Decoding Authoritarian Belief

Mussolini HQ

Posted below are excerpts from a paper I am currently working on. This is a work in progress, and is wide-open to critique/criticism.


This paper advances the argument that the dramatic rise in political polarization observed across a number of advanced democracies in the decade since the financial crisis of 2007-9 is not best explained as traditional issue-based/party polarization, but rather as the transformation of many politically conservative citizens in these polities from small-d democrats into authoritarians. This phenomenon is best conceptualized using a variation of a model of authoritarianism known as the “authoritarian dynamic.” This paper introduces and applies that variation – under the temporary working title of Authoritarian Software Theory (AST) – in an attempt to identify the origins of the populist political eruption and concurrent partisan polarization that has been observed across many advanced democracies in the decade since the crisis.

Ideology polarization
Polarization of public opinion in the United States, 1994-2017

Background on the Problem and its Importance

The study of authoritarian political behavior and beliefs is among the most pressing issue areas in all of social science. The origins of authoritarian behavior are not well understood, and while countless theories have been put forth attempting to make sense of the phenomenon, current research lacks consensus, and many theories are conflicting. Given the resurgence of populist-authoritarian political figures and parties that has occurred throughout the past decade not just in the United States and Europe, but in countries as far-flung and disparate as Turkey and the Philippines, this seems a particularly dismal state of affairs. Indeed, the profound nature of our inability to accurately theorize this concept was on full display with the surprise election of an authoritarian strongman, Donald Trump, to the White House in 2016.

In some real sense, however, it was clear well prior to that; after all, Mr. Trump’s political ascendance was only the culmination of a years-long authoritarian lurch in the United States, the origins of which evade consensus to this day. The missing puzzle piece, as I see it, is the existence of a coherent framework for understanding authoritarianism. While the development of a unifying framework capable of explaining and predicting fluctuations in authoritarian behavior across societies is a considerable undertaking, it is likely not impossible, and the utility of such a wide-ranging social science framework would be immense. While the theory put forth in this paper does not claim to be that unifying framework, it can be seen as an early attempt, and is arguably among the more wide-ranging conceptualizations of the origins and correlates of the authoritarian social phenomenon.

Being that any research on authoritarianism is welded, inextricably, to the study of political psychology, it is worth noting that a large amount of academic writing on this topic plays quite fast-and-loose with a fundamental concept in psychology: personality. In fact, it seems that the majority of academic papers on authoritarianism are premised on their authors’ unique interpretations of personality; what it is, how and even whether it’s determined by environmental factors (as opposed to being innate), whether it can be expected to produce the same behaviors across circumstances, etc. Aside from the rather obvious fact that using different definitions and measurement techniques for a central variable like personality severely limits generalizability, it is also not the case that personality as a concept is lacking an agreed-upon framework. Indeed, the Five Factor (or “Big 5”) trait model of personality currently enjoys a broad consensus in the field of psychology, and should therefore be the basis for research on authoritarianism as it relates to personality traits.

Review of Literature

Before delving into the literature on what it is that causes authoritarian attitudes and their manifestation in the form of authoritarian behavior, it is important to begin by pinning down exactly what these attitudes encompass; in short, to define “authoritarian belief.” It has long been theorized that significant overlap exists between the central features of political conservatism and authoritarianism; for instance, among the features of political conservatism listed by Wilson (1973), militarism, religious fundamentalism, ethnocentrism, preference for state-sanctioned restrictions of sexual behaviors, superstition, and intolerance of minority groups are common in authoritarian belief systems. This perceived overlap was corroborated further through the work of Jost et al. (2003), who found that that the central psychological features of political conservatives are essentially synonymous with those which form the core features of a social dominance personality orientation, which is thought to be predictive of intolerance.

While the notion that authoritarian beliefs can be linked to specific personality traits has long been central to the research on this topic, there has been serious debate concerning whether such traits are intrinsic and immutable, or are resulting from environmental factors. One of the earliest conceptualizations of authoritarianism, proposed by Adorno et. al (1950), argued for the latter in theorizing the process surrounding the creation of an “authoritarian personality” – a combination of nine personality traits which one acquires throughout one’s childhood, and which together comprise what the authors call the “F scale”, or fascist scale. Among the listed traits are superstition, authoritarian aggression, authoritarian submission, anti-intellectualism, conventionalism, stereotypy, and several others. The authors draw on Freudian psychology and employ a psychoanalytic approach, hypothesizing authoritarianism to be the behavioral outcome of the above mentioned traits, as opposed to an intrinsic disposition. In this vein, the variable of socialization, i.e. the process of learning appropriate behavior, generally from one’s parents or guardians, is described as playing a central role in the creation of an authoritarian personality by the authors.

This concept of an “authoritarian personality” was developed further in the work of Altemeyer (1981), who departed from the psychoanalytic perspective and stressed instead the importance of social learning from one’s peers and elders during adolescence to the creation of authoritarian traits. His research tested each of the nine F-scale traits listed by Adorno et. al, and found only authoritarian aggression, authoritarian submission, and conventionalism to be statistically correlated. These findings undermined the notion that the “authoritarian personality” is necessarily comprised of all nine F-scale traits, and led to Altemeyer’s reinterpretation of the F-scale as the Right Wing Authoritarianism (RWA) scale, a detailed questionnaire now widely viewed as the superior method for assessing authoritarian beliefs in individuals.

Even in the face of these contributions, the question of whether authoritarians are born rather than made remained contentious. Stenner (1997) offered one of the strongest challenges to the notion that authoritarian dispositions arise solely from environmental factors in suggesting an interplay between certain immutable personality traits and the perception of normative threats, which Stenner defines as challenges to “sameness” or “oneness” –  in other words, threats to the ethnic/cultural homogeneity of the society. Stenner dubs this interaction the “authoritarian dynamic”, the central theory of which departs both from Adorno et. al. and from Altemeyer in a number of ways. First, it more or less aligns itself with contemporary research in psychology by describing the authoritarian disposition in terms of intrinsic and essentially immutable traits; second, it suggests a mechanism for the activation of these traits, rather than assuming their stable manifestation across environments; and third, it narrows the discussion of environmental factors by emphasizing normative threats.

While Stenner’s contribution to the concept of authoritarianism is notable for its suggestion of threat perception as an activation mechanism, she is not the only scholar to consider threat an important factor (or indeed, a necessary condition) to trait activation. In The Fear of Freedom, Fromm (1941) may have been the first to highlight feelings of insecurity as a precursor to authoritarianism, suggesting that those who are enduring such feelings may have a willingness to sacrifice autonomy for the promise of renewed security. Similarly, Fog (2017) proposed that the collective perception of external, physical dangers such as the threat of war may trigger an evolutionarily in-built inclination toward authoritarianism on the part of the society under threat, as it seeks to streamline the political process, clearly label in-group vs. out-group members, and designate militant leaders to direct the armed forces.

Despite the fact that there remains much disagreement concerning the exact nature of the activation mechanism, the notion that 1) a large amount of individual variation exists across intrinsic personality traits, and 2) that authoritarian traits are more than likely activated by threat perception of some kind, is now the most broadly accepted, yet to-date unarticulated model of authoritarianism in contemporary research on the subject. This is to say that, while this unacknowledged framework has essentially been guiding recent research, it has in every case been narrowed by the researchers to focus on a particular form of threat (in Stenner’s case, threats to cultural homogeneity, and in Fog’s case, threats to physical safety).

Additionally, in no case where this framework has been applied has special attention been paid to operationalizing the concept of an “authoritarian personality” using the consensus model for the measurement of personality traits –  the Big 5 trait model of personality – nor has sufficient attention been paid to the role played by other types of threats in the activation of these traits. Given this, the assignment for contemporary researchers is essentially twofold: first, to identify what kinds of traits constitute an authoritarian personality disposition under the Big 5 trait model, and second, to identify what kinds of threats can play a role in activating/aggravating these traits. This as-yet unarticulated framework for investigating these questions is explained in the section below.

Theory, Model, and Hypotheses

Authoritarian Software Theory (AST) is a theory of authoritarianism which holds that certain Big 5 personality profiles are inherently more prone to harbor authoritarian beliefs and exhibit authoritarian behaviors than others, that political conservatives comprise most if not all of this cohort, and that threat-perception is the mechanism by which their latent authoritarian “software” becomes activated. The theoretical underpinnings of AST can be traced first and foremost to Realistic Group Conflict Theory (RGCT), a social psychological model which describes how the perceived abundance of resources (or lack thereof) in a shared environment can reinforce in-group/out-group worldviews and result in intergroup hostility and prejudice. Khan et al. (2007) describe the model aptly in their article, Realistic Group Conflict Theory, writing “Unlike theories that use psychological factors to explain conflict and prejudice, RGCT focuses on situational forces outside the self. When valuable resources are perceived to be abundant, then groups cooperate and exist in harmony. However, if valuable resources are perceived as scare (regardless of whether they truly are), then these groups enter into competition and antagonism ensues between them” (Khan et al., 2007).

Whereas RGCT explicitly discounts the role of personality traits in intergroup hostilities in favor of a wholly environmental explanation, AST contends that those with authoritarian personality traits are likely to react sooner and with greater intensity to perceived zero-sum resource environments than those without. The basis for this claim is grounded in the work of Stenner (1997), whose theory of an “authoritarian dynamic” suggests that an interaction between intrinsic personality traits and threat perception lies at the center of authoritarianism. AST resolves the disconnect between RGCT and Stenner’s theory of the authoritarian dynamic by broadening the activation mechanism to encompass threat perception generally, rather than selecting and categorizing specific kinds of threats (such as resources in the case of RGCT, cultural/ethnic homogeneity in the case of Stenner). Additionally, whereas Fog’s (2017) Regality Theory predicts a uniformly authoritarian reaction on the part of societies to perceived dangers/threats, AST suggests that these reactions can only be observed in certain members of the society, depending on their Big 5 trait profiles and the degree of threat perception they’re experiencing.

With regards to the findings of some past research on this topic, AST makes two claims: 1), that previous studies have unknowingly masked a relationship between economic threat-perception and authoritarian behavior by failing to account for variation in the personality profiles of their participants (i.e., by assuming uniformity of personality), and 2), that there is a symbiotic, positive relationship between authoritarian political behavior and partisan polarization (as has been suggested, indirectly, by past research). With this second claim, AST articulates a new conceptualization of partisan polarization as resulting from the activation of latent authoritarian personality traits in conservative members of a society.

Congress vote graph
Ideology scores for House of Representative votes by party over time

Financial Crisis Polarization Model

  1. A society with an economic situation of perceived abundance is unpolarized.
  2. An event occurs which changes the perception of that society from being one of abundance to being one of limited resources, i.e. zero-sum, in some citizens.

Threat Perception Occurs

  1. This perception of the nature of resource attainment within the society as being zero-sum results in the activation of previously dormant authoritarian personality traits among some number of political conservatives.
  2. Political liberals who share this zero-sum perception of resource attainment in the society but who – unlike conservatives – don’t have authoritarian personality dispositions, react to the authoritarian behavior of their conservative counterparts by moving in what they believe to be the opposite direction: egalitarianism.
  3. The ideological center of the society collapses as the authoritarian “software” activates throughout more members of the polity; both liberals and conservatives gravitate towards one or the other end of the egalitarian-authoritarian (E-A) systems scale, with liberals moving towards the former, conservatives the latter. This movement may at first appear like traditional left-right polarization, and while this may occur with it, it is more precisely the polarization of the society along this systems scale.
  4. Those left within one standard deviation of the ideological center of the E-A systems scale are generally members of the society that 1) don’t view the society’s resources in zero-sum terms, and thus perceive no threat, 2) have personality profiles that insulate them against drastic movements along this systems scale, or 3) don’t have strong in-group identification/allegiances.

Four hypotheses

H1: Democracies whose economies were more affected by the global financial crisis have seen significantly higher rates of support for authoritarian political parties since 2009 than those whose economies were less affected.

H2: Democracies whose economies were more affected by the global financial crisis have seen significantly more political polarization since 2009 than those whose economies were less affected.

H3: The majority of support for authoritarian political parties in democracies since 2009 has been coming from political conservatives.

H4: Supporters of authoritarian political parties are more likely to identify themselves and others using an in-group/out-group social reference framework than are supporters of centrist or left-wing parties.

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