Understanding America’s True Political Parties

Photo by Katie Moum on Unsplash

One of the rather major mysteries when doing comparative national politics is the extraordinarily obvious emergence of similar patterns.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before — the urban areas, representing a more cosmopolitan, vigorous support of the actions of government for social programs and management of powerful interests, find themselves embroiled against an alliance of socially conservative nominally rural voters and anti-government business leaders.

These basic two coalitions exist in one form or another in virtually every large nation. In multiparty systems, the parties wind up coalescing into two coalitions to get a majority. In two-party dominant systems like the U.S. the parties act in a very similar fashion — smaller interests battle for dominance within the parties.

Superficially, this would seem pretty simple — rural vs. urban, old vs. young.

This model, unfortunately, falls apart when trying to make predictions about actual behavior — especially the rural/business alliance. Why in the world would evangelical leaders back philandering moral incompetents? Why would the leaders of business back someone dedicated to the destruction of the treaties upon which global trade relies? Why would law-and-order voters back someone who flagrantly lies and ignores laws?

Now, pop quiz, am I talking about Netanyahu, BoJo, or Trump?

The answer is that the real parties fall along lines that, per the research of Bob Altemeyer, are best described by actual differences in the mode of thought between different groups of people.

Altemeyer’s research on right-wing authoritarians actually found differences in the way people think. The differences in belief come after.

Did you ever take those analogy tests in school? For example, if mouse::cat, then krill::whale? Or book::reading maps to car::driving? That’s a very specific kind of intelligence. This is just a tiny part of a typical standardized college testing — but the performance on that section is correlated with the tendencies toward right-wing authoritarianism.

Right-wing authoritarianism, in turn, is highly correlated with everything from racism, sexism, a distrust of science and the scientific method. Which sounds… awfully familiar.

Let’s stop and unpack that for a moment. A very specific, targeted kind of intelligence test can predict a tendency for right-wing authoritarianism.

It’s roughly 30% of most large populations.

Right-wing authoritarians (RWAs), because of how their brains work, don’t respond to facts, or arguments, or appeals to morality, because they just don’t think like that.

It’s the flipside of “gay conversion therapy” — you can’t send a RWAs to school and expect different behavior, because it’s how they are hard-wired. The RWA will gravitate to the authoritarian leader/bullshit artist because the leader confirm their natural beliefs.

In the aftermath of WW2, the US (and most of the world) was given an absolutely brutal example of the dangers of allowing RWAs to organize and run societies.

Now that the generation that fought the Nazis are dead and dying, the Nazis are back. Everywhere. It’s not because the Nazis ever really went away, it’s because the people in power that had to deal with them are dead. The rest of us are at a complete loss at how to deal with the situation, because we just can’t believe it.

How is it that I’m writing about Nazis in 2019?

It’s because Nazism was never about Nazis.

It’s about how about 30% of the human population thinks.

If that 30% organizes, votes, and takes over, we don’t know what to do.

Until we figure out a way to deal with that on a structural level — a way to organize our democracies that can really face the fact that about 30% of any given large population really, deeply, just wishes that an authoritarian would take over — we are going to keep fighting this fight over and over. Could be civil wars, could be old fashioned nation state wars.

Only, this time around, we have nuclear weapons.

Just in case I haven’t freaked you out enough, you really should, go ahead and grab a free copy of The Authoritarians. Or do what I did, and grab the audiobook (it’s on Audible).



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