Which political faction is most likely to embrace authoritarianism? According to the polls, you’re most likely to answer “conservatives”, “Republicans”, “right-wingers”, etc.
There’s plenty of reason to fear the authoritarian strain of conservatism in today’s GOP, to be sure. We have the attempted coup of Jan. 6. Baseless claims of election fraud by the former president. His national security advisor’s public proclamation that “America must have one religion under God”. Former Sen. Rick Santorum’s enthusiastic embrace of big-government conservatism. The distressing comfort white supremacists now enjoy nestled in the conservative right.
These are things to be legitimately frightened of. These are all things that people of goodwill, including (especially) conservatives, ought to be fighting.
Unfortunately, the right no longer has a monopoly on nurturing authoritarian movements. Turns out it never did. Authoritarian threats to democracy are just a likely to emerge from the illiberal left, the socialist wing of the Democratic party, and in fact from any organized movement so convinced of its righteousness the expressions of dissent from others will simply no longer be tolerated.
I say this because I’ve just finished reading a preprint from the latest issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, a peer-reviewed scientific journal of the American Psychological Association. Caveat: I am neither a psychologist nor a social scientist. I just like to read interesting stuff.
Titled “Clarifying the Structure and Nature of Left-wing Authoritarianism”, the article shows strong evidence that authoritarian tendencies are just as strong among left-leaning groups. It turns out that psychologists just never bothered to look for it there. Shocking, I know.
Authoritarianism has a few well-established personality traits. They include: 1) A discouragement of individualism, 2) centralized control by charismatic leaders, 3) punitive enforcement of in-group obedience and conformity, 4) aggression against those who are different, 5) dogmatic persistence in beliefs regardless of evidence, and 6) harsh reactions to perceived threats.
Is it really any surprise to anyone that these traits exist on both sides of our rather limited political spectrum? It certainly isn’t to my friends with friends in public schools who must keep their conservative sympathies closeted for fear of ridicule and social isolation.
Nor would it be a surprise to the legions of university faculty who have had their careers threatened and reputations ruined for daring to say that America is not a racist nation, that their campuses do not promote rape culture, or that their students should not be protected from exposure to speech they might find offensive.
Left-wing authoritarianism is found in groups like antifa, in movements like defund the police, in the ecoterrorism of the Animal and Earth Liberation Fronts, in the mandatory student orientations where white freshmen learn they are racists, and even in the casual but ad-hominem attacks of anyone who chooses to say “check your privilege” rather than engage in a constructive conversation.
Sadly, authoritarianism is on the rise around the world. Part of the reason, I’d suggest, is that America isn’t the shining example of freedom and tolerance it once was.
What’s the antidote to authoritarianism? It’s the time-honored tradition of free speech, civilized discussion, and a willingness to change your mind in the face of evidence. It’s speaking the truth to your tribe when you think they’re wrong, and in your tribe’s willingness to tolerate dissent. It’s the disavowal of violence as a means to an end.
It’s submission and acceptance to the rule of law. It allows civil disobedience if you break it, but only when you accept the consequences completely on yourself and not on innocent third parties. It’s recognizing that others who disagree with you might still be good, thoughtful people who don’t deserve to be threatened, abused, assaulted or killed for the crime of disagreeing with you.
None of this means we’re all going to hold hands and sing kumbaya. People are always going to have values that are strongly held and differ among themselves. But even people with different values should be able to agree on the virtues of discipline, self-government, and tolerance, as well as the importance of fighting authoritarianism and tyranny. From wherever they may come.
Barry Fagin is senior fellow at the Independence Institute in Denver. His views are his alone. Readers can write to Fagin at email@example.com.