Removing the appeal of authoritarianism

I doubt that readers will quibble with an assertion that democracy is under great stress in many places.  It is being challenged by more authoritarian ways of governing.  Even in the U.S. (and much less extent in Canada) there are challenges to many concepts of democracy which include free voting, governments responding to the voters, and governments acting within strict bounds of proper conduct and within legal limits.

The most recent small example, is found over this past weekend in Ontario, whose premier announced that police forces in the province would be spot-checking people to determine whether they have sufficient reason to leave their homes during this COVID emergency “lock down”. Almost immediately, an initial phalanx of 30 big-city police services announced that they would not be doing this, and one city announced that they would sue because the premier’s actions were not constitutional.  The order was rescinded Saturday, and this morning at 10 a.m., the premier publicly apologized and acknowledged that he had gone too far.  Authoritarianism appealed to this premier, but not to police and municipalities.  Why does it appeal to anyone?


Anne Applebaum’s excellent book, Twilight of Democracy:  the Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism seeks to understand why enthusiastic democracy supporters she has known have switched to enthusiasm for authoritarianisms of differing sorts.  Why the switch?  She cites psychologist Karen Stenner (largely in her 2012 book The Authoritarian Dynamic, andwhom I cite here  Stenner offers some useful observations:

a)  The authoritarian personality seeks political language that makes them feel safe and secure;

b)  They may seek “reflective nostalgia” which meditates on the days of yore, recounted on paper now yellowed with age; or

c)  “Restorative nostalgia,” which wants to “rebuild the lost home and patch the gaps.”  One interested in this nostalgia is easily attracted to conspiracies and “medium lies.”

d)  In our time, when “news” is no longer a single, national conversation due to fragmentation of social media, Stenner advises that “…progressives {must} become far more effective at expressing our own objectives in the language and symbols of our opponents.”  (I think this is key, and I have been pointing this out to politicians I know.)

Applebaum implies that these qualities, not previously recognized in a person, may have caused their switch when democracy in their countries faltered.

This blog has not been intended to comment on the political issues of the day.  The  overarching interest, from the first post (_Informed Consent in Our Lives – Upon reconsidering…) to this, has been to assert informed consent or dissent regarding all manner of things – history (including my own), theological premises, various qualities of life, changes in our scientific understandings, and so on.

I have advocated that each individual has the responsibility and (God willing) the ability to seek  agency for informed consent for themselves, not be subject to the social pressure of the crowds around us.  If we agree with them, we must know why and consent to that. If not, we must understand why and dissent as well.  So I am fascinated to understand how so many people let their views be overwhelmed by others*; frightened by the terrible wall that has come between people of different views (see not only Applebaum above but also Reset (see recent post Restraint and Civic Virtue – Upon reconsidering…); and determined to see a way a cross the boundaries, to find some sort of modus vivendi beyond simply talking with others of different mind (The Usefulness of Talking – Upon reconsidering…).

The sheer power of other peoples’ opinions suggests that many will not seek agency and independent thought.  It may not be possible because we  are simply too busy or weighted down with concerns, worries, and responsibilities; or we  simply don’t have it in us to be this independent. Inability to think for ourselves may lie behind much of our political difficulty. But there may be other things to consider.

Ezra Klein’s book Why We’re Polarized, offers more on this.  Klein suggests, citing many sources, that

a)  politics in the States (and, I suspect, here in Canada) reflects not just a person’s ideology but also lifestyle values.  Examples would be that Republicans are likely to prefer suburbs with largish houses, and enough property to separate them from the neighbours; neighbours who look like them and seem to hold the same values and preferences; some sense of affiliation with traditional organizations such as churches, PTAs, service clubs, etc.; a comfortable routine such as a favourite restaurant that offers mostly predictable menus; and a sense of “nature” well disciplined by human design.  Democrats, are likelier to prefer more dense population with greater diversity (although this preference may be due to limited financial ability to choose otherwise), to be more interested in adventure such as travel to unusual places, and to generally experiment more.  He suggests that people look for neighbourhoods which represent these comfort zones, and thereby find themselves among those of generally like political preference

b) there is a significant need among people at both ends of the political spectrum to be with a group of like-minded people; a reluctance to take a stand different from the group; and a willingness even to ignore information which might change their attitudes toward climate change, transgender issues, climate change, etc., that they might remain comfortably with their group

c) political parties understand all this and seek to elicit campaign and voter support on the basis of defending those values

d) the more deeply involved people are in partisan activities the more firmly they hold on to the value of being in the group

f)  parties know that the best way to get people to stick with them is not necessarily just promoting the right values and offering the right programs and policies, but to actively encourage that people be angry with  those in other parties.

g) so strong is this inclination that people will interpret facts on the basis of what they must do to stay with the group. It’s called “identity protection cognition.” 

His correspondence with others yields some apothegms worth pondering:  

“Politics makes smart people stupid.”

“.. once group loyalties are engaged, you can’t change peoples’ minds by utterly refuting their arguments. Thinking is just mostly rationalization, mostly just a search for supporting evidence.” He refers to this last as “motivated reasoning.”

“What we believe about the facts tells us who we are.”

 “…cognition exists on a spectrum, ranging from where the truth matters and our identities don’t to where our identities dominate and the truth fades in importance.”

The importance of agency

If this analysis is correct, we can see how it works hand-in-hand with authoritarianism as described above. It is easier to be part of a group when there is strong agreement on relatively simple points of views.  For these as well as for non-authoritarians, it is difficult to have the time, and perhaps the education (not necessarily higher formal education), to think for oneself.  (Please note that I have not suggested that a particular “certification” of intelligence is required – I know many people whose livelihoods or social group might not suggest that they are highly intelligent.  But they are.  I spend large amounts of time thinking about conversations with people, and being forced to change my perspectives to understand the profundity of something said from a very different life experience and viewpoint from my own.)

Too, we must recall the “wily man” (Keeping your soul-value – Upon reconsidering…),whose primary thoughts are how to subvert the system, but who may have no idea that higher things are possible.  Informed consent or dissent is well within his or her ability, but not necessarily agency, i.e.., the freedom and wherewithal to act on that consent on dissent.

Seeking shared or common values

From these readings and others, I now understand that it is important not only that there be independent thought, but also a willingness to seek shared values.  This requires that we be well aware of our own values and those of others, and seek some level of cooperation for the sake of those values.

Robert D. Putnam, in The Upswing:  How America Came Together a Century Ago, and How We Can Do It Again, prescribes that “We must undertake a re-evaluation of our shared values — asking ourselves what personal privileges and rights we might be willing to set aside in service of the common good….” The difficulty is to identify the common good if we are unaware of many values in common.  But there are such values. 

Example 1:  I heard a story about a rabbi who loved to preach his favourite sermon, entitled “Let me tell you about my grandchildren.”  He claimed that all he had to do was announce the title, then sit back and let the congregation go off into their own reveries.  I suggest that planning for the wellbeing of grandchildren is a sufficiently common value to help people work for the common good. 

Example 2:  During the first Gulf war, about a dozen clergy gathered to sponsor a vigil:  we were all concerned to give the community some religious perspective on the place and horrors of war on both sides, for combatants and by-standers, decision-makers, and their loved ones.  The format was basic:  read a selected short scripture, speak about it for no more than three minutes, and offer a short prayer.  We received many words of appreciation. It took next to no time to organize.  The common concern was the fact of war, regardless of whether we approved of it.  “Good thing we didn’t talk about theology,” said one of the group.  We held a significant number of values in common about the effects of war on people.  We ignored theology AND politics. 

Definition:  people-centred values we can hold in common:  be concerned about other people (including those we don’t know), and exercise compassion and mercy toward them.

With these two examples, I suggest that it is possible to identify people-centred values:  be concerned about people, and exercise compassion and mercy toward them.  I sometimes wonder why we can’t build government (if not politics) on these values. Perhaps the adversarial methods of Justice get in the way?

Values are specific to cultures

Looking outside our own society, we are warned by Joseph Patrick Henrich (The WEIRDest People in the World:  How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous) that we Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic people value individualism and impersonal practices.  In these they do not share the values of most of the rest of the world, where family and tribal connections are more important.  Clearly authoritarianism can thrive in the WEIRD world as well as in the rest of the world, because in both worlds, simplicity and lack of complexity can appeal.  I’m unsure where informed consent fits into the values of the rest of the world.  But the common values I’ve identified can appeal to all.

Structures to deal with complexity

Barak Obama, in his book A Promised Land, offers an interesting list of expectations for political leaders in a democracy, in describing the Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh:

He had done his part, following the playbook of western democracies across the post-Cold War world:  upholding the constitutional order, attending to the quotidian, often technical work of boosting the GDP; and expanding the social safety net.  Like me, he had come to believe that this was all any of us could expect from democracy especially in big, multiethnic, multireligious societies like India and the United States.  Not revolutionary leaps or cultural overhauls; not a fix for every social pathology or lasting answers for those in search purpose and meaning in their lives. Just the observance of rules that allowed us to sort out or at least tolerate our differences, and government policies that raised our living standards, and improved education enough to  temper humanity’s baser impulses.

These seem to be low expectations for democratic government, especially when compared to Obama’s own ambitions (as listed in his book) and accomplishments, as well as his unsuccessful attempts.  At the very least, uninspiring.  But there is much literature on the structure of government and how important it is**.  It is clear that the structures matter greatly, no matter how mundane they seem.  The structures can keep things moving; continue to examine new possibilities.  Diplomacy can keep myriads of doors open, even when the leaders are at odds.  Obama’s recognition of this fact (along with that of the authors listed below**) notwithstanding how the structures often impeded his ambitions, is persuasive.  It is structures which manage complexities (The majority doesn’t rule anymore – Upon reconsidering…).

Managing the structures that manage the complexities

But for people to feel that democracy is working, it must be seen clearly that the complexities are being managed successfully.  It must be possible to hold people, not so much the systems, accountable for how our lives are affected by complexities. Klein notes that news outlets are less and less local (as true in Canada as in the U.S.), making it difficult for citizens to know what’s really happening at home. The solution to this dearth of local news  is not simply “education.”  It is having the connections to the people in business and government who are responsible for managing complexities, i.e., active participation in various aspects of community, if you have the time and the connections.

When there seems to be no repair for problems caused by complexities, there must be recourse:  someone to listen to the specific examples of things not working.  Simply serving the majority, without attention to the individuals, is not sufficient.  The increasing roles of computers, algorithms, and artificial intelligence, reduce the sense of human accountability and control over things that shape our lives. So politicians, officials, and bureaucrats must place themselves between the systems (complexities, computers, and the structures charged with managing them) and people.  They must demonstrate control over the systems for the benefit of the people, and they must listen to the individual concerns.  More, they must make the systems sufficiently understandable so that people can have informed consent to what the systems do to their lives, and the ability to dissent from them.  It’s not just a matter of each individual being able to think for ourselves; it’s not just a matter of having common values; it is a matter of being able to live our common values without feeling thwarted by systems, politicians, rules, and partisan politics and government.


Systems:  complexities, computers, and structure

Apparently authoritarianism seems to offer all this to people.  Of course, it is a lie.  Democracy must offer all this to people, and be truthful.  The politicians, governments, and bureaucrats must shape democracy to this end, convincingly, to thwart authoritarianism’s lie.

We must examine politics itself to discern whether this is being done, and why or why not.  That will be in a future post.

*Other books on this: 

The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone,  Steven A. Sloman

The Influential Mind: What the Brain Reveals About Our Power to Change Others,  Tali Sharot.

Strange Contagion: Inside the Surprising Science of Infectious Behaviors and Viral Emotions and What They Tell Us About Ourselves,  Lee Daniel Kravitz

Connected:  The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives, Nicholas A. Christakis.

Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media, Cass R. Sunstein

Too Dumb for Democracy? Why We Make Bad Political Decisions and How We Can Make Better Ones, David Moscrop

How Propaganda Works, Jason Stanley

I’m Right and You’re An Idiot:  The Toxic State of Public Discourse and How to Clean It Up

James Hoggan.

Merchants of Truth:  The Business of News and the Fight for Facts,  Jill Abramson

Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment, Francis Fukuyama

Suicide of the West:  How the Rebirth of Tribalism, Populism, Nationalism, and Identity Politics Is Destroying American Democracy, Jonah Goldberg


A World in Disarray:  American Foreign Policy and the Crisis of the Old Order, RichardHaas.

Tough Love:  My Story of the Things Worth Fighting For, Susan Rice

The Education of an Idealist, Samantha Power

The Square and the Tower:  Networks and Power, From the Freemasons to Facebook, Niall Ferguson

The World as It Is: A Memoir of the Obama White House, Benjamin J. Rhodes

War on Peace: The End of Diplomacy and the Decline of American Influence, Ronan Farrow

The Gatekeepers: How the White House Chiefs of Staff Define Every Presidency, Chris Whipple

Duty:  Memoirs of a Secretary at War, Robert M. Gates

Worthy Fights:  a Memoir of Leadership in War and Peace, Leon M. Panetta

Undaunted:  My Fight Against America’s Enemies, at Home and Abroad, John O. Brennan

Playing to the Edge:  American Intelligence in the Age of Terror, Michael Hayden

Facts and Fears:  Hard Truths from a Life in Intelligence, James Clapper

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