FireDogLake Book Salon hosts Hetherington & Weiler


Sunday’s Book Salon discussion over at FireDogLake featured our own Marc Hetherington and Jonathan Weiler, authors of Authoritarianism and Polarization in American Politics. They hosted our authors extremely well; many thanks.

authoritarianismHenry Farrell introduces:

Marc Hetherington and Jonathan Weiler’s new book re-examines the recent course of American politics. They tell us about how authoritarian politics – especially on the right – have helped give rise to increasing polarization between Republicans and Democrats. This is an important contribution to debate among political scientists about polarization, but deserves a much wider readership. If they are right – and the differences between authoritarians and non-authoritarians are the key factor driving polarized politics – then many of the received wisdoms of the punditocracy are flat out wrong. Right wing columnists like Michael Gerson and Clive Crook, who deplore the increasing extremism of American politics and especially of the left, are missing out on the ways in which right wing politics are increasingly based around authoritarianism and intolerance.

First though, it is necessary to be clear about language. Authoritarianism, as political scientists define it, is different from the every day sense of the word. For Americanist political scientists, authoritarianism does not necessarily denote hostility to democracy. Instead, it refers to a syndrome of attitudes which emphasize traditional authority, depicts politics in black and white terms as a struggle between good and evil, and involves hostility towards groups (gays, immigrants) who are seen as disrupting the social order. Hetherington and Weiler argue that it is best measured by looking at how people think about family and child rearing. Those who emphasize discipline and obedience are likely to be authoritarians. Those who instead want to encourage their kids to be curious and self-reliant are likely to be non-authoritarian.And there are lots of authoritarians in America – there are more strong authoritarians than there are strong non-authoritarians. For Hetherington and Weiler, the story of American politics over the last several decades has been one of a political realignment around the differences between authoritarians and non-authoritarians. It used to be as best as we can tell (the opinion survey research that this book relies on doesn’t have good data before the early 1970s) that authoritarians were not especially associated with any one party. Indeed, the kinds of politics that emphasizes authoritarianism was submerged by the New Deal and debates around it. However, Nixon and his successors saw that it was possible to build a new political coalition, which would make Democratic-leaning authoritarians into reliable Republican voters. They did this by emphasizing race, law and order and ’strength’ in foreign policy. The last few decades have seen this strategy work out. Authoritarian Democrats – especially in the South, but among white ethnic voters in the North too – became Reagan Republicans.

Go to FireDogLake for the rest, and for the fantastic discussion that follows!

Enjoyed reading this article? Share it today:

Latest Comments

Have your say!