be enough to get people enthusiastic, but a second appointment’s hearing will come at the end of the summer assuming Thomas leaves sometime between now and the end of the current SCOTUS term. Another interesting wrinkle is Trump’s suit against Clinton and the DNC alleging conspiracy and defamation. If discovery starts in the fall, and it starts to play out in the press, then we could see a lot of ugly information about how Trump really did collude with Russia to steal the 2016 election. The 6 January Insurrection Commission holding public hearings and releasing their findings. That will make a big splash in the press. Apparently, everybody got drunk on the happy vibes of overturning the election and keeping Trump in office. The longer that shit dribbles out and the more spectacular the evidence, the better it is. And, then, there is the slew of social issues like abortion and trans-rights that Republicans feel safe legislating about in the states. That could easily get people to the polls.

          It’s going to be an interesting election. The Republicans are going to have to sling a lot of mud to diffuse some of this. Ashly’s diary and Hunter’s laptop are not going to cut it. They’ll have to get something bigger. Makes you wonder what it could be.


          Liked by 1 person

          • Well, if they can’t get something bigger that is at least half way real, they will just make something up that will sell to the MAGAs, but likely not the Soccer Moms. It’s a long way from March to November.

            Here is an interesting analysis of the variety of dog whistles in the GOP “questioning” of KBJ, and the agenda they reveal.

            Liked by 1 person

            • Howdy Bob!

              The other interesting thing about social media is all of the organizations and individuals who are making splashy videos about these issues. I don’t watch many of them since they are usually long on emotional manipulation and short on real information, but they all get thousands if not millions of views. If polling is to be believed, most people are not buying the Republican party line. Right now they should be up by five or more points in the generic congressional poll, but they’re up by two. For a wave election, if I’m not mistaken, which I very well could be, they should be up by ten.

              There are promising signs out there. The big unknown is the effectiveness of their voter suppression and nullification efforts. We won’t know that until the actual vote, though.


              Liked by 1 person

              • Well, in politics, almost anything can backfire, which is just one of the factors that makes prediction (on which so many people who could otherwise do something productive make their living by opining in the press and on TV) hazardous. I’ve now heard at least three analysis pieces on NPR about the dog whistle questions the GOP asked KBJ, focusing on the SCOTUS decisions asserting rights based on the right to privacy being implicit in the textual right to liberty, the precedents to Roe and to Gay Marriage. The GOP knows that if it gets the big win on abortion, it will need new targets for those single issue voters. And, pushing the Dominionist agenda one emotional issue at a time looks like how they will go.

                Liked by 1 person

                • Howdy Bob!

                  The nice thing about being a predicting punditing pundit on the TV is that no one keeps score of which of your predictions come true and which are just laughable. I think we should start a fantasy league of TV pundits on the Sunday shows and award points for which predictions do come true.

                  We will see them attack every liberal victory and policy back to Social Security. They mean to roll it all back consequences be damned. In the history of political overreach, this may be the greatest of all.


                  Liked by 1 person

                  • The tag line: “Are you ready for some Pundidball?”

                    For each and every right or program they want to roll back, they see a part of their base that will vote for that roll back. The catch is that for each of those micro constituencies, there is an equal or larger one who is horrified or terrified at the prospect.

                    Liked by 1 person

                    • Howdy Bob!

                      When your brand is divisive social issues, you’ve got to beat the drum pretty relentlessly. It’s amazing how the spurious variable that links all of the people attracted to their social issues is racism… or I guess you could say that it is conservatism since that is all that conservatism seems to amount to nowadays.


                      Liked by 1 person

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