In today’s edition of Quantifying the Obvious, let’s examine the growing authoritarianism in America’s political dialogue. Those who can remember back fifteen years or so will recall that the GOP once stood for keeping the government off of the people’s backs. Even after that started to change with the political absorption of the religious right, who first and foremost think that government belongs in the bedroom and mandating various aspects of your private life, the GOP spent most of the Clinton years in a practical hysteria over the depradations of an intrusive government.
In one of the grandest flip-flops in political history the same folks now argue that an unprecedented surveillance state is the only thing that will save us from a certain, grisly death at the hands of very bad people. That line of argument seems to have worked out very well for them, proving that flip-flops often happen for a reason. Anyhow, via Drum, we now have the obvious, with numbers.
In 1992, authoritarianism barely had an effect on partisanship. Other things being equal, authoritarians tended to score about 7 percentage points toward the Republican end of the seven-point partisanship scale. By 2004, however, that 7 percentage point difference between authoritarians and non-authoritarians had ballooned to more than 20 percentage points.
[….] Authoritarianism’s effect in 2004 was also strong relative to other variables. Its effect was substantially smaller than that of income in 1992. By 2004, its effect was twice that of income. In 1992, its effect was less than one-fifth as strong as the effect of government spending preferences. By 2004, the effects were much closer. It is not that the traditional left-right dimension in American politics is unimportant. What has changed is how relevant authoritarianism has become.
[…] Appeals to authoritarian issues are mobilizing non-voters into the Republican camp, making non-voters and Republican voters nearly indistinguishable in their authoritarianism. This formerly disaffected group has found a political home.
[….] Republicans always benefit from increasing public fears, whether about gays, terrorism, illegal immigration, or anything that activates authoritarianism. It makes people who only have a little authoritarianism share the preferences of those who have a lot. The political implications of this fact for Republican fortunes are clear.
This excerpt largely draws from research described by Prinston professor Karen Stenner in her book The Authoritarian Dynamic. A more pointed follow-up book, The Politics fo Fear, is in the works.
The implications seem so pedestrian that I don’t really know why I wrote this post. Hyping fear activates voters with authoritarian sympathies whether it is fear of race, gays marrying or the menacing security threat from the Hitler du jour. Krauthammer, for example, sees Hitlers everywhere. Saddam and even Hugo Chavez come up often. Activating that undertapped voter base creates a demand for policies which suit their predilections. In order to keep these voters energized, the party delivers both suitable policies and fresh doses of fear. Lather rinse repeat.
Nobody who remains a Republican voter will accept this study as legitimate, of course. Expect methodology criticisms as well as the usual credibility smears (e.g., academics must be liberal). Par for the course. It will undoubtedly fail to sink in that none of this is necessarly bad or evil, which is a metaphysical contruct that I find useless for dealing with the real world, but simply a winning political strategy.