What the Polls Tell Us About Authoritarianism

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Today’s elections will tell us a lot about Donald Trump’s march to the GOP nomination. Odds makers now make him the favorite to become the Republican standard bearer in November. This makes our review of the literature on Authoritarianism even more timely. Our discussion focuses on the extent to which a voter places a high value on conformity and order, attachment to existing social norms and a fear of outsiders.

Shortly after the NH primary the media concern Vox commissioned a survey of the electorate that first tested for authoritarian tendencies and then asked about candidates and party support. The poll then asked about different types of voter fears and finally policy preferences in order to explore the role authoritarians are playing in the election. 

Among the initial findings:

  • 25% of white respondents nationally scored as high authoritarians and 19% as very high. 
  • 42% of the high authoritarians and 53% of the “very high” prefer Trump
  • Authoritarians are more likely to fear threats from abroad—73% of the “very high” group say ISIS is a high risk, 57% say Iran is high risk, and 41% give the same warning about Russia.

The five most important policy positions among Authoritarians were:

  • Using military force over diplomacy against countries that threaten the United States
  • Constitutional change to bar citizenship for children of illegal immigrants
  • Racial profiling at airports to curb terrorism
  • Requiring everyone to obtain national ID card in the fight against terrorism
  • Allowing the federal government to scan all phone calls to combat terrorism

These policy stances are polar opposites of progressive thinking, but lest we paint authoritarians with too broad a brush, it is important to note that authoritarians are not wildly excited about:

  • Tax cuts for people making more than $250,000 per year 
  • International trade agreements that disadvantage blue collar workers.

One major take away for Democrats during what looks like the pending collapse of the GOP is that the broad themes of economic populism resonate with authoritarians.  

Additionally we caution against dismissing these fears of threats from abroad and remind our allies that  another domestic terrorism tragedy like San Bernadino will fan these white hot flames even more.


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