23 November 2020

Authoritarian psychology and the liberal democratic ethos

A clarifying observation from my secret cousin @Politigoth:

By their nature, authoritarians respect authoritarian action. Their worldview is shaped by fear of punishment. Therefore if no one will be punished for a thing, there is no reason not to do that thing. Without punishment, all actions are valid. This is true in both religious and secular contexts. In short, if there's nothing to make you afraid of doing X, then you can do X.

People who are not authoritarians don't work this way, don’t think this way and don't operate on these principles. But because of this, they make the crucial error of thinking that letting actions perpetrated in bad faith slide in the name of “someone has to make the first move” will engender a good faith response. They are continually disappointed, because this is (here's the punchline, folks) not the lesson authoritarians learn from this gesture. They learn that rules don't apply to them, and that there is no authority that will call them to account.

This is important to understand, especially in this moment when we are experiencing breakdowns in liberalism as in liberal democracy.

Liberalism builds institutions like legislatures as a forum where constituencies with divergent interests hash out their differences in a human process of compromise and reciprocity. It mythologizes the virtues of giving up some things you want and accepting some things you do not want so that we can all get along. This is a good myth.

But one thing that the last decade plus has taught me is that authoritarians were always just playing along with this ethos, only pretending to believe in this ideal. This breakdown in authoritarian pretense makes libdem governance hard to maintain.

Defenders of the libdem order yearn to continue to act as if we have a healthy libdem order. We do not want to act harshly, because we want a society which is not harsh. We offer our open hand, to show what we want, because we would respond to that in kind. “When they go low, we go high.” But this reflects, in part, our difficulties understanding the thinking of reflexively-authoritarian people.

Authoritarians presume that the world is cruel, that authority & power are inherently cruel, and that obedience to right authority defines the good. This is why they accept political authority which harms them, so long as it harms others more; such is the nature of power. This is why religious authoritarians look to a God of harsh judgments; such is the nature of power. This is why religious authoritarians are baffled that people who do not dread divine retribution can live moral lives; how do we recognize the good? As @Politigoth says, offering the open hand sends them a confusing signal. (If you want to understand authoritarian psychology and its consequences, I strongly recommend psychology prof Dr. Bob Altemeyer's study The Authoritarians.)

This clarifies the importance of something that has been much on my mind. Defenders of the libdem order err in leaving out elements of our own ethos for how to act. As I summarize in a recurring refrain on Twitter the libdem ethos says:

  1. Generously start with a presumption of good faith
  2. Vigilantly watch for bad faith actors
  3. Stringently document the bad faith actors who appear
  4. Ruthlessly exclude them once demonstrated

On Twitter I often lament how liberals-as-in-Democrats have failed at the necessary ruthlessness, and how the press have failed at the vigilence and stringent documentation. (I also occasionally lament when social justice advocates have elided the stringent documentation, or the starting presumption of good faith.)

I tend to think of this in terms of creating good incentives for building and maintaining a libdem order, but @Politigoth reminded me of something at least as important. Libdem ruthlessness when necessary bridges the gap in psychology between egalitarians and authoritarians.


After watching @Politigoth in a lively discussion of this point, I realized something else about authoritarian psychology. She argues, correctly, that Biden’s plan to govern with gestures toward reconciliation with conservatives will backfire, and the lack of consequences for their bad faith actions in support of DJT will read to them as a demonstration that Democrats are chumps who deserve contempt ... and also that their actions were not really wrong, because there were no consequences for them.

This make me register how, to the libdem sensibility, when someone offers clemency to bad faith actors, this incurs on them a debt. They have harmed the social and political order and need to make amends. They have been granted undeserved grace on a provisional basis, will be watched more carefully, and need to invest in demonstrating that they are commited to acting in good faith and to the health of the system.

This does not register at all with authoritarians. When they break faith — which they will — they will feel baffled by how we are even angrier the next time. It will feel disproportionate to them, because they will not see the history and larger failure.


A comment by pacerme on a post at Emptywheel:

I truly fear the codependent belief that Dems have acted out for years, that taking the moral high ground is the moral equivalent of letting bygones be bygones. This would be what happens in domestic violence when he/she or they forget about the beating last night and move on hoping it will never happen again.

Ignoring the broken laws of the Republican Party. From Iran contra, to Plame, to Iraq war, to Russian interference in our elections, to literally torturing children on the border in a way that will alter their brains for life. Dems behave with this moral superiority that is really just codependency. Instead of living in the truth and allowing the natural consequences, as provided by our laws, the Dems intervene like the father who calls in legal favors for their drug addicted child to save the family name. Never realizing that by interfering with the natural consequences, the perception of truth is altered for the addict and that this interference may well only bolster the disease and hasten the fatal illness of addiction. (If left untreated). This doesn’t require chastisement or anger, but love and the discipline to refuse to protect that addicted child from the consequences of the disease, or the violent partner from the consequence of violent behavior.

If you love your country, you let the truth and it’s consequences reign. And if you are behaving outside of dysfunction you allow the consequences to speak truth to the nation. No matter how unpopular or risky that is. To refuse to do so under some self righteous belief of superiority, some hope that if we ignore it it will go away will continue to chip at our democracy. Dysfunction is contagious. Taking the moral high ground means applying the legal process for truth’s sake despite the consequences.

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