The appeal of authoritarianism

by Joshua Landy

07 October 2019

Why do some people find authoritarian leaders appealing? Why do they sometimes secure vast numbers of votes in democratic countries? These are some of the questions we’re asking in this week’s show.

Authoritarian leaders tend to corrupt the political system, rig the courts, assail the free press, jail their opponents, constrain or close universities, and lie brazenly to their citizens. They pit social groups against one another, depicting some as “real Americans” (say) and others as interlopers and/or exploiters. It’s hard to imagine what any fully rational voter could see in such a leader. Why would anyone rationally choose to vote for someone like that? At the cost of our collective rights and freedoms, and of our cohesion as a society?

One answer would be to say that supporters of authoritarians are not in fact making a rational, authentic choice. Either they’re being forced to go along with the regime (as in Germany, say, in the 1940s) or they are being tricked into it. Authoritarian regimes deploy vast propaganda operations, continually demonizing opponents, celebrating the impeccable virtue and relentless successes of the Great Leader, stroking the (perhaps wounded) ego of the fan-base, fanning the flames of prejudice, ginning up fear of outside forces (there’s always a caravan waiting to invade), and warning of the dangerous “enemy within.” (George Orwell described all of this brilliantly in 1984.) And unfortunately, propaganda has a way of working.

Another option would be to say that the irrationality comes, at least in part, from within. Maybe there is, as Adorno and others have argued, an authoritarian personality type. Some of us love the freedom and variety we find in democratic societies, with the many different lifestyles they make possible, the many different standpoints and attitudes, the many different cultures that flow into our life together. This group also welcomes (positive) social change, as taboos are overcome and barriers lifted. A second group feels indifferent to such change and variety, with no strong feelings either way. But a third group finds it psychologically intolerable. To them, perhaps, it feels like chaos; to them, anything—even tyranny—is preferable to that. (That’s more or less what the character Socrates says, give or take the psychological language, in book 8 of Plato’s Republic.)

Maybe the fear, in some cases, goes even deeper than that. There’s a fantastic section of The Brothers Karamazov in which Ivan imagines what would have happened if Jesus had returned to earth at the height of the Inquisition. The Grand Inquisitor, he says, would have had Jesus executed, because Jesus’s message of freedom is ruinous. “Nothing has ever been more insupportable for a man and a human society than freedom,” the Grand Inquisitor says. “So long as man remains free he strives for nothing so incessantly and so painfully as to find someone to worship.” I don’t think this is true of everyone—but what if it’s true for some people? And what if their terror of personal freedom, intensified by the vision of unfettered choice presented by the media every day, drives them into the arms of an authoritarian?

So far we have some pretty unimpressive “reasons” for signing up: people are being tricked by propaganda, pushed by their own prejudice, or pulled by their fear of disorder, change, and freedom. We’re left with two remaining possibilities. One is that the voters in question simply have the facts wrong. (Entirely plausible in the era of widely-circulated fake news.) If someone genuinely believed that, say, cats were radioactive, that everyone was lying about them being safe, and that only Pat Smith could save us from them, maybe it would be rational—albeit misguided!—to vote for Pat. (“Fear the cat, vote for Pat.”)

But here’s a more troubling possibility. What if part of the reason is that democracy, at least in its current general incarnation, isn’t everything it’s cracked up to be? Politicians are often more interested in getting re-elected than in doing what’s best for the country; they’re often subject to pressure from lobbying groups and from rich donors; and even at its best, democracy can only deliver compromise solutions to the problems facing society.

Imagine if you could bring about sensible gun control in the USA—something substantial majorities want to see—by closing the government for a day. Would you do it? Would you be acting rationally? Would democracy survive?


Harold G. Neuman

Monday, October 7, 2019 — 12:29 PM

A number of years ago, my brother asked me what I thought was the greatest problem facing mankind. I thought about it for about three minutes and replied: fear. He was, at that time, unconvinced, thinking there were surely greater challenges to be overcome. I do not know what he thinks now—we have not crossed the subject in a dozen years or more. But, my contention stands. Why? Because, throughout the ages of man, fear has been a common denominator, leading to wars and social unrest generally. That people embrace authoritarianism is but a symptom. We are, many of us, willing to sacrifice much to governance which is perceived as strong; governance which will protect us from all the bad people who would take what we have; governance which would save us in spite of ourselves… Fear is ugly, pervasive, and perennial. Always was. Always will be. Trust is hard-won; fickle, and fragile. You see what we are up against here?


Tuesday, October 8, 2019 — 1:17 PM

Ask JK Rowling for the secret to creating an anti-authoritarian polity aka a group of individuals whose hearts and minds have been shown the virtues of tolerant, democratic, in a word anti-authoritarian, values. In all seriousness, the internalized values of key individuals (think whistleblowers) and masses of individuals (think voters) are crucial bulwarks against authoritarianism. I believe that telling good stories, engrossing ones with broadly relevant themes, like the Harry Potter stories, is one highly effective way to impress anti-authoritarian values (and a wariness when confronted with their opposites) on many millions of current and future contributors to open society.


Wednesday, October 9, 2019 — 8:32 PM

I’ll go with Democracy isn’t everything it is cracked up to be. That said, what pray tell would make it better? Important question! Wasn’t it Thomas Jefferson who said Democracy needed to be in today’s terms “rebooted” every ten years? I’d be in favor of that, starting anew.

My biggest issue with our current state of Democracy is why we elect someone to represent us when I would prefer to simply represent myself. Do our elected representatives truly represent us or do they represent the corporations that truly elect them? That’s where the campaign money comes from, isn’t it? Does anyone you know give money to a campaign? And why do we need representation in a world where everyone has instant communication? We all have cell phones, right? Wasn’t our existing form of representative government created because there was no distant communication devices invented yet? The only reason! Why can’t we vote on everything ourselves? Here are some everyday things we all could vote on and have instant results:
Ban on Assault weapons Yes or No
Universal Healthcare Yes or No
Free Education Yes or No
Go Green and save the planet yes or no
Peace yes or no
Abortion Yes or No
Freedom to choose Yes or No
Would you rather represent yourself? Yes or No
Is it time to reboot?
I think we should all answer these important questions and many others ourselves.
I’m not even telling you which ones to vote for, decide yourselves.
Do we not currently vote away our self-termination, our self-control and give our power, our strength, to people we truly do not even know? How smart is that?
Thanks for the political dialog,
Reboot yes or no



Friday, October 11, 2019 — 7:42 AM

“Why do some people find authoritarian leaders appealing?”

It excuses them from responsibility knowing the chief is in charge of the tribe while making them comfortable knowing the battle for his position leaves the opportunity to disregard his rule. It gives a nepotistic opportunity to be selfish and excused.

It’s innate.

We’re still innately haram-based tribalists by nature despite our developed subjective inhumanist idealism. This leaves us only a two-dimensional mind and thought process. Adding a third dimension comes from marginalizing further rationalism and rationalists till a fourth dimension of thought results. Complete pariahs, the completley psychotic.

Harold G. Neuman

Tuesday, October 15, 2019 — 12:13 PM

Kudos to RepoMan! And that, my friends, is pretty much what megalomanic authoritarians are all about. Seems to me…

Manu Oquendo

Friday, November 15, 2019 — 11:16 PM

The dynamics of parlamentary or representative democracies create system forces that deterministically drive them to become despotic.

This was the diagnosis of Tocqueville in his “Democracy in America”. I suspect that very few people reading this author get to the last 60 or so pages of the book. When this 4th “book” or chapter is published independently of the rest –there is at least one edition in France– its title is “Le Despotisme Democratique”.

Later on, in the 20th century, a Neurologist, Ashby, discovered what we know today as “Ashby’s Law”. This law establishes that as complexity grows in any system, its Controls must grow accordingly if whoever is in command wants to retain Power. This growth of control is very expensive and, in not many electoral cycles, those societies find that the cost of control is higher than real production and get into Negative Returns for them as a whole. The only way out of it is, for those in Power, to restrict Liberty.

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