Behavior Economics

The Authoritarian Dynamic: We Ain’t Outta Da Woods, Yet

If you’ve been keeping up with the authoritarian dynamic series of posts, you know the following:

  • FIRST, we’ve been following the work of Karen Stenner, and this post will be based on two publications of hers:
  • SECOND that to create an authoritarian, two conditions are necessary:
    • An inherent predisposition towards authoritarianism, and
    • A threat to the authoritarian’s feeling of belonging to a homogeneous group
    • When both conditions are met, the inner authoritarian has a meltdown and threatens world war three.
  • THIRD that authoritarians will not of their own volition not violate the rights, civil, humanitarian, or otherwise, of those that they have scapegoated or that they perceive as not being like them. They literally need strong leadership, the force of law, fortuitous societal conditions, and near constant reassurance to prevent them from acting violently against those they perceive as being different.
  • FOURTH, most don’t have the cognitive ability to cope with complex issues and prefer simpler solutions and explanations making them easily seduced by con artists with megalomaniacal designs.
  • AND FIFTH, when they’ve lost faith in the ability of their government to keep diversity and freedom from running amok and offending their sensibilities, they will throw that government over for one that will. As long as a democratic government is enforcing their right to discriminate against whomever they choose because of sInCeReLy HeLd ReLiGiOuS bElIeFs (the evangelical kind, not some non-secular nondenominational liberal satanism).

With the 6 January Committee’s report publishing a damning indictment of Trump and his co-conspirators and the DoJ and Fulton County, Georgia district attorney, Fani Willis, moving forward with their investigations, surely the authoritarian threat is winding down? Not so fast, pardner. There are pretenders to the throne more than willing to take the mantle of idiot king of dunces and lead the racist misogynistic masses over the edge of the abyss like so many lemmings.

Drowning in a Sea of Authoritarianism

We seem to be drowning in a sea of authoritarianism, so what can we do about it? How do we get out of this mess with our democratic ass intact? How can we use what we know about authoritarians to help us find a solution?

First, we must acknowledge a couple of things:

  • ONE THIRD of the population has an inner authoritarian just longing to get out in the right circumstances. There is no changing that. It is innate. It is part and parcel of their personality. That’s the bad news. The good news is that it only comes out when it is under threat, meaning in the “right” situation.
  • FEAR. Both authoritarians and white conservatives operate from a place of fear, and they largely fear the same things: the improving status of Blacks, becoming a minority majority country, women having sex like men (i.e. without fear of pregnancy), not knowing the genitalia of the person using the stall next to yours in a public bathroom, not knowing whether the person you are lusting for in your heart and dreaming of grabbing by the pussy really has a pussy or not, or the police not being able to murder criminals (Blacks) with impunity. Because they share the same fears, they make natural allies, but they are not the same.
  • CHANGE vs DIVERSITY. Conservatives are natural defenders of the status quo, no matter what the status quo is. If it is white supremacy, then they defend that. If it is democracy, they defend that. However, authoritarians fear diversity and will embrace change if it means tamping down the effects of diversity, conservatives won’t.
  • SAMENESS AND ONENESS. The need of authoritarians to belong to a larger group is strong, but the group must be perceived as being the same as they are. While human beings evolved to work in groups, authoritarians really really need to belong to a group and when that group unity feels threatened, they will lash out violently.
  • TURNING ON A DIME. Authoritarians can and do turn 180 degree and jump ship to anyone or anything that protects the norms that they identify with. They will join the new normative order if it promises the sweet safety of group identity and predictability.
  • ANTAGONISTIC SOCIAL CONDITIONS. Unfortunately, we live in a society that is antagonistic to the needs of the authoritarians among us. We have a diverse multicultural society composed of people of many ethnicities, nationalities, languages, sexual orientations, and abilities. We promise that they should all be treated equally before the law and given an equal opportunity to succeed.

It is important to really understand what drives the authoritarian moment we are living through because at first blush it seems like it is pert-near impossible to reconcile our multicultural society with their need for sameness and oneness, but it is not completely irreconcilable.

Mollifying Authoritarians

Given that the inner authoritarian of most of the third of society that has it is already raging, what can be done to return to a more normal democracy-preserving coarse of action.

Keep Democracy on the Ballot!

The Democratic Party’s strategy in the last three elections has proven particularly effective, especially in 2022. They put democracy on the ballot. Authoritarians are willing to vote against the status quo, i.e. democracy, conservatives are less likely to do so.

All of that ticket splitting by Republican voters in 2022? It was based on which candidates were seen as pro and anti-democracy. It was smart of Democrats to promote the Trump supported, Big Lie spouting anti-democratic candidates. It was smart of Democrats to promote the threat to our democracy as an issue and run on it.

The strategy has worked in the last three election cycles. Will it work in 2024? Will the Republicans adapt their playbook and run less obvious authoritarian candidates? Who knows, but we’ve two years to either tame the raging authoritarian beast or keep the focus on the threat to democracy MAGA poses.

Biden’s SuperPower

Biden isn’t as popular as he should be given his successes, but his superpower remains being a likable old white guy. That superpower is the foundation upon which democratic success should be built. He is pursuing his policy agenda, but he is explaining how it is helping EVERYONE, especially white rural and small town America. He is taking pains to couch it in unifying and sameness terms.

Even though Fox News and other authoritarian media outlets have taken pains to smear Biden’s name as a socialist, communist, fascist coming to rape your guns, groom your fathers, and hook your mothers on opioids because he hates our freedoms, it hasn’t quite worked. The 2022 election results are proof of that. A majority of Americans may not approve of the job he’s doing, but they like it better than the alternative, which, in this climate, is good enough, amirite?

And, his awe shucks, blue collar, that’s a fucking big deal, demeanor can peel off a few authoritarians from MAGA. They can identify with him.

A Common Foe

The tried and true method of unifying a people is finding a common foe. The Democrats are smart to be looking for one now. You’da thunk it could be Putin and his insane war in Ukraine, but… um… The Follow the Leader Theory of politics nixed that one. We still have a couple of other rings around that merry-go-round, though.

First is climate change. With all of the crazy weather we’ve been having, it isn’t hard to convince even the most. casual observer that the climate is changing and maybe we might could do something about it. Girding the country for climate change will make good quality high-paying jobs, the kind of jobs that have been eliminated when global corporations export our jobs overseas. That appeal to seeing everyone in America as Americans, something we haven’t done in a long time, and needing everyone to do their part, can go along way to peeling off some of the authoritarians in MAGA.

And second, China is a security threat. They are aggressively expanding their territorial waters, courting allies in Central and Southeast Asia, and building infrastructure in Africa. It is all a competition for natural resources. That’s why China is not participating in the International Space Station, but building their own. US space officials believe China aims to claim the moon because of natural resources. They are a real threat. Competing with China can unite the country, not through bogus tariffs designed to drive out small and medium sized farms and firms so they can be replaced by large companies. Thanks, Trump.

The appeal that Trump and the other MAGA politicians have to the authoritarian rank and vile, though, is more racial and moralistic. It is much harder to co-opt those authoritarians by helping them feel more secure racially or moralistically. As we’ve learned from the abortion debate, it isn’t life that is sacred, it is the sin of of fornicating women that is offensive. As we’ve learned from bake-a-cake for LGBTQ+ court cases, it isn’t “all men are created equal,” it is my “sincerely held religious beliefs” allow me to discriminate, but yours don’t. As we’ve learned from the backlash to the BLM protests, it isn’t that police shouldn’t murder people, it is Blacks should remain in their place, which is ghettos, poverty, and prison.

The question of how to mollify any substantial proportion of them to the demographic changes that will make the US a minority majority country and will elevate LGBTQ+ folks to equal status and will ensure women have equality is a difficult one. Trying to help them feel part of a group with people that they inherently feel are so different from them may prove to be difficult, but doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try, especially considering the ability of authoritarians to join any group that accommodates their normative needs.

We know about the causes of authoritarianism and fragility of authoritarians, what we need to do to move forward as pluralistic society is find a way to welcome the third of us who are MAGA back into the fold? We evolved to live in communities. We need all types of people in order to be a strong vibrant society: those who seek out novelty balanced by those who resist the unfamiliar, those who are comfortable with diversity and complexity balanced by those who seek conformity and simplicity. It is this balance that strengthens the whole community. Of that, we must never lose sight.

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Image Attribution

Lost Trail – Ladybower Woods” by Dan Cook Archived ( is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

17 replies »

    • Thanks for the good thinking about how best to proceed with the large number of authoritarians in our midst. Mostly I just mutter, curse them, and move on. But you’re making me mull over the question. I’m thinking maybe their need to belong could be used in some more benign way than the current “tear it all down” trend. If someone(s) with real connections and affinity for these folks (which would not be me) could start clubs with mass appeal (to them) but that does NOT promote hate-and-destruction… I’m thinking of e.g. battle reenactment groups (not sure they don’t promote hate/violence but oh well) or sports clubs. Some sort of in-group club type groups that would attract and distract these folks into less destructive activities.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Howdy Cynthia!

        That is the right idea, though! Right now that space is ceded to those who would cynically exploit their need to belong and grievance at losing their majority status or people who are synergizing with each other over it all. It would be very helpful if a very genteel populist politician would arise that they could coalesce around, one who valued our sense of all people are created equally and democracy that could popularize the we’re all in this together sense that we need to overcome climate change and China’s exclusionary race for the moon and being the world’s lone superpower.

        Right now, though, the Republicans have attracted the lowest of the lows into their ranks who are only in it for themselves. Very shortsighted and self-absorbed.


        PS I hope you’re in for a very Happy New Years celebration!


        • Howdy Bob and Cynthia!

          Nowadays with social media being what it is, it doesn’t have to be a club but a trend among social influencers. Given the structure of the influencer economy, it wouldn’t be difficult for someone with money to essentially pay influencers to spread their message. It is what the troll farms are doing now. We could adapt and adopt that technology and model if someone were to try.


          Liked by 1 person

  1. Sometimes, it is possible to make some inroads with a message that stresses ways that the perceived differences between the “us” and the “them” are illusory or less important than the similarities.

    And, there must be serious consequences for directly attacking democracy.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Howdy Bob!

      None of any of this relieves people of the consequences for their reckless behavior in attacking democracy. Holding a strong clear boundary is the only way to dissuading a committed authoritarian from violating the rights of everyone they disagree with.

      However, messaging that emphasizes how similar we are and much alike and that reassures those that fear loss of status and privilege are necessary, which puts on a collision course with the purist left.


      Liked by 1 person

      • Purists of all stripes need to be on the fringes of any well functioning democracy. Where there is diversity, there has to be good faith deal making, and it is a functional middle majority that can reassure those who fear loss of status. It is that middle that the authoritarian take over of the GOP has hollowed out over the past 40 years.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Howdy Bob!

          Which tells you that it was no accident that we’ve ended up in this situation. The wild card in democracy is the vote itself. As long as the vote can go against them, all is not lost. Once they really rig the vote either through suppression or nullification efforts, we can win the middle back and push the radicals back to the fringes.

          I still come back to the amount of money funding MAGA and the authoritarian movement. As long as we allow our politics to be bought through Citizens United, we are going to be in precarious position.


          Liked by 1 person

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