Jonathan Weiler – Authoritarians Versus Reality

November 21, 2011

Our guest this week is Jonathan Weiler, a political scientist and director of global studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

Weiler is co-author, with Marc Hetherington of Vanderbilt, of the book Authoritarianism and Polarization in American Politics.

In it, they describes this strange and troubling creature called an authoritarian—usually conservative, usually a religious fundamentalist, and very closed minded.

Authoritarians are identified in surveys by asking people some very simple questions about the qualities that children should have: Whether they should be “independent,” for instance, rather than showing respect for their elders. (See here.)

Based on this measure, Weiler and Hetherington show not only that the U.S. is full of authoritarians—but also how people with this psychological profile are driving our political polarization, as well as the divide over factual reality in the U.S

Weiler also writes regularly for the Huffington Post.

This is point of inquiry for Monday, November 21st, 2011. 

Welcome to Point of inquiry. I’m Chris Mooney point of inquiry is the radio show and the podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank advancing reason, science and secular values in public affairs and at the grassroots. My guest this week is Jonathan Wiler. He’s a political scientist and he’s the director of global studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. He’s also the coauthor with Mark Heatherington of Vanderbilt of the book Authoritarianism and Polarization in American Politics. In the book, Heatherington and Wyler described this strange and troubling creature called an authoritarian. Now, usually these people are conservative. Usually they’re religious fundamentalists. And Wiler and Heatherington go on to describe how people with this psychological profile are not only driving political polarization in the U.S. and the failure to compromise, but also they suggest the divide over factual reality itself. In addition to his teaching and research, Wiler also writes regularly for the Huffington Post. Jonathan Wiler welcomed to point of inquiry. 

Thanks for having me. 

We’re here to talk about the topic of authoritarianism. And it’s a concept everybody I think is probably heard of a little. 

But what it really means and I don’t think there’s a very rich public understanding of that. So I want to start with some groundwork. 

What is this? Is this in an ideology? Is this a temperament? Is it universal? Is it specific to the United States? 

Yeah, all really good questions. 

I would say that, you know, the way that I and my coauthor Mark Hetherington use the term when we when we wrote about this for our book is really as a as a temperament or a psychological disposition and specifically a psychological disposition that tends to see the world in quite rigid and black and white terms with a tendency to be a first to ambiguity, an inclination to disliking difference, whether that’s ethnic or racial or behavioral, and an overall worldview that is averse to change. 

This concept of authoritarianism, it goes back a long time, and my understanding is that it originates in the attempt to understand fascism. And so there’s this guy Adorno in 1950s and his colleagues at Berkeley, and they published his classic book, The Authoritarian Personality. That book is now seen as highly controversial or even seen as debunked. A lot of it relied upon Freudian theories of development that we now consider, some would say, pseudo science. But the research on authoritarianism has had many, many waves since then. So can you. Can you say that it’s on a much more solid footing than it was 50 years ago? 

It’s a great question. You know, what I would say is that you’re right, Chris. One of the reasons that the authoritarian personality, at least at its quantitative findings, has been so controversial and perhaps even debunked is it’s rooting and Freudianism, but also it’s rooting in a bunch of survey instruments that most social scientists consider problematic for all sorts of reasons. And so one way in which I would say that the study of authoritarianism is on more solid footing now is that the the way we measure authoritarianism stands up to statistical scrutiny. I think much better than it did 40 or 50 years ago. 

OK. Well, and I think you’re the thing that Adorno and his colleagues use was something called the F scale or the fascism’s scale, they were trying to actually find a fascist. And how do you how do you find an authoritarian? 

So the way we find an authoritarian is we and this this is this is not our idea. This has been out there in one form or another for a few decades now. But it’s a four question battery that asks people how they think children should be raised. So in other words, it’s a four question parenting battery. And that for question battery has made its way on to various survey instruments. I would say over the last 30, 40 years or so. And that’s what we used to try to measure our our authoritarians. 

And, of course, there’s always this idea and I don’t know how real it is, but you certainly throw it out there is that authoritarians are more likely to physically punish their children to spank. So, in other words, is that is that part of why we use parenting as the way of identifying? 

Yes, we do. 

We do make some suggestive statements about about spanking and authoritarianism. But I think the reason that the parenting questions appeal to people trying to understand this concept is that parenting really does people’s ideas about parenting. I should say really do go to the heart of people’s understandings of superordinate subordinate relationships, authority, hierarchical relationships. And and an additional reason why I think the parenting questions have become appealing to political scientists is that they tend there’s a feeling that if you ask people if you’re trying to understand, Chris, whether somebody is an authoritarian and you do so by asking them whether they believe gay being gay is immoral or impure, or your ability to then explain how authoritarianism relates to people’s political decisions or political opinions is going to be sort of clouded or obscured. And so one nice thing one nice thing about the parenting questions is that they appear to be unrelated to the kinds of political questions that one then asks as follow up and political service. So in some ways, it’s sort of a cleaner and more distinct way of trying to understand the phenomenon. 

OK. And I understand that because you’re mixing up otherwise you’re mixing up independent. Independent. Very. Exactly. That’s right. Do you think that authoritarianism is a part of humanity, in other words? You know, we we’re going to talk about it shortly. Authoritarians in the United States. But are they everywhere? Should they be everywhere? Would we expect that? 

Yeah, I think I think the short answer is yes. Authoritarians are everywhere. And I should back up and offer a caveat, which was that, of course, you know, human behavior, including in each individual human, exists along some sort of spectrum and in some circumstances, such as under threat or fear, you or I or anybody else is likely to act in one way and under other circumstances. One, perhaps we’re feeling more secure and calm. We’re likely to act another way. So the first thing to say is I think that the tendency to authoritarian behaviors is certainly universal. 

And then the second thing I would say is that those who are more inclined toward authoritarianism as a kind of baseline default outlook on the world are also from from what we can see. They they certainly don’t just exist in the United States. They exist everywhere that this phenomenon is studied. 

Gotcha. And also, we tend to associate this I mean, going back to the original research on fascism. It’s seen as a right wing ideology. And certainly in the U.S., it would seem it would be seen as closely tied to conservative religiosity. But I guess from your research, I would understand that you. That’s probably true. But you could have an authoritarian personality turn up anywhere. 

Yes, you could. 

And in fact, Bob Altmire, who’s an American researcher who’s been working in Canada for many decades now and has done some of the most significant work on authoritarianism over the last 30 years when he studied the phenomenon in the former Soviet Union, he certainly found that those who were most supportive of the Soviet Communist Party, which we would identify as the left, were also the most authoritarian. So so, yes, it certainly it could in theory, end up anywhere. 

And he does this interesting move has worked in the news is interesting definitional thing. Where for him actually the Soviet authoritarians are the right. Yeah. Because the right is the estab. Lishman, and so by that definition, they’re always right wing. Do you think that that’s fair? 

Yes, I personally do think that’s fair. And yes, and he certainly sees authoritarianism as as essentially exclusively a right wing phenomenon. But but in terms of folks everyday understanding of ideology, most people would certainly put Soviet communism on the left. And those folks are certainly authoritarian. 

Mm hmm. Elena, remind our listeners that Jonathan Wyler’s latest book, Authoritarianism and Polarization in American Politics, coauthored with Mark Hetherington, is available through our Web site Point of Inquiry. 

Dawg, to read your work and the work of others on authoritarianism. 

One, The central thing that jumps out at me is that is that if you have this personality, then it seems to interfere with. I don’t know if it’s fair to say it is your your rationality or how you weigh evidence it because it’s about being close minded, ends about not wanting to change your beliefs. And so you actually write them in a quote that authoritarians tend to rely more on emotion and instinct and they are less likely to change their way of thinking when new information might challenge deeply held beliefs. Now, draw the connection there for me was what does that come out of the basic disposition of personality? 

Well, I think what I would say is the connection is a greater likelihood to feel threatened by by new novel and challenging information. And because that poses a threat, some kind of basic psychic threat to one’s self understanding, one’s understanding of the world. One is more likely to retreat and to what I guess I would say as a kind of defensive posture in terms of one’s understanding of the world, one’s self understanding. And so I’d say that’s the. And Chris, I do want to say I do want to make one caveat here, which is that I’m certainly personally not prepared to say that if I characterize authoritarian thinking as a particular way when it comes to thinking about politics, that does not automatically mean in my mind that that individual will think that way in other realms of their of their lives. You know, that person might be quite adept under pressure in their job, for example, responding well, incorporating new information, etc.. So I do I do think that we are talking, particularly here, about political thinking and political reasoning. 

When when you draw the conclusions that we do, we’ll see. 

That’s interesting to me because on the other hand, we’re measuring it based upon how people treat their children. I mean, certainly there’s some sense there how how obedient they think their kids be safe. 

Certainly in some sense, we think it pervades much more of life than just your political outlook or else we wouldn’t be measuring it, though. 

You’re you’re right. And but, you know, this is an interesting and I don’t have a great explanation for this, frankly, but this is sort of an interesting quirk in understanding authoritarianism this way. And this is hard to know for sure. But to the extent that people have tried to investigate this, it’s not clear if I answer those parenting questions in an authoritarian direction. It’s not clear that that’s actually how I raise my own kids. It’s almost like I’m I’m stating an ideal of how I would like the world to be through this metaphore of parent. And so I do think that it’s that that that relationship is complicated, that relationship between the parents and questions we’re asking and and what it is we’re using that to try to explain. 

OK, but nevertheless, I mean, it’s the correlation seems or pretty well immunizes. 

Yeah, the correlations in terms of explaining political behavior and political outlook work exceptionally well. 

And this is why I say I’m comfortable drawing the relationship between the parenting and political outlook in terms of answering those parenting questions and how people behave in other realms of life. We just I certainly don’t don’t know what that data would look like. 

And when we talk about defensiveness, about about beliefs, and let’s just say it’s political beliefs. Oh, we’re not saying that an authoritarian is stupid. We’re seeing an authoritarian is China is, you know, react strongly when you challenge them. In other words, you could have a brilliant authoritarian and that would be a terrible person to have to argue with because they would never give an inch, but they would come up with all kinds of great reasons why they’re never gonna give an inch. Is that would that be right? Yeah. 

Well, Chris, when you describe that, a first name that pops into my head is Antonin Scalia. 


I would hate to have to argue with Antonin Scalia. I think there’s reason to believe that he’s a brilliant guy. And I don’t know that he’s an authoritarian because I haven’t asked him the four questions, but I would guess that he is. 

And so that combination of rigidity and mental acuity, I think certainly seems to reside in somebody like him. 

You do equate this writing on Huffington Post to some extent in your book with all the crazy misinformation that’s believed in politics. 

In your book, you talk about people who believe, contrary to all evidence, that there were weapons of mass destruction found in Iraq. So in other words, you think that on the mass scale of public belief, that actually shows up? 

Yes. Yes, I do. I think that and again, I think this goes back to in part to a point he raised a couple of minutes ago, which is authoritarians greater tendency to disregard information that might upset their their worldview or their more deeply held beliefs. 

And it seems clear to me that in those circumstances, you’re much more likely to get seriously misinformed people. 

Do you believe that we will eventually locate this in the brain? 

I mean, I know this is the most controversial part of the topic, but the central thing about authoritarians, right, is you described as defensive. 

You know, the policy issues that arouse authoritarians are ones that have to do with fear, the fear of someone different than them, fear of a country being under attack. And so they’re responding to a threat. And we know well what one of the brain regions is that is centrally involved in this is called the amygdala. And it has been tied to having a right wing outlook in general. So do you do you go that far? 

Well, we you know, we don’t go that far in the book because we’re you know, we’re not scientists and we don’t have that information. My instinct is that, yes, we will eventually find it in the brain. I mean, I think that the way I usually think about it is that I don’t know if it’s genetic. I don’t know if we’re born with it. 

But it does feel to me like it is some fundamental facet of one’s personality. And so to the extent that research continues to locate personality and the brain itself, my instinct would be that we will we will find more more of that evidence. 

Well, let’s talk about. I mean, I don’t know if we can really nail this down, but what it would like what it would feel like to be authoritarian. I’m not I don’t think. 

And yet I will confess I’m happy to confess that I was in Washington, D.C. after 9/11. I was terrified. Everybody was. And then came the anthrax attacks. And we were even more terrified. And I. I know because I’ve wrote things at the time, I became more supportive of George W. Bush during that time. I joined the crew of liberal hawks that wanted to go to war in Iraq. And I defended the war up through 2003, where I suddenly was embarrassed for having done so. And I kind of did a retraction at that time. Now, I was an authoritarian and in a sense it wasn’t. I wasn’t. I just switched on by being under threat. 

Well, yeah, it’s it’s a great issue that you’re raising because and this is something that we talk about in the book that, you know, the context will certainly influence. Well, I it will influence how people react to these things and be it will influence the relationship between authoritarianism and political outlook. Because, Chris, presumably what we’re saying is that if we measure you or you answer the four questions, we’re going to determine that you’re not an authoritarian. 

But whether or not you’re in authoritarian matters less in some circumstances for. Planning your outlook than and others. So right after 9/11, everybody’s fearful. George Bush had a 90 percent approval rating since September of 2001. And I think before the war started, the support for the war was was overwhelming. And it wasn’t just among authoritarians. So in other words, the power of authoritarianism itself to explain these matters really diminishes in circumstances where everybody is feeling that kind of threat or fear. But what happens is over time for less authoritarian folks, that fear recedes when the threat recedes or the perceived threat recedes and it never recedes for the authoritarians. So I think the way I would put it, you know, looking at you and your self-description 10 years ago is not necessarily that you became authoritarian and this kind of inherent personality sense, but that you reacted to fear which people which is normal for people to do. 

And so what our listeners will definitely want is what is the relationship between this phenomenon, this disposition and religiosity? 

Well, it seems to be very strong. You know, we do. 

I say we Marcus is the number cruncher of the two of us. You know, Mark did a bunch of correlations just looking at the relationship between the four parenting questions and different kinds of attributes, whether they’re demographic attributes or opinion questions that people answer. And we found the strongest single correlation was between authoritarianism and a viewing the Bible as the literal word of God. So which made good sense to us. Because, you know, we understand authoritarianism is this very constrained way of thinking about the world. 

And in a sense, a need to interpret rules as strictly and literally as possible. And so I think there’s a very clear and strong relationship between authoritarianism and for lack of a better term, evangelical religiosity or conservative Christian religiosity in the United States. 

Well, that brings us right up to the present. But let me let me again remind our listeners that Jonathan Wyler’s latest book, Authoritarianism and Polarization in American Politics, coauthored with Mark Heatherington, is available through our Web site Point of Inquiry dot org. What I think is so important about this is that you posit and I think pretty convincingly, you know, there’s all sorts of explanations out there right now for why America is so messed up right now. 

And yours is one of the most, to me, intriguing and satisfying. You say that it’s. It explains our dysfunction because authoritarians won’t compromise. 

It’s, you know, my way or the highway. And so if they’re all on one side, then you can’t ever you know, you can’t ever come to some sort of middle ground. 

Well, and yes. And I would add to that, you know, we also in this regard. And look, I clearly identified myself as on one side of the political spectrum, and I’m not apologizing for that. 

But in this regard, it takes two to tango. Right. And so we have authoritarians on one side with what I do think is a quite rigid and unyielding view of the world and and a basic and capacity to compromise. On the other side are non authoritarians who also have a very distinct and clear way of seeing the world. And each side is looking across at the other with really and a basic inability to understand how the other side could even think about the world the way it does. So we’re we’re just there’s really there’s no ground. There’s no middle ground. And that kind of polarization further to be reaching across the aisle. You know, we’re not talking about. Well, you think 50 percent. I think 30 percent. And there’s an obvious solution. We’re just talking about such ingrained differences in understanding how the world works. 

But here’s the here’s the key question. I mean, and I don’t fully understand it why if this is the case and I think it does describe current dysfunction, fine. 

It’s hard to know why the authoritarians wouldn’t have always been lined up with the right wing since that seems to be their natural place. But you argue that they weren’t always there. I mean, weren’t they there opposing the New Deal and weren’t they there defending slavery? Why is it so much more the case now or does it seem to be so much more the case now? 

Well, you know, our answer is, as you say, we don’t think it was always the case. 

And if you look at the New Deal coalition, for example, it included very centrally Southern Democrats who we imagine would have scored high and authoritarianism there, all sorts of compromises that Roosevelt Democrats made over race throughout the New Deal to keep that coalition together. 

And so it’s really not until the 1960s. 

And, you know, I mean, to back up for a second here in 1960 when John Kennedy is running against Richard Nixon for president, you know, there’s this sort of off told story that kind of the Kennedy campaign is passing out fliers in Virginia to quote unquote, exposing the fact that Richard Nixon was a member of the NAACP. Right. So here’s the Democrat, basically race baiting. At that time, quite moderate, racially moderate Republican opponent. And so I think the racial politics in this country half a century ago were very different than they are now. And it was in the 60s and 70s that they really underwent a fundamental transformation. And when they did so, they started to break up that all New Deal coalition. And the way we put it is the Republican Party sort of found an angle for appealing to white working class voters. And they did it by talking about social breakdown, moral breakdown, affirmative action, welfare, et cetera. So we we do locate this sorting out process, as we describe it very much in the politics of the last 40 years or so. 

I’ve heard it often said, I think you would agree, the Tea Party is a is an authoritarian group of people, but they’re also free market. And this causes endless confusion because you don’t associate in your book and one doesn’t assess you think of authoritarians as social conservatives. 

You know, like, you know, this is about how I raise my kids. And, you know, I’m intolerant of gays. Right. They probably wouldn’t say that about themselves. We would say it about them. But yet we have this Tea Party movement, EVANS like, oh, that. You know, they know they want less government. Now, how on earth are they authoritarian? 

Yeah, they they do that kind of phenomenon does it does pose a little bit of a puzzle. 

You know, I want to just back up for a second, Chris, and say that when we were writing the book and in a 2007, 2008 and we’d made this distinction between New Deal kind of social and economic economic issues excuse me on the one hand, and sort of authoritarian social issues. On the other hand, with this moment or in the campaign in 2008 when environmental issues were being debated. And environmental concerns are not something that I would say historically would have fallen neatly along authoritarian and non authoritarian lines. But in the summer 2008, Sarah Palin says drill, baby, drill. And that kind of struck us as a moment when here’s an issue that historically did not fall neatly into these categories necessarily, that Sarah Palin is turning into an authoritarian issue by framing it in such clear, simple, direct black and white terms. And if there’s one element of the Tea Party that to me comes through so clearly authoritarian, it’s an incredibly sort of simple, direct, aggressive understanding of how policy needs to be implemented in this country. So it’s so in that sense, it’s not even the substance or the content itself necessarily that makes the Tea Party authoritarian. It’s their kind of style and outlook. 

And then I would add to that, it seems clear to me anyway, that there were so clearly motivated by the multiple ambiguities of this president, his race, his religiosity, etc.. 

So but that, again, that means in a different political context, you could have the authoritarians lining up behind whoever was giving them really clear, unequivocal messages. 

Yes. But I believe that is true. Yes. 

Just as long as there’s no new hearts. I mean it. I mean you. Because I’m just again, you know, I’m thinking you could get a a left wing authoritarian. You get an atheist authoritarian if you just give them, you know, this complete black and white, you know, good guys, bad guys. 

You could. And Chris, how many times? I mean, this really goes back to the point that, you know, in some ways we all want more clarity in our lives, at least sometimes. 

And how often have folks on the left lamented the kind of wishy washy nature of liberal message, right. That we’re dying for our political leaders to be more clear, more black and white, more forceful? You know what Bill Clinton said? Better to be strong and wrong than right and weak or something like that. Right. So I. I think that instinct, again, has some has some universal appeal. It just matters much more under all circumstances to authoritarian minded folks than to other folks. 

Okay, so here’s the paradox that you also have to explain. Right. 

We have the Tea Party, which, you know, attacked President Obama, claimed that he wasn’t well, claimed he was a socialist, claim that he wasn’t born to ISIS and claimed that he was a Muslim that really loves another African-American candidate, Herman Cain. How on earth does that work? 

Well, you know, I would say the one obvious way in which Cain appeals is that he has as simple a set of views as you could imagine, nine nine nine tax plan, for example, a willingness to indulge. What I would say is authoritarian discomfort with difference. You know, he said many times, although he’s also retracted, I guess, many times the statement that he would not have Muslims in his cabin. So I think there are all sorts of ways in which can actually perfectly fit the authoritarian mold that we’re talking about. And there’s probably an added bonus in Cain because what he allows authoritarians to do is give themselves license to say, look, we’re not racist. You know, we support Herman Cain and he’s African-American while getting all of the sort of benefit and satisfaction of having their their world view affirmed by this guy, who, you know, from my point of view as a as a perfect authoritarian. 

So how do you deal with this? I mean, you know, sort of getting to was wrapping up here. If the definition of authoritarianism is that you’re immovable. Hey. Yeah. And it seems to be we’re dancing around the idea towards the idea that it’s part of human nature. It’s like, what on earth would you do if you wanted to deal with it? 

Yeah, he you know, it’s obviously a good question. I don’t have a great answer. I have two thoughts. One is I do wonder whether obviously some number of authoritarians voted for Obama in 2008. 

And Obama did offer repeatedly this message of unity, of coming together. 

You know, where where we’re all we’re not red states and white states. We’re all red, white. Blue or whatever he said. 

And I would think that that kind of messaging could have some appeal under some circumstances. That’s one thought I have. 

But a second and probably more hardheaded and I think more realistic way of thinking about dynamics in the United States is that the Republican Party, I think, is eventually headed toward a demographic dead end, that as the United States becomes increasingly diverse and less white, it will be harder and harder for the Republican Party to win by appealing predominantly to white voters. I mean, they’re you know, they lost. John McCain won five percent of the black vote in 2008. He won one third of the Hispanic vote. The Republican candidate next year is likely to do much worse among Hispanic voters. Obviously, they can’t do worse among African-Americans. So I do think that demographic changes will at some point require Republicans to reevaluate their strategy. And at the bottom of all this, Chris. I mean, where for all the talk about personality, this system operates the way it does because political elites make certain decisions about how to appeal to voters. And once the Republican Party no longer sees it in their interests to make these sorts of appeals, I think there will be a change when that will happen. Exactly. I don’t know. 

So in the meantime, I guess the conclusion would be that, you know, don’t talk about issues with with nuance because you feel that in inner disposition that you have to do so. We just remember that that itself is probably turning off large numbers of people who just don’t want don’t want to hear that. 

Yes, I think that’s true. 

Wow. Well, Jonathan Wiler, thank you so much for being with us on point of inquiry for some fascinating discussion about your research. 

Well, Chris, thanks for having me again. 

I want to thank you for listening to this episode of Point of Inquiry. To get involved in a discussion about authoritarianism, please visit our online forums by going to center for inquiry dot net slash forums and then clicking on point of inquiry. The views expressed on point of inquiry aren’t necessarily the views of the Center for Inquiry, nor of its affiliated organizations. Questions and comments on this show can be sent to feedback at point of inquiry. Dawg. 

One of inquiry is produced by Adam, Isaac and AMR’s New York, and our music is composed by Emmy Award winning Michael Wailin. This show also featured contributions from Debbie Goddard. I’m your host, Chris Mooney. 

Chris Mooney