One of the abiding mysteries of the Trump era is the ongoing MAGA love affair with one of America’s and the West’s bitterest enemies, Vladimir Putin. It has become a glib hot take to quip that MAGA is drawn to “strong,” read, authoritarian, leaders, but that isn’t really explanatory, is it?. It is possible to explain the attraction using Follow-the-Leader Theory, meaning if Trump likes him, they’ll like him, but proportionality bias kicks in — extraordinary events require extraordinary causes — so it doesn’t seem quite adequate. Into this disturbing explanatory-predictive quagmire steps Karen Stenner and her authoritarian dynamic model.
After reading “The Authoritarian Dynamic” and several subsequent articles she wrote and interviews of her, it seems that her 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 unprepared legal migrants to be jettisoned into 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.
In The Zeitgeist of Our Time: The Authoritarian Dynamic, the model was explained. Here, the model will be applied to our current situation, and in the next post solutions for abetting the authoritarian moment we seem to be having will be explored, so fun!
Why are Authoritarians Such Fragile Snowflakes?
Let us begin where we ended the last post with Stenner’s observation that many people no longer have the capacity to tolerate liberal democracy.
[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
We now bugger the question, why can’t the authoritarian-loving types tolerate democracy any longer? The short answer is because they are snowflakes. Honest to goodness that is the answer.
The Authoritarian Dynamic
Stenner’s hypothesis is that certain people — about a third of the population, but maybe slightly more for some reason in the US — have an innate desire for authoritarian rule, but that it isn’t sufficient to cause them to seek out authoritarianism in their governments. It is only when society starts to seem out of control or the presiding government seems incapable of governing that they begin to agitate for authoritarianism. Or course, the out of controlness of society and incapacity of the government are based on their values and predilections.
Authoritarians seek a society that minimize all differences in the populace and eliminate diversity so that everyone is behaving, believing, and doing the same things. As long as the organs of the society, its governments, and leaders are respected, we will have a consensus on the norms (beliefs, values, behaviors) so that everyone feels a part of the group and understands the group. Shared norms means that life is predictable from one situation to the next.
Triggering the Authoritarians
When societies begin to to diversity and grow complex, then that predictability begins to become less sure. The consensus less shared. Leaders and institutions less respected. The individuals understanding of what makes them a part of the group and where they fit into the group begins to fizzle.
When a person predisposed to authoritarianism finds themselves in a diversifying society, their inner authoritarian begins to be stimulated and when it is over stimulated, they begin to have a major meltdown that might could even end with a genocide or world war.
As long as the core values, beliefs, and norms are ones they support and predict the behaviors of most people, then everything is fine. Democracy, whatever. However, when some unknown threshold is breached, they are ready to throw over the old order, meaning discard democracy, in favor of something that reassures their broken little souls that they are the be bestest of all and everyone else will live by their rules or they’ll grab ’em by the pussies with their small hands and stamp their little feet on their necks and shake their their puny little necks until they do!
Authoritarians: Infringing on the Rights of Others
Lest we think that they are harmless, Stenner notes that this type of person will always be willing to infringe on the rights of others and will only be dissuaded by the judicious application of the following (See if you can spot the one making them snowflakes!):
- “responsible leadership
- force of law
- fortuitous societal conditions, and
- near-constant reassurance” [emphasis mine]
Near-constant reassurance? Yep, snowflakes.
Let’s go through these just to see how fucked we really are.
RESPONSIBLE LEADERSHIP. Which of the current crop of Repube leaders would you call responsible? McConnell, whose proudest moment was telling Barack Obama (Black president, trigger warning) that he would not fill the Supreme Court vacancy left by Antoine Scalia. McCarthy who promises everything to everyone just to secure the speakership. DeSantis who is dismantling the democracy in Florida one Democratic voter at a time. Abbot who can’t seem to maintain their power grid but can abandon migrants in death-defying weather conditions. The MAGA caucus in Congress?
Here is where we must take great pains to separate out the conservatives like Liz Cheney and, well, fiddle-sticks, who? from the MAGA crowd like Elise Stefanik and Brian Kemp and whoever else engages in wholesale voter suppression and nullification and votes to overturn an election they know to be legit and refuses to impeach or convict the person responsible for the coup on 6 January.
What constitutes conservatism is another fuzzy dice problem that will have to be addressed in another blog post, but it should not be confused with authoritarianism. And, right now, MAGA is an authoritarian movement, the Republican Party is an authoritarian party, and the only way to safeguard our country is through responsible leadership, which the Republicans and MAGA don’t have.
FORCE OF LAW. We had the force of law behind democracy when we were able to enforce the Voting Rights Act, but the great moderate conservative justice, John Roberts, saw that it was gutted. We had the force of law behind democracy before the great moderate conservative justice, John Roberts, declared that money was not corrupting and decided Citizens United meant money was speech.
Back in the halcyon days of yore when we could force the racist authoritarians to play nice with our democracy, we kept them in check. When Roberts neutered the law, we saw them begin to run rampant.
FORTUITOUS SOCIETAL CONDITIONS. These are the great demographic changes. As long as white people could out vote the Democratic coalition of Black women, some Black men, Latinas, some Latinos, a whole lotta, but never quite a majority of white women, and a few white men, they were good with democracy. As soon as that coalition demonstrated that it could elect a Black man president in 2012 (Obama’s 2008 election was special due to the Great Recession crippling Republicans), white people decided democracy was too much of a risk.
NEAR-CONSTANT REASSURANCE. White people be like channeling their inner Trump with his narcissistic need to have his be best status reassured his every waking moment. They see the election of a BLACK MAN as president and the rise of BLACK LIVES MATTER and the presence of SPANISH-SPEAKING BROWNS in the towns and they REACT! This is why most of the 6 January insurrectionists came from counties that Biden won that also had declining white, non-Hispanic populations. All of this is evidence that world is changing around them and their ain’t nothing they can do about it.
Authoritarians are not necessarily on the look out for normative threats or changes to how homogeneous the society is, but when it is brought to their attention, they REACT. And by react, I mean they are ready to jump ship to a more reassuring system one that is more likely to enforce the sameness that they have come to know and love.
When they are not assured that their world is staying the same and that the predictions of behaviors that they made yesterday are the same ones they can make tomorrow, that’s when the authoritarian meltdown starts and they are vulnerable to the sweet siren populist song.
What song have the Republicans been playing since Nixon? The PoC are coming to rape your fathers, murder your jobs, and want better than to live in Cancer Alley, drink Flint water, pay for Texas utilities, and die quickly and quietly when they stop contributing more than they cost like every decent god-fearing white person does so that the one percent can become even more obscenely wealthy just like Jesus decreed in the Bill of Rights to our Declaration of Independence amending the Constitution.
It’s like Black people aren’t willing to be worse off than the poorest white person just so that poor white will be happy enough to give his wallet to the white politician that enforces that system. How is that even fair?
From this analysis, it should be clear what we need to do to mitigate this authoritarian moment we’re living through, right? Well, if not. It will be later this week when that post is ready… unless it won’t be ready. You know. Blogging.
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Categories: Behavior Economics