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A new view of authoritarianism and partisan polarization

Democrats and Republicans are increasingly polarized. Partisan strength is up, feelings toward the two parties are more extreme, and partisans are more intolerant of the other side. What gives rise to the partisan divide in American politics?

One prominent theory is that Democrats and Republicans are polarized today because they differ psychologically. In particular, research shows that over the past few decades Democrat and Republican partisans have become increasingly different with respect to their level of authoritarianism: Republicans have become more authoritarian and Democrats less so. As the parties are split in their level of authoritarianism, partisan rancor and vitriol has correspondingly increased.

However, other research shows that authoritarianism is associated with greater partisan polarization among both Republicans and Democrats. Rather than possessing diametrically opposed psychological characteristics, findings show that strong partisans on both sides are psychologically similar—sharing an authoritarian and group-centric worldview.

These findings show that authoritarians are not confined to the right-wing in American politics, but gravitate to both parties’ extremes. The findings also indicate that partisan polarization is not just about ideological disagreements. Instead, many strong partisans are group-centric, see politics primarily as a conflict between “us” and “them,” and are motivated by powerful but substantively vacuous needs to belong.

What is Authoritarianism?

Authoritarians differ from nonauthoritarians in a number of ways; for example, they value social uniformity more than diversity, they place a premium on strong authority figures, and they are especially averse to uncertainty. These characteristics of authoritarians lead them to naturally embrace conservative issues in the social and foreign policy domains of politics. It is partly for these reasons that Donald Trump appealed to highly authoritarian voters. But these characteristics also make authoritarians intolerant of outgroups, broadly conceived.

What is Partisanship?

One prominent theory of partisanship is that it, like other identities (e.g., religion), is a social identity; an attachment formed early in life that persists through adulthood and that provides the psychological benefits (i.e., certainty) of group attachment. One implication of this theory of partisanship as a social identity is that individuals who are predisposed to identify strongly with ingroups and derogate outgroups should exhibit the most extreme partisan identities and attitudes.

Are Democrats and Republicans psychologically different in their level of authoritarianism? Or is authoritarianism associated with strong partisanship in both parties?

Since authoritarians by definition possess a group-centric worldview, I hypothesized that authoritarians within both parties should be more polarized than nonauthoritarians. The research found that among both Republican and Democratic identifiers, strong partisans are more likely to be authoritarian than nonauthoritarian. In fact, authoritarianism is regularly a stronger predictor of partisan strength than other presumed causes of partisan intensity like issue preferences. To come to this conclusion, I analyzed data measuring both partisanship and authoritarianism. I analyzed data on partisan strength and party “feeling thermometers” (which measure how warmly or coldly respondents feel towards the two parties) from 1992 to 2012 in the American National Election Studies. I also examined data from an original survey fielded by Yougov. The measure of authoritarianism is a series of questions about child-rearing values: (1) Obedience or Self-reliance; (2) Independence or Respect for Elders; (3) Curiosity or Good Manners; (4) Being Considerate or Being Well Behaved. Obedience, respect for elders, good manners, and being well mannered were the authoritarian responses; and respondents who agreed with these to each question score highest on the authoritarianism scale. Figure 1 presents the main finding that emerge across analyses of the various data sources.

Figure 1 by Matthew D. Luttig. Used with permission.

In sum, among both Democrats and Republicans, authoritarians exhibit greater levels of polarization than nonauthoritarians. It is therefore not simply deep-seated personality differences that lead to America’s polarization; instead, polarization is rooted in a basic tendency that many Americans—both Democrat and Republican— possess to divide the world into ingroups and outgroups.

Featured image credit: capitol building washington by Olichel. Public domain via Pixabay.

Recent Comments

  1. Mark Pienkos

    Very well-written observations on research gathered as to why polarization is so evident in American politics and society.

  2. Steven Stoft

    Interesting. Thanks for this research. It would be interesting to regress Authoritarianism on How Partisan. You will get a different answer. I think it will tell something about how Authoritarian as strong partisan is likely to be.

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