The atomised-individual dynamic

Karen Stenner’s The Authoritarian Dynamic is a seminal collection of evidence on when and how authoritarianism affects polities, but the nuance that she offers above and beyond previous investigations into authoritarianism begins to invite questions about whether it is “authoritarians” who are truly the voters that should puzzle political psychologists.

Karen Stenner’s 2005 The Authoritarian Dynamic received an unexpected jolt into the spotlight on 8 November 2016. Almost every poll had predicted that Hillary Clinton would win the 2016 presidential election; almost every credible pundit had argued that Trump was unelectable. And then, as if out of nowhere, a sizeable chunk of the US population elected the vulgar former head of a reality show into the Oval Office. Who could have predicted such an event? As it turns out, Karen Stenner.

Earlier analysis of the “authoritarian personality”—i.e. a theory that predicted some individuals would consistently express authoritarianism as a deep-seated aspect of their personality—were unable to account for the unexpectedness of Trump’s victory. Indeed, they were unable to account for much at all, since a stable personality trait like “authoritarianism” should predict behaviour consistently across time, and few investigations yielded any real stability in whatever measure of authoritarianism they posited. People did not appear to exhibit particularly consistent racist animosity or willingness to use the strong arm of the state to enforce morality. And indeed, there was little observable anti-establishment sentiment in the US polity in 2015—it would be difficult to attribute Trump’s win to Americans who had acted in a consistently authoritarian way prior to that point.

Here enters Stenner’s concept not of an authoritarian personality but of an authoritarian dynamic. What drives authoritarianism, per Stenner, is not fundamentally racism or a love of strongmen or a punitive moral compass—it is a psychological predisposition towards oneness and sameness. Authoritarians want to be assured that we are all fighting for the same team. Who “we” are is not so salient as the desire for groupishness per se—“it is a groupishness that generally comes from wanting to be part of some collective, not from identification with a particular group” (p.18)[1]. But authoritarians will fail to meet this need for groupishness under conditions of “normative threat”—i.e. a sense of the polity’s coming apart, be it through substantial divergence of public opinion, untrustworthy political leadership, or “diversity and freedom ‘run amok’” (p.17). Authoritarians are not more likely to perceive normative threat than are other citizens, but once they do perceive it, they will immediately man the barricades in defence of a reestablishment of a normative order—indeed, any normative order—that will return the community to a state of oneness and sameness.

Stenner marshals impressive evidence in favour of this point. To measure authoritarianism—i.e. a fundamental desire for oneness and sameness—she uses survey respondents’ endorsement of obedience, courtesy, and respect for elders as childrearing values, as compared with endorsements of the child’s taking responsibility for his own actions, his curiosity, or his following his conscience. Using this apparently minimal measure, Stenner shows that it is specifically the presence of normative threat that drives authoritarians to endorse traditionally authoritarian attitudes, such as an emphasis on “law and order” and a desire to crackdown on “deviant groups and troublemakers”[2]. If authoritarians are encouraged to believe that their polity is united and their leaders are honest, then they are indistinguishable from their more “libertarian” (Stenner’s term, used idiosyncratically) counterparts in their expression of authoritarian beliefs. Further, Stenner derives some impressive real-world results from this minimalist measure: using purely the respondent’s endorsed childrearing values, Stenner can predict a substantially higher level of general intolerance of difference than using almost any other single variable, including years of education, one’s social class, one’s religiosity, or one’s political views. What’s more, she can predict it across a large number of diverse polities—from the Anglosphere through into Eastern Europe through to East Asia. In other words, Stenner appears justified in claiming to have identified a true fundamental psychological contributor to citizens’ authoritarian predispositions the world over.

From this model, Stenner makes some fascinating, if controversial, deductions. For instance, she suggests that the “genocide formula”—i.e. the preconditions for a country’s committing genocide—may not lie so much in average levels of ethnic prejudice so much as in the variance in public belief, since only the latter would indicate normative threat. In Stenner’s 1990–1995 survey data, “none of the six Yugoslav republics displayed especially high levels of authoritarianism on average… But Serbia is unparalleled across the eighty samples in terms of variance in authoritarianism” (p.113). In other words, it may not be deep-seated and widely shared prejudices that drive authoritarian actions. It may simply be that the proportion of the population predisposed to authoritarianism is driven their extremes of behaviour by the presence of normative threat.

Potentially even more controversially, Stenner suggests that “much of what we think of as racism, likewise political and moral intolerance, is more helpfully understood as ‘difference-ism’.” (p.276). Since racial differences, differences in sexual expression, and so on are necessarily socially salient deviations from an authoritarian’s conception of normality, they constitute a normative threat, and it is in that sense—not in the sense of a learned or structural prejudice, nor in the sense of a specific hatefulness towards that minority—that authoritarians’ prejudicial behaviours should be understood.

The other major contribution of Stenner’s work is to distinguish the psychological drivers of authoritarianism, status-quo conservatism, and laissez-faire conservatism (the latter two are Stenner’s terms). Just as authoritarianism is driven by a fundamental psychological need for oneness and sameness, status-quo conservatism is driven by a fundamental psychological need for stability. Status-quo conservatives do not particularly mind however much oneness and sameness there is in the polity, so long as the amount is not very different today to how it was yesterday. Laissez-faire conservatism, by contrast, is perhaps best not given the moniker “conservatism” at all and is identified most strongly by support for specific laissez-faire capitalist policies. Although contemporary conservative parties are often alliances between each three of these drivers as a matter of political convenience—think, for instance, of the Trumpian, moderate, and corporatist elements of the Republican Party—they are largely uncorrelated and separate at the level of individual voters. Contra the often sloppy analysis by political scientists and psychologists, neither status-quo nor laissez faire conservativism are particularly predictive of prejudice once one accounts for a predisposition to authoritarianism.

Stenner’s argument begins to drift, however, when it comes to characterising what authoritarianism (and its counterpart, libertarianism) actually are.

Stenner identifies the fundamental psychological driver behind authoritarianism as a psychological need for oneness and sameness, but she argues the predisposition is content neutral beyond this point: authoritarianism merely means that “whatever it is that we stand for, we must all stand for it” (p.142). Symmetrically, libertarianism is merely the fundamental desire for “freedom and difference” (p.81), and it is that per se that libertarians desire. But it is obvious in neither case why these would be fundamental psychological needs in the first instance—leaving aside briefly libertarians’ need for freedom, there is no obvious reason why anyone would have a need specifically for oneness and sameness, nor for difference. Perhaps appropriately given its title, The Authoritarian Dynamic provides no account of why libertarians would desire diversity other than that they are “excited and engaged” (p.217) by difference. For authoritarianism, however, we see a slightly more fleshed-out picture. Modern liberal democracy engenders a “diversity of lifestyles and beliefs… [which] may be frightening, overwhelming, or isolating for many individuals, who may wish to divest themselves of the fear, stress, or loneliness of their own freedom, and/or to avoid the diverse and unpredictable consequences of the freedom of others” (p.143). This effect is compounded by authoritarians’ tendency to score lower on cognitive tests: in a sense, the diversity of modernity is more cognitive load than they can handle.

There is a strangeness to this case, however, compounded by her specific operationalisation of authoritarianism and her definition of normative threat. In one operationalisation, authoritarianism was measured by choosing the following as important (against the alternative in brackets) on a list of childrearing qualities[3]:

  • “that a child obeys his parents” (“that he is responsible for his own actions”)
  • “that he has good manners” (“that he has good sense and sound judgment”)
  • “that he is neat and clean” (“that he is interested in how and why things happen”)
  • “that he has respect for his elders” (“that he thinks for himself”)
  • “that he follows the rules” (“that he follows his own conscience”)

Recall that Stenner defines authoritarianism as a fundamental preference for oneness and sameness, but a cursory glance over these items appears to bear minimal resemblance, if any, to oneness and sameness so much as to a tendency towards “interdependence” instead of “independence”, to use Markus and Kitayama’s terminology (alternately, towards “collectivism” instead of “individualism”).

Markus and Kitayama’s “interdependent and independent representations of the self” model. Source: Markus, H. R., & Kitayama, S. (1991). Culture and the self: Implications for cognition, emotion, and motivation. Psychological Review, 98(2), 224–253. https://doi.org/10.1037/0033-295X.98.2.224.

Stenner may well argue that to define authoritarianism in terms of preference for collectivist over individualist childrearing values is to make our operationalisation “tautological with the dependent variables it is designed to explain” (p.21), as she does for the Altemeyer’s Right-Wing Authoritarianism scale, but there are two responses to this. The first is that this does not address the substantial independence of her operationalisation and any measure of “oneness and sameness”. But the second relates to what Stenner claims to measure, namely the desire for “oneness and sameness” at the level of the polity. In some meaningful sense, a necessary condition for a group’s being a community is that it be defined by a “oneness and sameness” about something: a religious community cannot be a religious community without a substantially shared religious outlook, a town community cannot be a town community without a substantially shared set of social norms, and so on. It is intuitive that individuals who value interdependent childrearing values would value strong collectivism at the local level (i.e. for their immediate community); it is not obvious that they would generalise this to the level of the polity as a whole. Stenner’s analysis of how childrearing values predict authoritarian attitudes, then, would show that individuals who are more interdependent at the local level are also more interdependent at the political level—i.e., individuals tend to see both their local environs and their polities as communities in the sense of “united under one and the same normative framework”, or they tend to see neither as communities in this sense. That her measure of authoritarianism appears to be measuring the desire to have one’s polity be a community becomes doubly apparent when one remembers that Stenner’s definition of normative threat included not only divergence of public opinion, which is a per se threat to oneness and sameness, but also questionable authorities, which are not a per se threat to oneness and sameness but are a per se threat to a community in the thick sense of the word.

This seemingly minor distinction matters immensely when we recall Stenner’s claim that “the targets and content, though not the general form and function, of [authoritarianism’s] expression can vary depending on who ‘we’ are and what ‘we’ stand for” (p.142). This claim will only be true necessarily if it is oneness and sameness per se that they value. If what they value instead is that their polity be a community, then the specific contents of the community’s norms and values will substantially influence which normative orders will cause them to man the barricades.[4]

Note that most of Stenner’s analysis would apply as well to the above framing as to hers—I am not seeking to dispute her empirical results, which are formidable. It is very plausible that those with lower cognitive ability would rely more heavily on the predictability that comes from individuals’ sharing a single normative framework in the one community. If we account for the fact that race has for the past several centuries been an unfortunate dividing block of populations into sub-communities, much of her “difference-ism” analysis is perfectly transparent as “anti–non-community-member–ism”. And, perhaps most importantly, it makes the explanandum of her political psychology far easier to answer: the question becomes less “why are there authoritarians (qua collectivists)?” and more “why are there libertarians (qua WEIRDos)?”.

In case this last remark seems bad-faith, Stenner appears to define as authoritarian anything other than a purely morally relativist individualist liberalism. For instance, Stenner includes as authoritarian coercion a desire for “favourable treatment for those conforming with conventions” (p.90; this would seemingly include, for instance, only extending marriage rights to monogamous couples), sees any religious belief “beyond personal faith and individual codes of conduct… that is, a need to regulate other people’s behaviour” as necessarily authoritarian (i.e. she defines all religious belief as it has always been traditionally understood by religions themselves as necessarily authoritarian), and explicitly includes several items endorsing moral realism in the abstract under her measure of authoritarianism[5]. Stenner explicitly cites a example of how one paradigmatic libertarian (i.e. an individual who selected mostly individualistic childrearing values) differed from the authoritarians in interviews: “I don’t think that people are any more or less moral by today’s standards than people a hundred years ago were by their standards. I just think our standards have changed” (p.235).

If this is her exemplar of authoritarianism’s negative, then it is hardly ambiguous why one might be attracted to Stenner’s formulation of authoritarianism. It is comprehensible (and not at all obviously “authoritarian” in the conventional sense) why a citizen would not want the government to be completely agnostic on the question of the good life. It is comprehensible why a citizen would want the polity to be (even if at a minimal level only) a community, and not simply a legal structure with associated institutions. Stenner argues that “authoritarians are never more tolerant than when reassured and pacified by an autocratic culture” (p.334), but in light of the above, this is perfectly limpid—her statement is equivalent to noting that authoritarians do not want their government (i.e. the body that determines their schools’ curricula, has an outsized impact on social norms, and determines funding decisions for key norm-making bodies) to be wholly morally relativistic. In Stenner’s analysis, only an individual willing to wholly abandon community at the political level and willing to wholly embrace atomised-individualistic politics will register as truly non-authoritarian.

This does not repudiate that authoritarians in the sense Stenner describes—i.e. those who have no allegiance to any specific normative order but merely oneness and sameness per se—do in fact exist. We simply have no means in Stenner’s operationalisation of distinguishing them from those with an intuitive sense of moral realism, from those who adhere to any collectivist set of norms, or even merely those who do not want their government to be entirely neutral on conceptions of the good. As such, perhaps our takeaway from The Authoritarian Dynamic should not be determining how to address “the negative consequences we all suffer on account of [authoritarians’] neglect and discomfort” and instead should be to consider that some of them might have a point.


[1] All page-number references are to: Karen Stenner, The Authoritarian Dynamic, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005), paperback edition, ISBN: 978-0-521-53478-9.

[2] For the full details of Stenner’s measure of right-wing authoritarian attitudes, please see the “Right-Wing Authoritarianism” section here: https://9bb6f4fe-ee8e-4700-aaa9-743a55a9437a.filesusr.com/ugd/02ff25_daa610e921374deab8ade3b99ae8bf9e.pdf

[3] Full details of the operationalisation can be found on Stenner’s personal website here: https://9bb6f4fe-ee8e-4700-aaa9-743a55a9437a.filesusr.com/ugd/02ff25_daa610e921374deab8ade3b99ae8bf9e.pdf

The other operationalisations are very similar in nature, they can be found here (https://9bb6f4fe-ee8e-4700-aaa9-743a55a9437a.filesusr.com/ugd/02ff25_0ad4c453e3a546e680d560ea56d13608.pdf) and here (https://9bb6f4fe-ee8e-4700-aaa9-743a55a9437a.filesusr.com/ugd/02ff25_1be2f9b79a414d4383563540393e7230.pdf)

[4] Stenner’s main counterevidence on this point comes from her Multi-Investigator Study 99 (MIS99), in which authoritarians were primed with a story in which there was “belief diversity” (i.e. Americans, in the abstract, agreed with each other less than before), “stable diversity” (i.e. Americans, in the abstract, disagreed but had a stable society), and “changing together” (i.e. Americans, in the abstract, were in a changing society that was coalescing in its desires). Stenner found that “belief diversity” and “stable diversity” caused greater expressions of authoritarian attitudes and was related to lower levels of desire to preserve the existing political system than was “changing together”—i.e. authoritarians acted more authoritarian when the polity disagrees, and authoritarians are happy to change social structures entirely so long as everyone does it together. Notably, however, the stimuli in this experiment deliberately avoided reference to any specific change in social structure—the language in question was “pulling together” or “falling apart”. Given that my claim is simply that authoritarians are not agnostic to the content of a normative order, not that they are wedded to every aspect, I do not believe that the MIS99 constitutes a decisive blow against my argument. The specific text of the stimuli can be found on pages 46–47 of The Authoritarian Dynamic.

[5] In particular, “There is no ‘ONE right way’ to live life; everybody has to create their own way” and “It is wonderful that young people today have greater freedom to protest against things they don’t like, and to make their own ‘rules’ to govern their behavior.” For any form of moral realism that includes religion, also see: “Some of the best people in our country are those who are challenging our government, criticizing religion, and ignoring the ‘normal way’ things are supposed to be done” and “It would be best for everyone if the proper authorities censored magazines so that people could not get their hands on trashy and disgusting material.”.

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