Tuesday, April 10, 2018


In my last post, I wrote about a piece by Thomas Edsall reviewing research that shows a large and increasing connection between "authoritarianism" and Republican voting.  Authoritarianism is measured by "a long-established authoritarian scale — based on four survey questions about which childhood traits parents would like to see in their offspring ..... Those respondents who choose respect for elders, good manners, obedience and being well-behaved are rated more authoritarian."  This scale measures something meaningful, but why call it "authoritarianism" rather than "traditionalism" or maybe even "conservativism"?  The basic idea of the "authoritarian personality," as proposed by Theodor W. Adorno, Else Frenkel-Brunswik, Daniel Levinson, and Nevitt Sanford, was that it was different from ordinary conservatism, and that an authoritarian conservative could appeal to people who didn't normally support conservatives (and repel some people who normally did)*.  Their idea of authoritarianism was complicated, but I would say that the essence is a tendency to say that every problem is the result of evil or contemptible behavior that ought to be punished (and sometimes to imagine problems so that you have an opportunity to blame someone).  This idea seems very relevant to Donald Trump--as Andrew Gelman said "Political scientists used to worry about authoritarianism within the electorate. Mainstream politicians, ranging from Republicans on the far right to lefties such as Sanders, tend not to go there. Trump did." 

The Authoritarian Personality team came up with questions that they thought measured the concept, some of which were used in surveys in the 1950s and 1960s.  One by the National Opinion Research Center included the following agree/disagree items:
"The most important thing to teach children is absolute obedience to their parents"
"Any good leader should be strict with people under him in order to gain their respect"
"Prison is too good for sex criminals.  They should be publicly whipped or worse"
"There are two kinds of people in the world:  the weak and the strong"
"No decent man can respect a woman who has had sex relations before marriage"

The survey also had a question asking if various kinds of people "are taking advantage of present conditions to make money."  The Korean War had started that summer, so I guess that was the "present conditions" they were talking about.  For ten of the twelve groups they asked about, people who said a good leader should be strict were more likely to say that they were taking advantage of conditions; for seven of those ten, the difference was statistically significant.  Those seven were Negroes, grocery store keepers, doctors, Puerto Ricans in the United States, Jews, bankers, and Catholics.  The three on which there was a non-significant difference in that direction were Labor union members, Protestants, and car dealers.  The two for which the difference was in the other direction (in both cases very small and nowhere near statistical significance) were farmers and steel companies.  The "authoritarian" answer was more common among less educated people, but controlling for education didn't change this the basic pattern--in most cases, it increased the t-ratios. 

So it does seem that an "authoritarian" answer on this question went along with a tendency to blame.  Of course, in some cases, it was plausible to say that a group was trying to make money--maybe grocery stores had raised prices.  But it's hard to imagine a reasonable argument that groups like Catholics or blacks were  doing that. 

The other questions had approximately the same pattern of correlations, but it was weaker and generally not statistically significant.  Some of those questions are dated or just don't seem very good in principle.  But maybe the "leader should be strict" question deserves to be revived.  It's not enough by itself, but it seems to be getting at something. 

*There has been some controversy about whether left-wing authoritarians exist; my view is that they do.

[Data from the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research]

No comments:

Post a Comment