In Authoritarianism & Polarization in American Politics, a revealing work of political science published last year that unfortunately went somewhat unnoticed, Marc J. Hetherington and Jonathan D. Weiler describe a specific worldview — authoritarianism — which they argue lies at the heart of political polarization in modern American politics. (It should be noted: their use of the term is not related to the more quotidian and overly negative connotation associated with despotic regimes; rather, it describes a particular lens through which certain people view the world, based on a wide range of scholarly work spanning the fields of psychology, sociology, political science, and other cognitive sciences.)
According to Hetherington and Weiler, authoritarians tend to rely more on emotion and instinct in decision-making, view politics in black and white, resent confusion or ambiguity in the social order, and are suspicious of specific groups who they believe could alter that order (typically gays and immigrants). The difference between authoritarians and nonauthoritarians, according to the authors, becomes far more pronounced during tumultuous economic or social periods when there are more perceived “threats.” During such times, authoritarians in particular lose accuracy motivation and, “become much less interested than nonauthoritarians in seeking information that [is] balanced in its approach, and much more interested in pursuing one-sided information that reinforc[es] existing beliefs.” Or in other words, they are highly susceptible to misinformation campaigns, the likes of which pervaded the health care reform debate last summer.
Most every characteristic of an authoritarian worldview lends itself well to the impassioned rhetoric of the Tea Party movement and the shrewd players operating behind the scenes and atop the soap box.
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