The case for less-is-more democracy

| November 27, 2011 | 5 Replies

I have long been fascinated by the herd instinct of human animals. What could be more obvious than the fact that we mimic each other for all kinds of reasons, even for reasons that seem absurd to outsiders. Further, we follow each others’ lead even while we chant that we are “individuals.”

In reality, many of us panic at the idea that differences among the citizens. How dare some citizens question even some of America’s war efforts! That is “unpatriotic.” How dare some Americans encourage multi-culturalism! Gay marriage? Forget it. And don’t ever forget that the United States is the world’s greatest country—let us all say that in unison! For many of us, everybody has a categorical moral duty to fall in line on all matters relating to God and country.

Perhaps I find the topic of the human herding so compelling because of my own personal instinct to aversion to joining groups. For reasons I don’t understand, I instinctively rebel against many efforts to convince me to go along with “everybody else.” I’ve been this way ever since I can remember. Going along with the crowd is not something that gives me joy and comfort. Rather, it makes me feel wary and out of control. If people at my workplace were to announce that next Wednesday will be “Blue Shirt Day,” I’ll go out of my way to not wear blue. I perplex those who root for the home town sports teams and I don’t join political parties. I commonly hesitate to join in most displays of patriotism, including America’s warmongering. This is not to say I’m immune to such impulses, but it is fair to say that where many other Americans revel in community bonding, I tend to fight inner battles while questioning the need. Instead of joining in, I tend to question.

In sum, we are mostly a nation of joiners, many of whom are rule-imposers and keepers of order, but many of us resist.

Can individual characteristics account for (or, at least, strongly correlate with) the willingness to join and impose one’s own ideas on others? I’ve previously reported on several such attempts. For instance, Jay Dixit wrote an article on this subject, incorporating the work of Jost, Glaser, Kruglanski & Sulloway. These authors found that

conservatives have a greater desire to reach a decision quickly and stick to it, and are higher on conscientiousness, which includes neatness, orderliness, duty, and rule-following. Liberals are higher on openness, which includes intellectual curiosity, excitement-seeking, novelty, creativity for its own sake, and a craving for stimulation like travel, color, art, music, and literature.

Geoffrey Miller has weighed in, making reference to the “GOCASE” list of the major dimensions of variation that predict human behavior. Here’s an excerpt from his analysis:

Liberals are only a little brighter than conservatives on average [in general intelligence], but they tend to show significantly higher openness (more interest in novelty and diversity), lower conscientiousness (less adherence to conventional social norms), and higher agreeableness (more widespread apathy and “bleeding hearts”).

Image by Erich Vieth

Moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt has much to say about the way human animals do their herding and moral judging of others. He writes that some of us draw heavily upon authority, in-group and purity “foundations of morality” in making moral judgments. Awhile back I had exchanged email Jonathan Haidt, who recommended that I read The Authoritarian Dynamic, by Political psychologist Karen Stenner (2005). I recently finished reading Stenner’s book, which is yet another attempt to understand those who feel compelled to impose social uniformity. Her focus is not conservatism, but “authoritarianism” (Stenner goes to great pains to distinguish between the two). Stenner’s book is rich with insights that have important political implications.

Karen Stenner has developed a theory of “the authoritarian dynamic.” Authoritarianism lies along on a continuum, the other endpoint being libertarianism. Authoritarianism is concerned with “group authority and uniformity” while libertarianism is concerned with “individual autonomy and diversity.” (Page 14) The intense concern with group authority and uniformity is called “authoritarianism” because “suppression of difference and achievement of uniformity necessitate autocratic social arrangements in which individual autonomy yields to group authority.” (Page 15).

Although etiology is not her focus, Stenner offers that there are various possible reasons for a person to be authoritarian.

Some might insist upon autocratic social arrangements in order to assure themselves of living among kindred folk, all sharing beliefs and behaving in like manner. But others might deem submission to group authority a prudent organizing principle for society and simply accept the social uniformity that tends to accompany it.

(Page 15)

There are various predictable patterns of response of those who have a predisposition toward authoritarianism. They tend to “respond in like manner to seemingly distinct objects (such as racial and ethnic out groups, political dissidents, and moral “deviants”).” (Page 16)

How does authoritarianism play out?

It inclines one toward attitudes and behaviors variously concerned with structuring society and social interactions in ways that enhance sameness and minimize diversity of people, beliefs and behaviors. It tends to produce a characteristic array of stances, all of which have the effect of glorifying, encouraging and rewarding uniformity and disparaging, suppressing and punishing difference. Since enhancing uniformity and minimizing diversity implicate others and require some control over their behavior, ultimately the stances involve actual coercion of others. (as in driving a black family from the neighborhood) and, more frequently, demands for the use of group authority (i.e., coercion by the state).

In the end, authoritarianism is far more than a personal distaste for difference (and libertarianism more than a mere preference for diversity). It becomes a normative “worldview” about social value of obedience and conformity (or freedom and difference), the prudent and just balance between group authority and individual autonomy, and the appropriate uses of (or limits on) that authority. This worldview induces both personal coercion of a bias against different others (racial and ethnic groups, political dissidents, moral deviants), as well as political demands for authoritative constraints on the behavior. The latter would typically include legal discrimination against minorities and restrictions on immigration; limits on free speech, assembly, and association; and the regulation of moral behavior, for example, via policies regarding school prayer, abortion, censorship and homosexuality, and punitive enforcement.

(Page 16-17).

What triggers the authoritarianism response? Stenner states that is triggered whenever it seems to the perceiver that obedience and conformity are required. The classic case is “the experience or perception of disobedience to group authorities or authorities unworthy of respect, nonconformity to group norms or norms proving questionable, lack of consensus in group values and beliefs, and, in general, diversity and freedom “run amok” . . . . She refers to these catalysts as “normative threats” which are threats to “oneness and sameness.” The biggest threat to these is questioned or questionable authorities, “disrespect for leaders or leaders unworthy of respect, and lack of conformity to or consensus in group values, norms and beliefs.” Authoritarianism can be fairly characterized as “groupiness” that comes from “wanting to be part of some collective, not from identification with a particular group.”

The above passage dovetails well with one of Eric Hoffer’s fundamental conclusions about “True Believers,” that “groupish” people are not necessarily permanently loyal to only one particular group. If their first group dissolves, they tend to latch onto a second group, and its theoretical foundations need not be consistent with those of the first group. The urge to group together prevails over all intellectual hurdles.

According to Stenner, authoritarians will “reject for themselves, and seek to undermine for others, any system that fails to promote oneness and sameness, irrespective of their established group identifications and normative commitments.” However, they will withdraw their consent to a normative order and reinvest their commitment elsewhere “only if there is a prospect of instituting some alternative system of authority and constraint that might promise greater unity and consensus.”

(Page 19).

In chapters 5 and 6 of her book, Stenner takes great pains to distinguish authoritarianism from conservatism. She defines “political conservatism” as including those who tend to be tough on crime, resistant to government social welfare benefits, inclinations to defend the way things have always been (including the established racial hierarchy).

In Stenner’s analysis, “conservatism” “hopelessly entangles… three dimensions…: Authoritarianism, status quo conservatism and laissez-faire conservatism.” In the United States, “conservative” doesn’t necessarily mean all these things all at once, even though this description approximates the way that these “three dimensions are currently “packaged” in the American party system…” She warns that this is not how these qualities are necessarily packaged in particular Americans. She holds that laissez-faire conservatism “is either trivially or negatively correlated with authoritarianism everywhere we look.” (Page 157). On the other hand, status quo conservatism seems to be correlated heavily with age, which in turn is “associated with increasing rigidity, and tolerance of uncertainty, and discomfort with new prances.” Compare this with the “primary dependence of authoritarianism upon lack of education, which should indeed be more detrimental to one’s capacity to deal with complexity than with uncertainty.” This lack of education will be exacerbated by “lack of exposure to different people, environments and experiences, or by the frustration created by difficult life’s conditions, or by competition for scarce resources likely to characterize less-privileged circumstances in every country.” (Page 160). She admits that although authoritarianism seems to be “a relatively innate and enduring individual trait, it is exacerbated by the effect of the lack of “knowledge and cognitive skills on one’s ability to deal easily and comfortably with complexity and difference.” (Page 161).

In her final chapter, “Implications,” Stenner reiterates what authoritarianism is not. It is not “the desire to preserve the status quo, whatever that may be. It does not preclude support for social change, so long as we’re changing together in pursuit of common goals. And it is not preference for laissez-faire economics. It does not necessitate opposition to government interventions that might serve to enhance oneness and sameness.” Confusing these concepts

can drive those who are merely averse to change into unnatural and unnecessary political alliances with the hateful and intolerant, when they could be rallied behind tolerance and respect for difference under the right conditions. These conditions would include authoritative reminders of how privileged are those ideas in one’s national tradition; reassurances regarding established brakes on the pace of change, and the settled rules of the game to which all will adhere; and confidence in the leaders and institutions managing social conflict, and regulating the extent and rate of social change.

Stenner argues that status quo conservatives can be “a liberal democracies strongest bulwark against the dangers posed by intolerant social movements. (Page 327). Similarly, there is no “natural or necessary alliance between commitment to laissez-faire economics and aversion to individual autonomy and difference.” In fact, she finds these two dimensions “logically antithetical.” (Page 327).

Stenner suggests a strategy for resolving racial animosity. It would involve working to make the various “races” seem less different “by real or apparent increase in commonality of values, culture or language.” Those familiar with the Sherif’s Robbers Cave Experiment will recognize this approach. Implementing this strategy will have a calming affect that Stenner asserts is well supported by her research. (Page 329). For example, on page 279, she points out a study that saw a dramatic decrease in intolerance for African-Americans when the subjects were informed that NASA had verified the existence of “other beings who are very different from us in ways that we are not yet even able to imagine.” Authoritarianism decreased by half based on that assumption. Stenner points to the study as evidence that “what we call racial intolerance is primarily about difference more than race.” (Page 280). Based on her research, anything the government can do “to generate the appearance of greater difference without will ultimately benefit minorities, dissidents and deviants within.” It seemed to me that this is a double-edged sword; this strategy needs to be controlled carefully lest the government succeeds in demonizing those outside its borders to the point where wars and vicious anti-immigration policies become all too attractive. The problem, as Stenner points out is that we resist emphasizing sameness within and difference without. We also tend to think that people can be encouraged to become more tolerant through the use of sheer willpower, in that intolerance is allegedly “learned.” Stenner characterizes this “solution” as wishful thinking, arguing that the intolerant people cannot have “their intolerance educated out of them.”

But here’s a huge conundrum. All the available evidence indicates that exposure to difference, talking about difference, and applauding difference-the hallmarks of liberal democracy-“are the surest ways to aggravate those who are innately intolerant, and to guarantee the increased expression of their predispositions in manifestly intolerant attitudes and behaviors.” It gets worse: “regrettably, nothing is more certain to provoke increased expression of their latent predispositions than the likes of multicultural education,” bilingual policies and non-assimilation.” She reminds us of the unexpected failure of countries that attempted to move to democracy, whose relative peace had been enforced by autocratic regimes. These countries “may hardly be recognizable once the release of those constraints exposes citizens with widely varying (latent) predispositions to conditions of normative threat: with (likely their first experience of) the unrestrained display of diverse opinions and verboten behaviors; rampant criticism of formerly revered authorities and institutions; and exposure and ousting infallible leaders.” (Page 331).

Those who fail to heed these lessons dominate the airwaves. “Commentators of this persuasion talk about “installing” democracy in Afghanistan and Iraq as if we were installing central air conditioning …” (Page 332). Even here in America, we have a political system that designed to shift power downward, with all the layers a government, but there is a stiff price for such a system. This government mechanism amplifies conflict. It causes the “propagation of adversaries, and the constant airing of disagreement; conditions we now know are guaranteed to activate the authoritarian dynamic, starkly polarized the electorate and increase the manifest expression of intolerance.” (Page 333). It should not be surprising that America is thus a hotbed of authoritarianism, “perpetually prone to fear-driven politics and irrational public policy…”

What is the solution? Stenner argues that a functional democracy needs commonality more than difference. “Ultimately, nothing inspires greater tolerance from the intolerant than an abundance of common and unifying beliefs, practices, rituals, institutions and processes.” (Page 330). Stenner advocates a “stealth democracy,” where less is more, where citizens are more confident that their leaders are committed to “people like me,” there is a wide sharing of views.

Unfortunately, Stenner’s conclusions conflict with the “received wisdom on how one goes about securing and enhancing liberal democracy.” (Page 334). Stenner’s analysis of data from 59 nations shows that “living in a liberal democracy vastly increases the likelihood that authoritarian predispositions will be expressed in intolerant attitudes and behaviors.” Worse yet, authoritarians become the most tolerant “when reassured and pacified by an autocratic culture.” They are never more intolerant than “when forced to endure a vibrant democracy.” Her conclusion is based on the undeniable fact that some people will never be comfortable living in a modern liberal democracy: when it comes to democracy, less is often more, or at least more secure.” (Page 335).

Consider something that sometimes happens on the baseball diamond. Sometimes a “white”-skinned blue-uniformed pitcher beans the “black”-skinned red-uniformed batter, causing a fight breaks out. Whenever this happens, the teams inevitably fight by uniform color, not skin color. This odd-seeming illustration encourages me because the energies unleashed during such athletic contests are largely visceral and not premeditated. It takes some effort to think beyond skin color (and other perceived differences), but not much. Humans are capable of transcending the destructive habit of categorizing by externalities. What it takes is some careful marketing to accentuate commonalities, much like we’ve seen in the case of gays in America over the past decades and see here.

What can we do on a day-to-day basis? Stenner’s book reminds me how absolutely infuriating it must seem to many Americans that efforts to protest America’s warmongering are done by people who they believe “hate” America. As a believer in liberal democracy, what is my hope is a disaster in the eyes of an authoritarian. If there is hope for working together, it means that the process will be much more difficult that ever before conceived.

For my part, perhaps I need to offer comforting externalities while doing a soft-sell. Perhaps I need to wave an American flag more and to give reassurances that I’m committed to America’s future even while I harshly criticize policies. In the past, I have consciously avoided flag waving because I consider the flag a symbol that has been almost completely taken over by those who believe in dispatching the military to deal with complex social problems. Maybe it’s time to wave the flag a bit more while I render criticism. Maybe I need to focus my concerns on particular actions and decisions rather than suggesting, in any way that I’m condemning “America.” I’ve learned this lesson well with regard to religion—perhaps it’s time to apply it to political discussions. Because common symbols and rhetoric broadcasts sameness, employing these ready made symbols and rhetoric might reduce blood-pressure enough that differently-thinking others, including authoritarians, can have more meaningful conversations.



Category: American Culture, Bigotry, Community, Human animals, Ingroup/Outgroup, Psychology Cognition

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich and his wife, Anne Jay, live in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where they are raising their two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (5)

Trackback URL | Comments RSS Feed

  1. Erich Vieth says:

    Jonathan Weiler, a political scientist and director of global studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, is featured on Point of Inquiry.

    In his recent book, he describes “this strange and troubling creature called an authoritarian—usually conservative, usually a religious fundamentalist, and very closed minded.”

    In this talk, Weiler describes “how people with this psychological profile are driving our political polarization, as well as the divide over factual reality in the U.S.”

    He identifies authoritarians by use of a four question survey based on how children should be raised. Ideas about parenting seem to go to the heart of peoples’ understanding about hierarchical relationships.

    Authoritarians tend to feel threatened by novel and challenging information; because of this feeling,authoritarians “retreat into a defensive posture.” They tend to disregard this type of information, causing authoritarians tend to be ill-informed. (15 min mark). They become rigid, unyielding and unwilling to compromise. (21 min). There are left-wing and atheist authoritarians too, not all are conservative (26 min).

    Why so much authoritarianism now in politics? The Republican party found it to be a useful tactic for engaging with white middle-class frustrated voters. (24 min). Black and White framing of issues (“Drill Baby Drill”) is indicate the authoritarian approach. (25 min).

    A solution appears to be to talk about issues with some nuance (32 min).

  2. Mike M. says:

    It is absurd and meaningless to either hate America or love America (or to like America or dislike America). Whenever I hear someone say they love (or hate) America, I immediately realize I’m dealing with a child-like mentality, or an actual child. Children often express themselves in either/or, black/white, yes/no, love/hate dichotomies, and ignore the infinite degrees and nuances between the extreme poles.

    When someone tells you “I love America” ask them what they mean by “America.”

    The American States? (do you love all of them, or just some of them?)
    The American people? (do you love all of them, or just some of them?)
    The American Government? (do you love all of it, or just some of it?)
    The American insects? (do you love all of them, or just some of them?)
    The American corporations? (do you love all of them, or just some of them?)
    The American animals? (do you love all of them, or just some of them?)
    The American politicians? (do you love all of them, or just some of them?)
    The American policies? (do you love all of them, or just some of them?)
    The American culture? (do you love all of it, or just some of it?)
    The American Military actions? (do you love all of them, or just some of them?)
    The American history? (do you love all of it, or just some of it?)

    Etc, etc – you get the idea. In the end, no one really “loves America” or “hates America”. We need to get specific, and avoid all of these sweeping generalizations which are not only meaningless, but also ignorant and dangerous.

    • Erich Vieth says:

      Mike: The problem, as I see it, is that for many people you will not make any progress in having a meaningful conversation, even where there are substantial common interests, unless you first defuse the bomb by giving assurance that you don’t “hate America.” I’ve heard conservatives vigorously going at it with each other on issues where I would basically agree with one of them, but there are two flag wavers in the conversation, so there is no accusation that either of the two “hates” America. I just started subscribing the the National Review (at the recommendation of Jonathan Haidt Though I disagree with much of what I read, I also see a constant trickling of viewpoints with which I somewhat (or occasionally completely) agree. I suspect that many authoritarians would find many of the things I have to say more palatable if only I first gave reassurances that I’m not an America-basher. If that small bit of extra assurance will pay big dividends, I’m willing. Similarly, I know that when I’m talking to a conservative, I will be much more willing to find common ground where they are too, and the happens, for instance, when they bash the “war on drugs,” or the fact that the Iraq invasion was a big mistake.

      I agree with you that “loving” American can mean a wide variety of things, and thus the phrase is quite vague. The fact that a word is vague, though, doesn’t prevent it from being emotionally charged and effective for social bonding. I can guarantee you that if I made overtures to God and Country before discussing social issues with conservatives, my conversations would be more fruitful. Your point reminds me of my earlier post of the vague phrase “Support the Troops.”

  3. Tim Hogan says:

    Erich, every time you criticize, you proudly wave the flag.

  4. Erich Vieth says:

    Glenn Greenwald comments that authority figures are empowered due to the unwillingness of the governed to question that authority:

    Bruni ties all of this into our current political culture, noting one significant factor driving this authoritarian behavior: that trusting authority is easier and more convenient than treating it with skepticism. He writes:

    As Craig Zobel, the writer and director of ‘Compliance,’ said to me on the phone on Friday, ‘We can’t be on guard all the time. In order to have a pleasant life, you have to be able to trust that people are who they say they are. And if you questioned everything you heard, you’d never get anything done.’ It’s infinitely more efficient to follow a chosen leader and walk in lock step with a chosen tribe.

    He suggests that this is the dynamic that drives unthinking partisan allegiance (“What’s most distinctive about the current presidential election and our political culture [is] … how unconditionally so many partisans back their side’s every edict, plaint and stratagem”), as well as numerous key political frauds, from Saddam’s WMDs to Obama’s fake birth certificate to Romney’s failure to pay taxes for 10 years. People eagerly accept such evidence-free claims “because the alternative mean[s] confronting outright mendacity from otherwise respected authorities, trading the calm of certainty for the disquiet of doubt”

    Here’s a conclusion that Democrats won’t want to hear:

    One of my first posts when I began writing about politics back in 2006 was an examination of the blindly loyal, cult-like veneration which the American Right had erected around George Bush; as Paul Krugman was one of the first to observe, that same disturbing thirst for leader-worship then drove followers of Barack Obama (Krugman in February, 2008: “the Obama campaign seems dangerously close to becoming a cult of personality. We’ve already had that from the Bush administration – remember Operation Flight Suit? We really don’t want to go there again”).

    And traditional “patriots” won’t want to hear this:

    Second, it is very easy to get people to see oppression and tyranny in faraway places, but very difficult to get them to see it in their own lives (“How dare you compare my country to Tyranny X; we’re free and they aren’t”). In part that is explained by the way in which desire shapes perception. One naturally wants to believe that oppression is only something that happens elsewhere because one then feels good about one’s own situation (“I’m free, unlike those poor people in those other places”). Thinking that way also relieves one of the obligation to act: one who believes they are free of oppression will feel no pressure to take a difficult or risky stand against it.

Leave a Reply

Notify me of followup comments via e-mail. You can also subscribe without commenting.