Authoritarian Dynamic

The Zeitgeist of Our Time: The Authoritarian Dynamic

Explaining our political world, predicting what will happen next, and recommending how to make it better is the raisin of the eater, as the French don’t say, and, yes I’m relieved they don’t have language fatwas. In this week’s perusal of the Interwebs, the writings of Karen Stenner came sailing over the transom just in time for the 6 January Committee’s report release party!

It is at once gratifying and irritating to have found her. Gratifying because it confirms the conclusions and explanations that Ye Olde Blogge has been independently coming to since its inception. The use of psychological, theory, models, and findings really does explain and predict our politics. I was right, y’all! It is irritating because she published in 2005 and it took this part-time blogger and full-time citizen this long to find it! Damn!

Feel free to brag about how much sooner you found Stenner and her authoritarian dynamic in the comments. Every blogger enjoys humiliation, that’s why we blog instead of doing something useful with our time.

Here’s why I’m excited and spending this Festivus season reading and ignoring the fam: We’ll use the authoritarian dynamic model to explain the coup and the MAGA embrace of authoritarianism. It is the perfect analytical and prediction tool for our time. This post will summarize the model. Next, we’ll use it to explain why we’re so fucked, i.e. the reason the authoritarian threat is on going and not tied to Trump’s destiny, and, then, we’ll develop suggestions for how we get out of this mess. Sound good?

The Authoritarian Dynamic

Stenner developed a model to predict when authoritarianism would erupt in liberal democracies, called the authoritarian dynamic and published her findings in a book of the same name. She’s the real McCoy, too! A real rootin’-tootin’ behavioral economist! Please be aware that The Authoritarian Dynamic (2005) is the main reference and other references will be linked to.

The Authoritarians, What are They?

An authoritarian is an individual who is predisposed to be concerned with the appropriate balance between group authority and uniformity, on the one hand, and individual autonomy and diversity, on the other (p. 14). See if you recognize any of these characteristics:

  • They cannot easily accept or tolerate those that are not similar enough to them. They need uniformity in their groups.
  • They believe that there is only one correct belief. Other beliefs and ideas are corrupt and shouldn’t be allowed.
  • They think that the state has a vested interest in policing morality.

Authoritarians naturally prefer what she calls oneness and sameness; they desire obedience and conformity; they advance strong leaders and social homogeneity; and they reject freedom and diversity.

That’s pretty standard stuff when it comes to authoritarians. Intolerant, check; black-and-white rigid thinking, check; universal enforceable morality, check; obedience to authority, check; strong leaders, check; and hate us for our freedoms, check. What’s the big deal?

The big deal is that we confuse the outcome and the cause. We see racial and political intolerance and we think that’s authoritarianism, but it is not. It is the result of authoritarianism. It is the result of the focus on the hatred of the authoritarians in that particular time and place. In another time and place, authoritarians will focus their hatred on other issues and groups.

The focus of the hatred of authoritarians all depends on what is diverse at that time and place. It’s okay, though, authoritarians are equal opportunity oppressors, they adapt their hatreds and scapegoating to their circumstances.

There is one more important point about the average garden variety authoritarian, they have cognitive limitations, they cannot cope with complexity. They need things simplified.

A predisposition to authoritarianism does not an authoritarian make, though. There is another necessary ingredient before our Dr. Frankenstein can create his MAGA monster.

When does Authoritarianism Exert Itself?

As it turns out, authoritarians really are snowflakes. Who knew? Here’s the thing that Stenner has empirically established and fairly conclusively supported: authoritarianism is an interaction between the personality (predisposition to authoritarianism) and the situation (feeling the norms of the group the authoritarian identifies with threatened).

Stenner describes several ways that these folks can be triggered (it really is all projection, isn’t it? Thanks, Freud, but that is a blog post for another day):

  • The perception that groups are disobeying the government or that the government should not be obeyed;
  • When there is wide spread nonconformity to group norms or when there is widespread adherence to questionable norms; and
  • When group values and beliefs lack consensus or when there is widespread diversity and freedoms running amok in the land.

These conditions constitute normative threats, where “a normative threat is perceived as a promise of harm to the political body through defiance of basic principles of order and right that constitute one’s group.” Norms are the values, beliefs, and behaviors that define a group and help to demarcate the boundary between that group and others. Put in the context of today’s MAGA America, when the PoC get too uppity, the shooting starts. I think I got that quote right. Or in today’s Islamic Republic of Iran, women we can see the women’s hairs, the shooting starts.

Because authoritarians are obsessing over sameness and oneness, as Stenner puts it, they start getting antsy when society starts to change, which makes it easy to confuse with conservatism, but that is, literally, a topic for another blog post. In LBJ terms, poor whites can feel at one and the same as white billionaires as long as they can feel like their better the the best black man. When they feel like too many blacks are getting ahead and are getting uppity, they are willing to go all Confederacy on America… again.

Authoritarians want to BELONG to a group. Pick a group, any group, my friend. They feel better in a collective. As long as that collective’s norms and behaviors and stuff stay the same, they are happy and will support it. Understand that this can be Nazi Germany, Putin’s oligarchy in Russia, the Ayatollah’s theocracy in Iran, or our democratic US. It don’t matter to them. And, if they find a system that better suits their needs, they’re happy to jump ship.

The only thing that matters to them is that the group obey and conform to their worldview and that if folks won’t, the government is willing to stand on their necks until they do. When people start getting too far out of line, it gives rise to “personal coercion of and bias against different others” and “political demands for authoritative constraints on their behavior” (p. 17).

Because authoritarians can embrace massive social change, and blithely overthrow established authorities and institutions if these seem no longer to provide the normative order they crave… especially if someone charismatic is promising greater oneness and sameness just the other end of the “shining path”.

Karen Stenner Magazine: Essay – Authoritarianism


[L]iberal democracy has now exceeded many people’s capacity to tolerate it. Until we fix this central problem, nothing else works.

Karen Stenner, Magazine: Authoritarianism

The single thing that Ye Olde Blogge brings to the table is the ability to apply these psychological theories, models, and findings to our current situation, make some fairly accurate predictions, and recommendations for how we should be responding to make things better. To do that, ya gotsta understand the theories, models, and findings. The preferred modus operandi is the explainer, the application, the recommendation.

This is the explainer. Next comes the application, then the recommendation, but it should be clear how these ideas apply to our current authoritarian moment. MAGA is not that hard to understand once you see the authoritarian dynamic clearly.

I like to think these explainers are impo’tent, so please please please…

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Image Attribution

Teach children religion for a better community — religion means reverence – obedience – order, irreligion means chaos – crime – social collapse, parents, wake up! American Legion” by Boston Public Library is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

24 replies »

    • Howdy Ryinger!

      That is the most concerning thing out there, the number of guns in the population. It is shear madness. People make the mistake of thinking they’ll use their guns to fight the US military, they won’t. They won’t even use them to fight the local law enforcement. They’ll use them to attack those they’ve been scapegoating. It will be true terrorism. Like we’re seeing in parts of the country where people are attacking electrical substations.

      Unfortunately, for the authoritarian types, the bogeymen are real. The bogeyman is the scapegoated group.


      PS Thank you for writing a comment. It is much appreciated. It really makes my day to hear from readers. I hope to hear from you again in the not too distant future!

      Happy New Year!

      Liked by 1 person

        • Howdy Ryinger!

          The scary thing is that they’d gladly kill us, themselves, and everything else than “lose.” I’ve blogged about this before. If we beat back the authoritarian power grab, we then have to exist with MAGA as a functional country. How do we do that?


          Liked by 1 person

          • I call one of my son’s Jack in honor of my favorite cousin. The MAGAtts have always been with us they just aren’t usually as organised as they are now. Irritating but mostly harmless, the 80/20 rule still seems applicable. Authoritatians do well in isolation and followers are fickle but the leaders almost to a man do not play well with others and usually fall prey to their own insecurities. Like any dangerous animal, observe from sufficient distance and keep a gaurd up.

            Liked by 1 person

            • Howdy Ryinger!

              That’s a good observation. It seems to me that the authoritarian need for sameness and oneness makes them extremely vulnerable to groupthink, which leads to disastrous and immoral decisions, ultimately. Because of their willingness to violate the rights of others to enforce their worldview, they can be particularly dangerous when emboldened.

              The Internet has made it possible for all sorts of people with all sorts of interests to find each other. It once was that you might have a single conspiracy theorist in a family or small town, for example. They would bore people with their wild conjecture. Maybe they’d read a magazine that confirmed their views. Now, they have found each other on the Internet. Same with authoritarians, although numerically there are more.

              In the third installment of the series, coming soon, I note that authoritarians will switch allegiances quite easily. And, that that might be our best bet for surviving this authoritarian moment.


              Liked by 1 person

              • Bigger, better, faster the American way. When you know what enough is you have everything. One of my favorite things is the look on their faces when the Hershals jump the fence to “meet” their “soulmates” and find them hanging. 🙂

                Liked by 1 person

  1. I found these three points interesting.
    They cannot easily accept or tolerate those that are not similar enough to them. They need uniformity in their groups.
    They believe that there is only one correct belief. Other beliefs and ideas are corrupt and shouldn’t be allowed.
    They think that the state has a vested interest in policing morality.
    These are the same precepts found in every religion. In my younger years I was required to attend church, and pretty much every sermon contained these elements. So the correct and logical assumption is that authoritarianism is just another religion. Why am I not surprised?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Howdy Jimmy!

      That sounds a lot like my Southern Baptist relations, but not like many other religions that I’ve explored. Buddhist doctrine, for example, is all about tolerance and acceptance. That being said, religion was a way to control behavior, especially when things were particularly difficult, by promising rewards in the afterlife. It also was a way of creating an in-group and distinguishing it from out-groups, especially extended groups beyond one’s immediate community, so that the members all shared similar beliefs, values, and behaviors making their behaviors predictable. In other words, it served a social function, but also made it easier for authoritarians to be less authoritarian. As long as the group was homogeneous, all was good… Anywho, I’m posting that piece of the puzzle today. Let me know what you think.


      PS Thank you for writing a comment! It is much appreciated. Hearing from readers is one of the more gratifying parts of blogging.

      Have a Happy New Year! And drop back by again.


  2. Timely … I just put this up this morning

    This Isn’t New …

    “Idaho community college example of how far-right hollows out institutions”

    The religiously racist, misogynous, homophobic, old testament authoritarian, dominionistic no doubt Trump voting sure as hell looks, sounds and smells like it fake Jew bigot with half my education and half my experience but none-the-less in a position to get away with harassing and ultimately forcing me to quit the career I had worked fifteen years and invested tens of thousands of dollars in educational expenses to have … happened to me at a small college in Oregon.

    What I went through was a harbinger of what we’re all going through …


    • Howdy Ten Bears!

      Your descriptions of your experience leave me no doubt that it left some PTSD-like scars. Listening to PoC describe what it is like to “prepare” their children for the racism they will encounter or try and cope with the racism they do encounter, leads me to believe that racism produces PTSD.

      The goings on at that Idaho community college are authoritarianism in action. It is what we are all bound for if we don’t continue holding the democratic line and in the next election and mollify the authoritarian urge in our fellow citizens.



      • I don’t think I ever recovered from it, and it was as bad as any in my lifelong experience with it. It was … a breaking point: after that I just quit, stopped doing things for others. Drank a lot, as is was my wont. I think the only thing keeping me from going over the line ~ beyond beating up a couple repubs ~ was blogging, the sometimes day’s long emersion in outside of me. I did beat up a couple people, and I’m not sorry for it ~ they came looking for, had it coming, and you’d be amazed at what a diminutive appearance, the element of surprise and brute force can do, not to mention how the body remembers what the mind forgets. That may be what brought me back …

        Liked by 1 person

        • Howdy Ten Bears!

          That sounds like PTSD. I’m sorry you went through that, but I’m glad you’re back.

          They do tell you not to judge a book by its cover. And, the say, always punch a Nazi. So, there’s that.

          I hafta say, blogging has been good for the soul. It has also brought me into contact with some pretty wonderful people.



  3. I really appreciate you for bringing Karen Stenner to our attention.

    Karen Stenner’s name rang a bell, so I looked back to see where I first saw her mentioned.

    Former human rights lawyer Amanda Taub wrote her piece “The Rise of American Authoritarianism” in March 2016, and saw the writing on the wall. “Donald Trump could be just the first of many Trumps in American politics.”

    The political phenomenon we identify as right-wing populism seems to line up, with almost astonishing precision, with the research on how authoritarianism is both caused and expressed
    After an early period of junk science in the mid-20th century, a more serious group of scholars has addressed this question, specifically studying how it plays out in American politics: researchers like Hetherington and Weiler, Stanley Feldman, Karen Stenner, and Elizabeth Suhay, to name just a few.

    The field, after a breakthrough in the early 1990s, has come to develop the contours of a grand theory of authoritarianism, culminating quite recently, in 2005, with Stenner’s seminal The Authoritarian Dynamic — just in time for that theory to seemingly come true, more rapidly and in greater force than any of them had imagined, in the personage of one Donald Trump and his norm-shattering rise.

    According to Stenner’s theory, there is a certain subset of people who hold latent authoritarian tendencies. These tendencies can be triggered or “activated” by the perception of physical threats or by destabilizing social change, leading those individuals to desire policies and leaders that we might more colloquially call authoritarian.

    I have no excuse for not delving deeper into her important writings. Thanks for helping me get back on that track.

    I recommend John Dean’s books, “Conservatives Without Conscience” and “Authoritarian Nightmar” for a first hand overview of Republican Right Wing authoritarianism. Apparently some guy named Nixon was one of them.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Howdy Dave!

      Misery loves company. I’m glad I’m not the only one who missed the boat on Stenner, and I am gratified to know that I could help a fellow traveller out.

      After reading “The Authoritarian Dynamic” and several subsequent articles she wrote and interviews of her, it seems that dispositional-situational dynamic accurately reflects what we’re seeing happening around us, predicts what is to come, and suggests actions we might take to mitigate it.

      Just reading through the news: measles outbreak in Ohio, sending legal migrants unprepared to be jettisoned in blizzard conditions, burning and banning books, hunting teachers, and continuing #COVID19 resistance; all points to the same cesspool, authoritarianism. These are authoritarians. They are happy to violate the civil liberties of those that they don’t agree with. They are happy to defy a government they view as illegitimate. They are happy to discard democracy if it allows them to attain their goals of making us all in their image. They are not, however, conservatives.

      I’m definitely in the market for Dean’s books.



  4. I had not encountered Karen Stenner either. I noticed that you didn’t include a link for her web site, but I searched it out anyway. [] From the listing there of her articles and such, and of course books, she has been trying to get this message out for some time.

    One of the things I’ve long pondered is the difference between conservatism and authoritarianism, because we have conflated the two. The GOP has helped that a lot by getting captured by authoritarians. That has obscured the reality that authoritarianism is not a Left-Right issue, but a different axis in a three dimensional model of socio-political orientation.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Howdy Bob!

      That’s an oversight. I usually do link to the authors homepage or some other information page about them, and in my notes, I have the link. I’ll update it. She’s an interesting one because she left her academic position to live in Australia, but it is unclear how she makes a living other than off of book sales. She has been in the media a fair amount since Trump came on the scene.

      She says that her research reveals a slight correlation between conservatism and authoritarianism, but that it can occur on both the left and right. Having conflated the two and poorly defined everything, left, right, liberal, conservative, authoritarian, in both academic and vernacular usage, we have done a huge disservice to ourselves.

      We can’t make any progress until our authoritarian moment is dealt with.


      Liked by 2 people

      • Our reliance on a simple, linear spectrum model of political orientation has made it almost impossible for most people, including politicians and academics, to think effectively beyond the two party division. Add to that those who, partly for lack of clear definitions, take on labels of liberal or conservative that don’t really fit, like authoritarians calling themselves conservatives and thus redefining the label in the minds of both friend and foe.

        Liked by 1 person

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