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People Love Authoritarianism


It’s hard to know how to handle this kind of thing.

About two decades ago, an important study found that roughly 1 in 4 Americans supported leaders who are uncompromising and take decisive action. These people said they would also prefer nonelected experts to make decisions. Our study replicates this finding nearly 20 years later but sheds light on a troubling reason for this preference.

At the Allegheny College Center for Political Participation, we, with our former student Candaisy Crawford, asked people about their willingness to support leaders who promised to protect them by any means necessary, even if that meant violating expected standards of behavior in a democracy, a set of principles often called “democratic norms.” We developed these questions based on existing research about the strategies that leaders with anti-democratic tendencies use to build public support.

In Venezuela, for instance, democratic decline happened gradually. Early on, Venezuela’s former president Hugo Chavez was known for using nationalist language and calling opponents epithets like “rancid oligarchs” and “squealing pigs.” Later, he blacklisted those who sought his removal from office through a democratically conducted referendum. Eventually, he went further, arresting and exiling his political opponents.

These types of tactics have also been used in other nations, such as Turkey and Hungary, by leaders who rose to power through democratic elections.

In our study, we asked about behaviors that foreshadow the early stages of democratic decline. For example, we asked citizens whether they thought that “the only way our country can solve its current problems is by supporting tough leaders who will crack down on those who undermine American values.” We also asked about explicit violations of democratic principles, like shutting down news organizations and “bending the rules to get things done.”

By design, some of these questions allow citizens to use their own interpretations of actions like “crackdowns” and “bending the rules.” These types of practices can take a number of different specific forms, as the cases of Venezuela, Turkey and Hungary illustrate. Our aim was to determine whether citizens were inclined toward leaders who seek power by promising retribution toward some groups and benefits for others, because this rhetorical strategy is often a precursor to explicit violations of democratic institutions.

Likewise, the phrasing of our questions is designed to allow respondents to rely on their own ideas about the meaning of “American values,” and “people like you.” Our interest was in what people would enable leaders to do to protect their idea of America and the Americans with whom they identify.

We found that people who want this type of protective but anti-democratic style of leadership were by far the most inclined to want leaders who would take uncompromising, decisive action. These people did not merely want their side to win a political competition for power. They were literally willing to say they would “bend the rules” to do it, a clear violation of the democratic ideal that everyone must follow the same rules.

For each item, we found that at least a third of the people we polled agreed or strongly agreed with these subtle or explicit violations of democratic norms.

While Republicans are certainly worse about this than Democrats, what negative polarization does is stoke the desire to see your opponents crushed and, quite honestly, dead. What surprised me here was not the high number of Republicans who believe this stuff but rather than surprisingly high number of Democrats who do too.

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