Anthropologist Underground

Anthropologist Underground
October 13
I'm Terrie Torgersen Peterson. I hold a BA in Anthropology from the University of Wyoming. I've done archeological field work at Haluzta in Israel, San Juan River cliff dwellings in the American Southwest, and in the Big Horn Canyon in Wyoming. I'm currently a writer and stay-home mom to two gorgeous, laughing children. I enjoy exploring the intersection of science and culture and my own life as ethnography. I also write for and You can email me: anthropologistunderground [at] gmail [dot] com.


JANUARY 14, 2012 1:59PM

American Political Dysfunction Explained

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 Actors’ representation of American political discourse.


Marc J. Hetherington and Jonathan Weiler examine major psychological currents that contribute to dysfunction in American politics in their book, Authoritarianism and Polarization in American Politics.  

They gathered a wealth of information from the American National Election Studies data to explain the current polarized disarray of American political discourse. In particular, they sourced a four-question inventory to sort respondents along a continuum from authoritarian to non-authoritarian. The questions have to do with how people view authority and control in parent/child relationships.

Hetherington and Weiler don’t provide a convenient one-line definition of the term authoritarianism because the concept is complex, and they wanted to avoid just the sort of negative bias that I read into it.  My understanding, based on the book as well as a bit of Googling, is that authoritarianism appears to be a type of cognitive deficit style. 

“The thing that makes authoritarians distinctive is their reliance on established authorities [...] we suspect that those who score high in authoritarianism have (I) a greater need for order and, conversely less tolerance for confusion or ambiguity, and (2) a propensity to rely on established authorities to provide that order. [...]

Specifically, those scoring high in authoritarianism will probably tend to rely more on emotion and instinct than those scoring low because they (I) have, on average, fewer cognitive tools and (2) feel more threat from the often ambiguous nature of the complicated world around them.” (p.34) 

The most difficult thing about reading the book was maintaining my objectivity. It was very easy to read strong confirmation of my own biases into many aspects of the discussion. Of course I scored myself. I’m not good at dichotomous survey questions. After I mentally qualified my answers, “Yes, but....” I estimate my personal score is around -2. Beyond non-authoritarian. Anti-authoritarian.

My impression from the book and my own anthropological observation is that most authoritarians tend to be republican, white, Christian, heterosexual traditionalists. They want things to be the way they have always been. They tend to favor forceful, aggressive political candidates. The world is black and white for authoritarians, and they don’t let a little thing like objective reality get in the way of their opinions. These are the “shoot first, ask questions later” people.

Although authoritarians are generally less rational and more reactive than non-authoritarians, it turns out that even non-authoritarians commit serious errors in cognition when they feel threatened. 

While authoritarians tend to feel threatened all the time from the diversity and complexity around them, non-authoritarians tend to remain calm most of the time. Non-authoritarians briefly trended toward the authoritarian side of the spectrum immediately following 9/11. President George W. Bush’s approval rating was around 90% shortly after the attacks. Fear erodes cognition for all of us, but the non-authoritarians return to deliberative calm when the threat recedes.

The republican political elite is masterful at reminding its base to be afraid, very afraid. The more authoritarian candidates are currently arousing the passions of their base with seriously scary issues like these:

 Teh Gay:


Teh Birth Control:


At the extremes of the authoritarian spectrum, it really is impossible for authoritarians and non-authoritarians to imagine what the hell is wrong with people on other side. Which is both fascinating and incredibly depressing.

I contacted Jonathan Weiler via email with some questions. Both he and Marc Hetherington were very generous with their time. The discussion follows:

Me: After hearing your recent interview on the Point of Inquiry podcast, I read your fascinating book.

I find the authoritarian paradigm as you and Hetherington describe it incredibly compelling, but I have a few follow-up questions.

1. The issue of climate change seemed to be missing from the discussion. Why?

Jonathan:  I agree about climate change. A telling moment during the 2008 campaign - I thought - was Palin's "drill, baby, drill" line, which seemed to represent a pivot from a conservationist approach to such issues (and one which, historically, many conservatives were sympathetic to) to an issue framed by the need for cognitive simplification.

Marc notes as well as that climate change is, assuredly, part of a bigger suite of issues that involve the rejection of science.

Me: 2. How do those of us on the non-authoritarian end of the spectrum rebrand ourselves as having the greater amount of courage because we don't freak out in crises?

Jonathan: number 2 is a great question and I am not sure of the answer, but I will say that Ron Paul has framed his opposition to overseas adventures in terms of strength, not weakness. 

Marc notes that non-authoritarians probably do freak out during a crisis - that's what humans do. A difference is that non-authoritarians disposition don't seem to be freaking out all the time. After 9/11, almost everyone was in a high state of anxiety. That state receded for some, but not for others.  

Me: 3. Chapter 6 contains this passage: "Republicans seem to benefit by raising the specter of threat, especially as it relates to terrorism. In making this observation, we do not mean to suggest that this is a cynical strategy..." I recall a carpet bombing of terrorism-based political hay in the months and years following 9/11. My bias is showing, but it sure seemed to me like a cynical strategy at the time.

Jonathan: The cynicism statement was us being careful academics. Your bias is well-founded. To my comments about cynicism,

Marc adds that there was likely some real fear among GOP leaders. If you've read Ron Suskind's "The One Percent Solution," you get a sense of this. It's probably not an either/or proposition, even if the motivation was *mostly* cynical.

Me: 4. I've read Nyhan and Reifler's research into the backfire effect.

[The backfire effect occurs when people are so emotionally invested in an opinion that factual counter-evidence causes them to double-down on their misinformed stance. For example, there are some people who continue to believe there were WMDs in Iraq to justify their support of the war. All evidence to the contrary simply reinforces their anti-factual position.]

Are you familiar with this? If so, is there a relationship between high-ranking authoritarians and the backfire effect?

Jonathan: I am guessing you'd be right about the backfire event. It's certainly consistent with what studies, in general, show about how they process information and make it conform to their worldview, though Chris Mooney has noted that progressives are not above doing this themselves (that's not necessarily the same as non-authoritarians, but surely there's some of that among non-authoritarians).

Me: 5. Speaking to the powerful impact of symbolism on people who rank high on the authoritarian index, I'm fascinated by how authoritarian issues play out in everyday situations. I have heard reports of people whose self-reported basis for their political opinions would place them very high on the authoritarian index.  These individuals are viscerally fearful of ethnic cuisine. It's racist, of course, but beyond that it's a fascinatingly powerful aversion. It's as if they fear consuming the food of people they fear will turn them into Other. (Other being non-white, non-Christian, college educated, New York Times reading, non-heterosexual, etc.) Have you encountered similar everyday glimpses into the impact of authoritarianism?

Jonathan: Marc has actually looked at some data on the relationship between ethnic food preferences and authoritarianism and, as you might expect, there is much less desire for experimentation/trying new things among high authoritarians.

Me: 6. Where can we follow your analysis of the shenanigans leading into the presidential election?

Jonathan: I write for a few sources - I am a regular political columnist for the Independent Weekly of North Carolina - my columns come out on the second and fourth Wednesday of each month. I write pretty regularly for Huffington Post. Finally, I have started doing regular podcasts with my close friend, Marty Beller, who is the drummer for They Might be Giants. The podcast is called The drummer and the professor. It's not just about politics, but that is a focus, and the most recent one was from Iowa, where I was covering the caucuses.

The book was genuinely fascinating, and I love the idea that there is at least one reasonable explanation for the appalling dysfunction in contemporary American politics. I highly recommend it as a primer for tracking the debates surrounding the upcoming presidential election.





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Very interesting. I can see how the authoritarian personality would tend to what is described as conservative these days. Amusing about the ethnic food test!
Thanks for reading Myriad! I agree, the food thing is hilarious.
Thanks for reviewing this book and for your interesting questions to the authors. I've just checked and my local library has the book, so I'm off to get it; yay, something worth reading!