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From Soup to Nuts: The Authoritarian Transformation of the Republican Party

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Rich Iott, Republican House candidate from Ohio likes to dress up as a Nazi officer (and defends himself by asking "who are we to judge?"). Sharron Angle, Republican candidate for Senate from Nevada, says that Shari'a Law is already upon us. Carl Paladino, Republican Gubernatorial candidate from New York sends racist emails and spouts ugly homophobic rhetoric. A Michigan assistant attorney general launches a crusade against the student body president of the University of Michigan, who is gay, on the grounds that the student has a "radical homosexual agenda" that aims to bring down America. The Republican governor of Arizona insists for months that illegal-immigrants are responsible for a reign of terror, including beheadings in her state (she did finally retract the outrageous claim). Needless to stay, there are countless more similar examples one could provide from major Republican candidates and office-holders. (Some Republicans have even called for a boycott of Campbell's Soup for being "pro-Islam," because the company has released some soups in Canada that meet Islamic dietary restrictions).

These are illustrations of the same broader and highly significant development: The Republican Party, in 2010, has given itself over almost entirely to authoritarianism, a culmination of a forty-year long process in which the two parties, in terms of their bases of support, have polarized sharply in the deepest way possible -- not on the basis of policy differences or even ideology, but on the basis of deep-seated personality differences. Visceral, gut-level views about right and wrong, morality, diversity and tolerance more broadly now define party competition in America.

Since the days of Goldwater and Nixon, Republicans have "hunted where the ducks" are by staking out positions against minority groups deemed "different" in some fundamental way from "ordinary" Americans. From the 1960s through the 1980s, it was blacks and feminists. More recently, it
has been gays and illegal immigrants (and, now, Muslims).

The result of this decades-long strategy is that Republicans and Democrats increasingly differ by personality types. The Republican Party is now heavily populated by psychological authoritarianism, which is a disposition that strongly prefers to see the world in black and white terms and is uncomfortable with uncertainty, social fluidity and complexity. A core trait of authoritarianism is wariness about those who challenge dominant norms - those who are "different". Hence, the same people who have a hard time with blacks also tend to have a hard time with feminists (since they challenge traditional gender norms), immigrants, gays, and, not surprisingly, Muslims. This is why the specifics of the antipathy are almost irrelevant - Muslims, gays, Blacks, illegal immigrants - in some sense, it's all the same, as all those groups represent the same thing for authoritarian-minded individuals - the impending breakdown of order and security in our society.

In the book I co-wrote last year with Marc Hetherington, Authoritarianism and Polarization in American Politics, we provide lots of data to illustrate the starkness of the differences between the most and least authoritarian. Results from two survey questions (out of many that yield similar findings) are worth mentioning. In the first question, when asked whether a book written by a "Muslim terrorist" ought to be banned from a public library, 79 percent of the most authoritarian thought it should, while only 12 percent of the least authoritarian did. That sixty-seven point gap is almost unheard of in public opinion data. Similarly, when asked whether most people can be trusted or whether you can't be too careful, only 18 percent of high authoritarians think most can be trusted, while 72 percent of the least authoritarian do, a likewise extraordinary gap indicative of a profound, personality-based fissure in society.

It is not that all Republicans are authoritarians; nor that all Democrats are non-authoritarian. Far from it. And people adopt party affiliations for a variety of reasons. But whereas those with the authoritarian cognitive style used to be more evenly split between the parties, decades of appeals for "states rights", "law and order", and against ERA, gay rights and immigration reform have concentrated this particular personality type in the GOP. And the consequence of that decades-long process has been the emergence of a Republican party that is, to a remarkable degree, built on viscera -- on appeals to anger and resentment, and a deeply-felt conviction that America is breaking down irretrievably and that the way to stop that process is to demonize and marginalize outgroups deemed responsible for that breakdown. And this is no longer a geographically confined phenomenon, but a fully national one.

The intense hostility to President Obama illustrates the point well -- he's half-black, has an identifiably Muslim middle name and is the first President in American history whose last name ends in a vowel (connoting a non-Anglo Saxon heritage). He represents many of the forces of change, uncertainty and ambiguity against which people high in authoritarianism often react strongly. Additionally, his very speaking style, with a tendency to dwell on complexity and nuance, is one that authoritarians would find particularly unappealing, in sharp contrast to the more simple, straightforward style of his predecessor.

And he also exemplifies well another point we make -- that policy differences are, to an increasing degree, besides the point in a political system defined by personality-based polarization. After all, Obama's record on issues like state secrets, detention of terror suspects and civil liberties more broadly is one of bitter disappointment to many progressives (as is his record on gay rights). More broadly, as I wrote last week, on many policy dimensions, there is little to distinguish Obama from President Clinton, a man that many Republicans now profess fondness for.

But in a system characterized by the kind of personality-based polarization we are witnessing, it scarcely matters, especially to authoritarian-minded individuals, for whom Obama's look, manner of speaking and background make him highly suspect and threatening.

The fact that the more and less authoritarian now find homes in opposite political parties has made our politics almost impossibly acrimonious. When Democrats raise what they view as legitimate concerns about tolerating those who are different, the base of the Republican Party does not understand. And when Republicans bring up what they view as legitimate views about safety, security and threats to our way of life, the base of the Democratic party does not understand. Party loyalists are no longer wrangling over policy differences. Instead, they represent fundamentally opposed personalities, which prioritize, in many ways, incommensurate, values.

The dynamics of the ordinary news cycle focus our attention on the most immediate, hot-button stories, causing us to lurch from controversy to controversy, as the examples in the opening paragraph suggest. But it's worth stepping back from the specifics of those controversies to appreciate the larger forces at play. Perhaps more than ever before, Americans are divided into major political camps that conceive of the world in fundamentally irreconcilable terms.