We Got the Whole Authoritarianism Thing Wrong, Big Time

Editor's Note: Thanks to reader Caroline for turning us on to this through Power Line Blog.

Alright, so you've heard it, I've heard it, and I've written commentary about it (mostly criticizing it): Conservatives are infected with this terrible authoritarianism. It's led to the rise of Trump. Fascism is just around the corner. 

Vox and just-about-everyone-else has discussed this, citing (primarily) a paper by Verhulst, Eaves, and Hatemi about "The Relationship between Personality Traits and Political Ideologies." While they say that personality traits don't cause political ideology, they do demonstrate some pretty strong correlations: conservatives have an authoritarian personality, and liberals have a neurotic one (and are more prone to look for social acceptance). It seemed to be some pretty good science, and we told some good stories around it.

But here's something to consider: what stories would we tell if the data were the complete opposite? How would we describe "neurotic conservatives" and "authoritarian liberals?" 

Why, of course, am I asking for this thought exercise? Turns out our researchers just published an erratum telling us that (probably due to a database coding error, which I can tell you is a frigtheningly easy mistake), they got it backwards in their original paper. Oops. You might say it turns the old stories on their heads. 

Is now the time to start running around making brand new stories about liberals and conservatives? No, that's not the point.

Our Storytelling Sucks

Perhaps you're a liberal and right now you're having an emotional reaction that rejects this. Perhaps you're a conservative and you're having an emotional reaction that embraces it, because you "knew deep down all along" that liberals were the real fascists. 

So first, I want you to think about your emotional reactions: if you're having any, why are you having them? What stake do you have in a particular story being true or false?

But more importantly, the point is this: I want you to think about how these stories came about. Why did the "conservatives are authoritarian and drove the rise of Trump" story emerge in the first place? Why did this very obscure paper and tiny field of political science get so much attention?

I posit that a bunch of people already believed it was true before they saw any data. When this paper popped up, it confirmed what someone was already telling themselves ("conservatives are authoritarians and are going to lead us to fascism"), so they hopped on it. A bunch of other people shared it because it gave them the opportunity to gleefully denounce their opposition as not worth considering: they're authoritarians, after all. We took (what ended up being) backwards science and gave ourselves an opportunity to feel smug.

And we do this frequently: it's called confirmation bias. And this is an awesome example of it: we cherry-picked something that confirmed a comforting story for us. Now that the truth is out, I'm afraid (but pretty certain) it will get very little attention, because it doesn't make us feel good, or superior. It's uncomfortable to consider that the story we painted about the bad guys on the right wasn't accurate. 

But I truly, deeply hope that you'll take this as a good lesson. Whatever Trump happens to say or not, we now have to have the courage to say, "there is not scientific evidence that conservatives are more authoritarian. In fact, there is scientific evidence that instead says that liberals are more authoritarian."

What the Opposite Story Might Look Like

What if this paper had been published correctly the first time? Perhaps we'd have seen articles from TownHall or NRO with Bernie Sanders wearing a Che Guevara hat, commanding rabid hordes of revolutionaries to confiscate peoples' private property in the name of "the people." Perhaps we'd have seen Hillary Clinton as a robot-monarch, commanding the abolition of guns with the stroke of a pen. 

If properly politically motivated, one could write all sorts of stories about how it is indeed the liberals who are on the edge of fascism, probably with more resonance and clarity than what I made up just now. And while it seems the scientific evidence says that liberals are more authoritarian, the narratives above make approximately as much sense as the narratives about conservatives being fascists, as well--that is, not much.

So what if maybe--just maybe--neither party was fascist?

Disclaimer, and Curiosity

There may even be other studies on this that I haven't seen that muddy the picture a bit--turns out social science is a bit of an inexact science and how you "code" for authoritarianism in a study really matters on the outcome. If anyone has some good research that makes the story more interesting, leave it in comments below.



Erik Fogg

We do politics, but we don't do the thinking for you.