Thursday, August 16, 2007

Why Authoritarians Have a Fundamental Advantage

I have been reading an interesting book, Whose Freedom?: The Battle over America's Most Important Idea, by linguist and cognitive scientist George Lakoff. This is a good book with many good ideas. One of his most fundamental ideas is that 'progressives' have a very different concept of 'freedom' than right-wing 'conservatives'. He believes these different concepts of 'freedom' are based upon differing conceptions of the family: 'progressives' are committed to a "nurturant parent" family model and 'conservatives' are committed to a "strict father" family model. This is a reasonable attempt to organize the fundamental differences between so-called 'conservatives' and 'progressives' or liberals. This task is one that needs to be done: how do we understand and organize the fundamental differences between 'conservatives' and 'liberals'?

While reading Lakoff it occurred to me that Karen Stenner's book "The Authoritarian Dynamic" might really have more to say about these differences (see my several earlier posts on Stenner's book beginning with this) than Lakoff. Lakoff simply posits that different people have different conceptions of the family while not going deeper to ask why. Stenner argued that there are perhaps 30% of people who are born with a biological disposition to be authoritarian. I wrote:
In an excellent book, The Authoritarian Dynamic, political scientist Karen Stenner gave a brief description of the predisposition to be authoritarian; she wrote (p. 16) that the stances taken by the authoritarian “have the effect of glorifying, encouraging, and rewarding uniformity and of disparaging, suppressing, and punishing difference.” Ad hominem attacks are attempts to glorify uniformity and suppress difference. On the other end of the continuum from authoritarianism is libertarianism.
I frankly think it is at least plausible that approximately 30% of humans are born with a biological predisposition to be authoritarian and that this means they feel compelled to glorify, encourage, and reward uniformity and disparage, suppress and punish difference. It is these people who would naturally be drawn to Lakoff's "stern father" model of the family.

The fact that authoritarians glorify uniformity and punish difference gives them a fundamental political advantage: their stress on uniformity and rejection of difference allows them to share a reasonably common set of beliefs that give them solidarity. Liberals, on the other hand, stand for a diversity of beliefs and the right to disagree and be different. This puts them at a fundamental disadvantage to authoritarians! Look at Hitler's emphasis upon the necessity that members of the Nazi Party declare absolute allegiance to his 25 points (see Richard Evans, "The Coming of the Third Reich", pp. 179-180). As Evans points out these 25 points were "soon declared 'unalterable', so as to prevent it from becoming a focus for internal dissension." Although I haven't got a ready citation for this think of Lenin's emphasis upon the need for "democratic centralism" in the Bolshevik Party so that once a position or strategy had been agreed to all discussion and criticism must stop. Totalitarianism has this fundamental advantage over liberals and progressives because the latter prize diversity and believe that free discussion will eventually bring one to the truth.

In fact it seems to me that a very basic belief of liberalism is that humans are not in possession of the truth and thus using tools like free public discussion, or the scientific method, or continued search for innovation in technology and industry are at the very heart of liberalism. On the other hand, the authoritarian believes we know the truth (the Bible is the unerrant word of God, America is always right and thus you must love it or leave it, questioning the government in wartime is tantamount to treason, etc.) and thus diversity and differences are simply annoying discomforts that should be punished and suppressed. The uniformity, discipline and subordination to a leader (father) gives authoritarians a very strong advantage over liberals and this is at least worth being aware of.

1 comment:

steven andresen said...

I read what you said here about the inherent advantages of the authoritarian. Since they push uniformity they are prone to formulate a set of doctrines that are used to unify their followers. The liberal side stresses diversity and hence have a difficult time maintaining any kind of unity. They can't speak with a single voice.

I wonder about this. If the authoritarians had this advantage, then why would anyone ever adopt a liberal position against them? Why not adopt some alternative authoitarian position? So when confronted by communist authoritarians, you push fascist authoritarians.

I want to say, to answer my question, that if it is true that liberals push diversity, that there are inherent advantages to that position, but not the same as enjoyed by authoritarians. I'm thinking of the fact that people are diverse, an electorate is diverse. And to collect a lot of people together to support a common agenda you might want to argue that the acceptance of diversity is why liberals should be supported by the diverse electorate. The argument could be strengthened by saying that one of the weaknesses of the authoritarians is that they have such a narrowly focused agenda that it cannot appeal to more than a few people in that electorate.

Isn't this just the liberals argument about the neo-cons and the "extremist" elements controlling the Republican Party? Yes they have a unified strongly stated position, but they no longer represent anything but a narrow sliver of views in America.

I think this is always their argument against the left. That is, they say, the left is so far out of the mainstream that they represent hardly anyone.

Given this way of putting the differences between liberals and conservatives, I'm not sure one needs to argue that their goals are fundamentally different, or that their understanding of "freedom" is different. They could have the same idea, say, that the word gets its meaning from its context, and we could find that they just don't care much about preserving freedom.

I'm also not sure that liberals aren't authoritarian in the sense that they don't tolerate economic differences well. So, on the left, they tend to attack the rich for their greed. And if liberals are into change because old values aren't helping people, aren't they intolerant of those who might want to maintain older less up-to-date ways of doing things. I suspect these were the arguments that conservatives had against the radicals of the 60's, for example. The hippies' changes were more or less change for change's sake. Or, the changes pushed by liberals tended to be counter to their christian moral understandings.

When you brought up this point,

"In fact it seems to me that a very basic belief of liberalism is that humans are not in possession of the truth and thus using tools like free public discussion, or the scientific method, or continued search for innovation in technology and industry are at the very heart of liberalism."

That liberals rely on debate and science, and technology to come up with "new" approaches to problems, they seem to give themselves some advantage over the authoritarian.

I wonder whether they are really fair to the electorate in making such appeals. I wonder whether most of the time the appeal to debate, science, or technology, and newness is just an attempt to use the unfamiliarity of debate, science, technology against an electorate unable to follow the arguments involving special technical terms, scientific principles, or complex technological ideas. Isn't there room to say we are so blinded by the newness and the reputation of science and "political debate" that we go along with it even though we don't understand it, and are really not in a position to evaluate it in those terms?

And even if we could understand the issues, I'm suspecting the electoral process has been so corrupted that the electorate is unable to use their understanding to help themselves.

In addition, I think we should wonder whether Lakoff is using his theory about family models against his political opponents.