Thursday, March 3, 2016

The Authoritarian Movement, Fear, and the American Soul

If you read nothing else about the Donald Trump (Drumpf!) phenomenon, go read this (somewhat lengthy) article: The Rise of American Authoritarianism.

The article is an excellent distillation of research done, both in the last couple of decades and recently, about authoritarian tendencies within the American body politic. This research produces an explanation not only for the "Drumpf phenomenon" but for a lot of other things in American politics. That explanation includes this observation:
And so the rise of authoritarianism as a force within American politics means we may now have a de facto three-party system: the Democrats, the GOP establishment, and the GOP authoritarians. 
And although the latter two groups are presently forced into an awkward coalition, the GOP establishment has demonstrated a complete inability to regain control over the renegade authoritarians, and the authoritarians are actively opposed to the establishment's centrist goals and uninterested in its economic platform.
I've no doubt that this will lead to a whole new wave of political strategizing by both Democrats and establishment Republicans about how to "win" in this new landscape. Democrats are likely very happy with this development, as it tears apart their principal competitor. Establishment Republicans are likely very concerned, as this threatens to split their coalition and lead to defeat not only in this round but for years to come.

This is all interesting in an academic sense, but while I do have preferences among parties and policy positions I largely try not to have a dog in that fight. Parties are going to do what they do regardless of what I think or don't think, say or don't say. I'm more interested in what this means for us, individually and as a people known as Americans.

One of the key observations in the literature cited above is this one:
non-authoritarians who are sufficiently frightened of physical threats such as terrorism could essentially be scared into acting like authoritarians.
Authoritarianism (the tendency to look for "strong man" solutions to perceived problems) is largely driven by fear, either in general (in response to broad social changes, for example) or in particular (fear of specific dangers seen to be near at hand - terrorism, gun violence, home invasion). I've written a lot about fear lately, much of which can be summarized in one of my favorite clips:

All of this raises a very important question to those of us who are not authoritarians and don't want to live in a country ruled by fear: What can we do?

My answer to this question is not political (in the traditional sense of "vote for this person" or "join this party"). Most of the people motivated by this question are going to do those things anyway. But as the Vox article points out, authoritarianism is not about this particular election. It's a significant force, and it's not going to go away no matter who wins in November.

So if you're really concerned about rising authoritarianism changing our identity as a people, I think the best answer isn't political, it's personal. What can you or I do to make our communities less authoritarian?

Answer: interact with people in such a way that they become less afraid.

Without going too deeply into the research on authoritarian tendencies, I will take as given that a portion of the population is authoritarian simply by nature. I'm not going to "talk someone out" of being authoritarian. This is not a subject to rational debate; authoritarianism lives at the gut level - the affective/emotional side of our psyche. There isn't some clever argument or set of factoids that is going to transform someone who is deeply, ideationally authoritarian into something else.

To the extent that some of the authoritarian movement is a response to fears perceived in the environment - as the research above suggests that it is - then we have an opportunity to make a difference. This too is less about arguments and facts, although those can be helpful. But ultimately you can't convince somebody who is afraid of a terrorist attack by telling them that they're more likely to be killed by falling furniture. Statistics don't convince emotionally.

So how do you engage with authoritarianism in ways that might actually move the needle? Not by rational argument, but by relationship. If authoritarians (or those who have been driven to it by perceptions) are driven by fear, show them that the world isn't as scary as they think. That other people (you) can be counted on to be decent, honorable, trustworthy, even if you're different. And above all: show them that you are not afraid. Not afraid of them, not afraid of terrorists, not afraid of the many (largely phantom) menaces that people conjure up in their minds.

Why would this matter? Because more than arguments and facts, people are moved by stories and the way those stories make them feel. You yourself are a story to everyone you meet. The more you interact with them, the more of your story they get to see. If your story is one of peace and love, they may begin to see that fear is not the only option. That other paths are possible.

There's nothing foolproof about this. Some folks are so driven by fear that they will dismiss you as a nut, a loon, an idealistic dreamer out of touch with reality. So may even get angry, because your story challenges theirs. So be it. There is no "formula for success" here. It won't work every time. But it's likely the only thing that will work.

So if you are concerned (as I am) that there is a rising tide of authoritarianism, fear, anger, and hatred in our nation, the answer is not to fight fire with fire. Fear does not dispel fear. Anger does not counteract anger. And snark, while amusing, is not a tool for change. To borrow from the stirring words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.:
Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.
Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.
In short: if you don't want to live in a community ruled by fear, then don't. Don't be afraid. And let everyone see you not being afraid. This is the only thing you can do. And if enough of us do it, then we will all be right.

No comments:

Post a Comment