Behavior Economics

The Authoritarian Dynamic: Accommodating the Authoritarians in our Midsts

To quote Pharrell Williams’ song, Happy, It might seem crazy what I’m about to say! but I don’t think many of us out in liberal blog land are going to be happy to hear it, so just bear with it for a minute, and remember that these things are based on the extensive research of Karen Stenner, so they are empirical and data-based.

We have to find ways to accommodate the authoritarian need for constant reassurance.

Like I said, bear with me. There are several good reasons why we should carefully consider how we can accommodate their needs, too.

PLURALISTIC SOCIETY. We like to say we’re a pluralistic society, one that tolerates the beliefs of others regardless of agreement. We have gone to great lengths to accommodate the needs of people who cannot participate equally without it. Think wheelchair access. Think marriage equality. Think equal pay for equal work.

Authoritarian personality traits are innate. They are not a choice any more than wheelchair use is or autism or gender or any other of a host of inborn traits or unalterable circumstances are that we already accommodate. As we design, construct, and operate our social interactions and institutions, we should consider accommodating the need for near-constant reassurance that authoritarians require just like when we build a bathroom we should consider wheelchair access.

It is as simple as that in theory.

ONE-THIRD OF OUR POPULATION. Given Stenner’s extensive research, about a third of our population has innate authoritarian tendencies. We aren’t going to be able to get rid of them. She estimates given twin studies that it is about 50% inheritable. Just given the shear size, we should take their needs into account.

ONGOING THREAT. Because there are so many authoritarians living among us, and authoritarian moments can be triggered by changes in society, think Jim Crow laws post-Civil War and Reconstruction. Think our current racist backlash after our Civil Rights legislation and the election of our first black president.

Even if we manage to get past this authoritarian moment in our history and reestablish our democracy, we are all but guaranteed that it will happen again. If it is preventable, then it would behoove us to prevent it.

REINTEGRATION POST-AUTHORITARIAN MOMENT. If the forces of democracy continue winning elections as we have in 2018, 2020, and 2022, and the MAGA wave recedes, then we have to live together and cooperate in order to succeed.

Accommodating Authoritarians

I’m not saying that we shouldn’t hold the authoritarians accountable for the destruction that they’ve caused, but, eventually, we have to reintegrate our society to overcome the polarization that the authoritarians introduced to further their own goals. Ain’t that a pickle?

Further, if we remember that the only way to prevent authoritarians from violating the rights of others is through (a) strong leadership, (b) force of law, (c) fortuitous social conditions, and (d) a near-near constant need for reassurance, it makes sense that we hold them accountable (force of law), especially when we recall that we didn’t hold Confederates accountable after the Civil War or the Jim Crow murdering terrorizing motherfuckers in the Civil Rights era.

We’re not saying make nice-nice with them, we’re saying acknowledge their fragility and needs for social support so they don’t go crazy and destroy us all. Seems kind of smart when you put it that way, right?

These points bugger the question, how do we go about completing such a Himalayan task of accommodating the needs of a group of people who would gladly drag us kicking and screaming into gas chambers and goose step over our mass graves singing hallelujah?

How do we keep from making the mistakes from the past when we’ve confronted our authoritarians? When we made the three-fifths compromise and allowed slavery and racism to defile our country at its inception? When we allowed murderous traitors to re-enter the Union simply by swearing an insincere oath in bad faith? When we only required that changes to election laws be pre-approved by a commission? Three times we’ve confronted the intertwined barbarous thicket of racism and authoritarianism and three times we’ve failed to hold them accountable and three times they’ve come roaring back to threaten our democracy with dissolution?

Part of the answer lies in understanding what keeps authoritarians from violating the rights of others:

  • RESPONSIBLE LEADERSHIP. How can we get responsible leadership out of the current iteration of the Republican Party? We can’t, unless they keep losing in the same ways they lost in 2022. More than this, though, we have to elevate what it means to live in a democratic pluralistic society. We have to return to the basics of all people are created equally and the power of government comes from the consent of the governed.
  • FORCE OF LAW. We have to bring charges against everyone who conspired in 2022 to execute the coup against our government. We have to restore the Voting Rights Act. We have to remove traitors from Congress and the judiciary. We have to keep the investigations going. We can’t nope out of it for the sake of healing the country because we’ve been down that road before and it only leads back to here.
  • FORTUITOUS SOCIETAL CONDITIONS. Policies that build up the middle class. As Joe Biden says, we have to grow the economy from the middle class up. This also includes curbing environmental abuses by corporations that degrades the environment and promotes poor health and early death. If the white middle class is restored, then they’ll feel less stress and less under attack. Society will be more stable and secure for everyone.
  • NEAR-CONSTANT REASSURANCE. Minority influence instructs that the most effective agent of change is that which comes from the majority group. While it is difficult, reformed racists, reformed conspiracy theorists, reformed rank-and-vile MAGA need to be promoted. Social media needs to do more to eliminate the pernicious influence of troll farms and disinformation.

Part of creating the fortuitous societal conditions and near-constant reassurance that authoritarians need to not cut off our democratic nose to despite our democratic face is softening our messages on racism, which is hard for a middle class white guy to advocate for, but all I know is that we need to defuse and cool down our rhetorical differences.

Anger begets anger. Attack creates defensiveness. However, we must continue to work towards our ideals of equality and equitability, but we can take a different tack in how we try and achieve them. If we thought that white people can quit using the n-word out of respect for our Black compatriots, we might could also consider being less in your face about demanding less racist more inclusive language.

Another way to get there is by working together towards a common goal where we need to rely on the abilities of each group to achieve them. It once was that Congress worked this way. We need to find our way back to cooperation and compromise in order to achieve our national goals. Hopefully, the daunting tasks of overcoming climate change and exploring space will help us work together again.

Lastly, we need to reform our democracy and get dark money out of our politics. We have to limit the influence of lobbyists, corporations, industries, and the elite. They have important contributions to make, but they must be balanced by the interests of everyone else. Theirs cannot be the only interests that our government and society meets.

Giving authoritarians constant reassurance and the fortuitous social conditions that they require to work in our democracy is not an easy accommodation to make, especially coming at it after the insurrection and coup and ongoing threat to our democracy, but it is something we will have to do, eventually. Please share your ideas and thoughts in the comments.

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10 replies »

  1. One of the problems with authoritarian personalities is they don’t don’t want to learn what they don’t want to know,. They don’t even care to understand anything about the rest of us. Why bother, when they alone have all the answers?

    But we should understand them, for all our sake.

    Conservatism is the foundation of authoritarian personalities. Even when pursuing radical change, the authoritarian will always invoke the values of the past, when order and knowing one’s place in it, was the model of their ideal society.

    For an excellent video presentation with transcript watch “Liberal vs. Conservative: A Neuroscientific Analysis with Gail Saltz”

    Liked by 1 person

    • Howdy Dave!

      Authoritarians use that formulation, KISS, with the emphasis on stupid. Constantly seeking simple solutions for complex problems and being incapable of dealing with complexity, generally does mean you’ll not only remain ignorant, but make stupid choices. It also means you are vulnerable to exploitations by those who are willing to use it against you, like, narcissists, psychopaths, and Machiavellians.

      While there is a slight correlation between authoritarianism and conservatism, we should keep them distinct for two simple reasons. First and foremost is because liberals can be and are authoritarians. We need to acknowledge that those tendencies occur in our own ranks and be on guard for them. And, second, conservatives can be some of the most stalwart defenders of democracy because of their resistance to change; whereas, authoritarians will change everything if need be.

      Both conservatives and authoritarians operate from a place of fear, which Gail Saltz points out by saying that conservatives have more developed right amygdalae, they fear slightly different things. Conservatives fear change over time. Authoritarians fear change from themselves. They fear difference. They can look the same, but they come from different places and the solution to the same problem differs because the cause is different.

      Well, this is starting to turn into a blog post — note to self — so I’ll stop there and work on a post soon.



  2. There was a comment in a discussion on the radio yesterday that stood out for me. The subject of the conversation doesn’t matter in this context, but the comment does; “What do you do when the news just leaves you feeling helpless?” That must be true for an awful lot of people, likely a majority. When it is like that, everybody is looking for some reassurance, and the authoritarianly inclined more intensely than most.

    Joe Biden has a phrase he uses often which fits with this need, “a government that works for everybody”. That hits the nail on the head, and it works for him. The problem is in getting the MAGAs and almost MAGAs to believe it. That can’t happen all at once. It will take reliability and consistency over years. As this report from NPR this morning observes, appointments to the federal judiciary are some of the most durable things a President can do, and Biden has been doing it more than most, and finding judge candidates who have practiced individual law (public defense, civil rights, etc.) rather than business, financial, and institutional law.

    Getting the money out, stopping the escalation that keeps elections setting new records for dollars spent, won’t be easy, but it needs to be done somehow.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Howdy Bob!

      You’ve been saying this for a couple of years that Democrats will have to demonstrate over time they can govern and deliver the goods to everyone. The Republicans have feared that once approved and implemented liberal policies and safety nets will become accepted and relied upon and impossible to change as demonstrated by conservative protesters demanding that we keep government hands off their social security. They can’t get rid of those programs, they can only privatize them.

      Unfortunately, we’re going to have a Jekyll and Hyde judiciary for a while given the number of judges that Trump and Biden have appointed. The one saving grace is that for many sitting on the bench and ruling on the Constitutionality of policies and laws will make them less glib and much more contemplative as many conservatives have complained about.


      Liked by 1 person

  3. Yeah, and it’s, these, “popularly-voted” dictators, who keeps on, ruining the country we live in, as well as, the world too, and, there’s, nothing we the people, can do about that, because, either that, we’re, too, blind, or that, we feel, too, helpless, that our votes, won’t, matter, either way, the world’s, going to, hell. And, these, popularly voted dictators, continue to, ruin the, people’s, lives, and, we are, too tired of, fighting these, dictatorships, and, voting for the, “other” party, won’t do any good, because, how do we know, that, they won’t, turn into, dictators, once, elected, into, offices??? And, yet, people still, go to the polls, to, cast that, ballots, blindly believing, that: my vote, matters!!!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Howdy Taurus!

      As long as there is a vote, there is a chance. I’ve had the luxury of living in two countries that have struggled with democracy: South Korea and Kenya. I was in South Korea when they shifted from rigged elections and dictatorship to free and fair elections in when Kim Dae Jung was elected president in 1998 and subsequent elections of succeeding presidents. Kenya has come close to having freer and fairer elections, but has not quite made it. They no longer riot afterwards, though, and the government is more responsive to the needs of its citizens.

      I believe you’re in Taiwan, is that right? But, Taiwan is widely considered to be a very successful democracy with fair elections. It wasn’t always so, but it did make the change from single-party pseudo-democratic minority-rule autocracy to being a full-fledged democracy.

      Having lived through some of these changes or near changes, you can see differences in people’s attitudes and beliefs in their governments.

      It is possible for democracy to triumph over authoritarianism.

      I’m old enough to remember when Americans cynically didn’t vote believing that their vote didn’t matter and our elections were plagued by low voter turn out. Now, we have high voter turn out, at least in the last four cycles and for the presidential elections of 2008 and 2012. If America can keep it up, we can turn back this authoritarian moment.

      Part of the advantage that America has over countries like Hungary and Poland is that we have a longer history of democracy, stronger democratic norms, and stronger democratic institutions.



  4. I think reason for these, authoritarian leaders, currently, taking over the countries in the world, is primarily due to how people don’t want to, decide for themselves, they much rather, live inside, their own, little bubbles, thinking their leaders’ decision won’t affect them in any way, which gives more power, to these, dictators, taking, control over, all of our, lives, and, because, these people, make the “majority” of the voters, we are all, screwed…

    Liked by 1 person

    • Howdy Taurus!

      People in democracies forget that their votes matter and count. In someways that makes parliamentary style governments better. The members of parliament are in many ways closer to their constituents and the parties have much narrower and sharply focused platforms. In America, which I regularly referred to as the United Fucking States of Fucking Stupid during the Trump years, was greatly affected by the vast majority of people not understanding how the government worked, how it was chosen, or even what it did. Trump helped rectify that to some degree. The question is do we backslide into apathy and let the authoritarians take over or do we continue getting out the vote.



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