3. Authoritarianism in U.S. Politics

 (Intially posted October 15, 2015)


Research on authoritarianism began after World War II in an effort to understand dictatorships such as Nazi Germany. Authoritarian groups and organizations have certain characteristics that include:

·       a group of like-minded people who consider themselves superior to others and feel threatened by, hostility toward, and a need to fight those who are outside the group;

·       the group derives purpose and meaning from conflict, fear, anger, and imposing the group’s values on others;

·       the group is divided into leaders who make decisions and followers who consider the leaders to have authority that must be accepted as a matter of faith and cannot be challenged by evidence, logic, or different perspectives;

·       the leaders tend to have strong dispositions to exert power, to dominate others, to initiate conflicts, and to propagate dogmatic ideas that are sometimes out of touch with reality;

·       the assumption that conflicts are resolved by destroying or subjugating opponents rather than with agreements that allow both sides to co-exist.


People have different degrees of attraction to authoritarian groups. The tendency to be authoritarian appears to be relatively constant over time for an adult and is often described as a personality factor. Most personality factors, such as extroversion or introversion, result from certain innate dispositions at birth combined with experiences during childhood. This is probably also true for authoritarianism. Experiences that make a child feel threatened by other groups presumably enhance the tendency for the child to become authoritarian. Psychologist Bob Altemeyer has extensively investigated authoritarianism and has written a book that is available free online (The Authoritarians, 2006, available at http://members.shaw.ca/jeanaltemeyer/drbob/TheAuthoritarians.pdf). As indicated above, the leaders and followers in authoritarian groups tend to have somewhat different personality dispositions.

Authoritarianism can occur in various types of organizations, including political parties, governments, corporations, and religious groups. Authoritarian organizations emerge when authoritarian leaders combine with authoritarian followers to dominate an organization. I suspect that electronic communication has allowed highly authoritarian people to find each other and to form groups that more strongly manifest authoritarianism.

Authoritarian Leaders

Authoritarian leaders try to appear powerful and competent. That was a high priority for the Nazis. However, the appearance of competence may be based more on propaganda and marketing than on reality.

As the examples below show, unbiased investigation often reveals significant incompetence compared to less authoritarian organizations. People who rise to the top of authoritarian organizations usually focus more on displaying power and conforming to hierarchy rather than on finding creative solutions to problems. Optimal decision-making includes creative brainstorming by people with diverse perspectives. Authoritarian leaders often take pride in making decisions with little input from others. They mistakenly consider this to be strong leadership.

One of the most conspicuous results of authoritarian leaders is a tendency to initiate conflicts and wars. However, they sometimes do not have the ability to win these conflicts and wars.

Poor decision-making and poor management by authoritarians can result in their failure to prevail in conflicts. Many examples of this can be found in World War II. Hitler planned to invade and conquer Britain early in the war. The German air force needed to defeat the British air force before the invasion. The Germans had many more airplanes and far superior airplanes, and expected to quickly defeat the British air force. However, the Nazis failed to defeat the British air force and were unable to invade Britain. Historian James Holland made a documentary video that describes several reasons for this Nazi failure (“The Battle of Britain: The Real Story”—available on Netflix).

One major factor for the Nazi failure was that Hermann Goering, the head of the German air force, ordered that fighter planes fly in an ineffective fixed formation. This order prevented the pilots from taking advantage of their substantial superiority in number of planes, maneuverability, and firepower. Some of the German pilots were extremely frustrated by this “ridiculous” order. Inexplicably bad decisions like this that are out of touch with reality can be expected to occur more frequently with top-down authoritarian management.

Another factor was that the British manufactured fighter planes at more than double the rate of the Germans. Both sides incurred major losses of planes that needed to be replaced. The British made optimal use of available resources, whereas the German efforts to deploy their superior technology were far from optimal.

The British also demonstrated greater flexibility, creativity, and effectiveness for matters such as pilot training, giving pilots breaks for recovery from stress, and creating a system for coordinating diverse information about incoming enemy planes. This greater flexibility and creativity in management was a significant advantage for the British compared to the authoritarian Nazis.

Examples of authoritarian management can also be found in more recent years. As this article is being written, Carly Fiorina is a candidate for president and her performance as CEO of Hewlett-Packard (HP) is a frequent topic of discussion. HP did not come close to meeting the financial goals Fiorina predicted would be achieved under her management. This failure was a direct indication of her executive ability to set and achieve goals. Employees described her management style as “top-down, do as I say”—a typical authoritarian style of management. Fiorina’s refusal to delegate authority was a major factor in the decision by the HP Board of Directors to fire her. She appears to have had an overly authoritarian style of management and was unable to adapt to the business reality at HP. There is no evidence that she has acknowledged and learned from her experience at HP.

Authoritarian Republicans

John W. Dean wrote a book that discussed the trend for the Republican Party in the U.S. to be increasingly authoritarian (Conservatives without Conscience, 2006). Dean has long been a conservative and had a key role in President Richard Nixon’s administration and a key role in revealing the extent of the Watergate scandal.

Dean notes that Republican politicians increasingly consider people with different views to be an enemy who must be personally destroyed by any means, whether truthful or not. The political campaigns by George W. Bush included many false personal accusations about his opponents. Republican politicians increasingly focus more on attacking people they consider to be enemies than on governing the county and finding solutions to problems. The war in Iraq initiated by the Bush/Cheney administration was based on false justification and is an example of authoritarian leadership. I would add that the Bush/Cheney administration’s erroneous predictions about the duration and cost of the war and about the response of the Iraqi people were significantly out of touch with reality.

Dean gives many other examples and describes how “authoritarian conservatives” and “neoconservatives” differ from more traditional conservatives. The more traditional conservatives were more respectful of people with different perspectives and were able to develop compromises. The earlier conservatives were also more inclined to thoughtful analysis and less inclined to blindly follow dogma and dispositional hostility from authoritarian leaders.

Political scientists Marc J. Hetherington and Jonathan D. Weiler summarized data indicating that the major difference between political parties is high authoritarian personalities for Republicans and low authoritarian personalities for Democrats (Authoritarianism & Polarization in American Politics, 2009). They say that in the past both parties had authoritarian members, but now authoritarians are concentrated in the Republican Party. Dean and Weiler have also written articles that describe authoritarianism as a major factor explaining Donald Trump’s strong appeal to many Republican voters.

Research studies by political scientists and by psychologists have produced generally consistent findings about the characteristics and effects of authoritarianism. However, political scientists and psychologists use different research methodology and have different assumptions about the underlying motivations for authoritarianism. Research with greater integration of psychology and political science would be valuable. Also, research is needed with greater attention to authoritarian leaders and their propensity to initiate conflicts, attacks, and wars.

Authoritarian Followers

Many Republican voters currently support politicians who advocate economic policies that are detrimental to these voters. This was pointed out in the previous article in this blog. This type of seemingly irrational, self-destructive behavior is common for the followers in authoritarian organizations. People who have a strong disposition to be an authoritarian follower accept without question the claims of the leaders. They will readily follow leaders who are self-serving and who create an aristocracy or a dictatorship. They will support policies that are destructive or evil.

This tendency to follow a leader without question appears to be a deep-seated personality characteristic for people who are strongly authoritarian followers. This disposition apparently cannot be easily changed, although more research is needed on this point.

Even though only a minority of the population are strongly authoritarian, this minority can come to dominate organizations that have significant power and influence. A Gallup poll in September, 2015 found that 27% of the population considered themselves Republican, 27% considered themselves Democrats, and 43% said they were independent. The Republican and Democratic parties are each a minority of the population. The Republican Party appears to have become dominated by high authoritarians. Many people who are less authoritarian have left the party. The remaining authoritarians select the candidates that will run for office—which can result in extremely authoritarian candidates. The Bush/Cheney administration was authoritarian, but the current Republican Party and candidates advocate even more extreme positions.

The current political system in the U.S. gives undue power to the Republican and Democratic parties. This two-party system does not represent the much larger number of people who have more moderate views. Independent voters increasingly find that they must choose between the lesser of two evils and do not have candidates that they can enthusiastically support. The top priority for elected officials is to fulfill the expectations of the members of their political party, particularly the wealthy donors. This occurs even though a large majority of the population (over 70%) are not members of the party and presumably do not support many of the party’s positions. The current two-party system allows a political minority, and particularly the wealthy donors, to have excessive power in government. As discussed in the previous article for this blog, I expect that articulate independent candidates will at some point run for office and generate a stunning rejection of the current two-party system.

Authoritarian Religions

Fundamentalist religions also have authoritarian characteristics. Fundamentalism occurs in all the major religions of the world and attracts people with authoritarian personalities. The characteristics of authoritarianism listed at the beginning of this article are a good description of religious fundamentalism. Christian and Islamic fundamentalists are often in the news and tend to be “hardliners” who advocate intolerance and war. For comparison, the liberal to moderate branches of most religions generally strive to live in peace with those who have different religious beliefs.

The Republican Party has become closely linked with religious fundamentalism. This is not surprising given the common denominator of authoritarianism.

Authoritarian Dictators

Authoritarians want a government in which their opinions prevail with no compromises. That type of government is a dictatorship. In a democratic government people have to accept the fact that they will not prevail on all issues and must compromise. The Republican Party has become increasingly authoritarian in advocating no compromises. The calls to shut down government rather than compromise are basically advocating a dictatorship.

Hopefully, authoritarian styles of politics and government will be widely rejected as people become aware of the characteristics of authoritarianism. These characteristics include the tendency for poor decision-making that is out of touch with reality and the implicit goal of creating government that is basically a dictatorship.


Copyright notice. The author, James E. Kennedy, authorizes and grants license that the contents of this article may be freely reproduced, distributed, and used by anyone for any purpose in any media worldwide for the duration of the copyright. Compensation or attribution to the author is not required.