Sign at a New York City anti-Trump protest, April 2016. Photo by Flickr user mal3k.
Many people who consider themselves progressives subscribe to the notion that to be politically conservative is to have authoritarian leanings. Interestingly but not surprisingly, neither history nor social science seem to interfere with that belief.
A team of researchers recently provided an excellent case in point. The American Journal of Political Science ran a correction to a 2012 paper acknowledging that the paper’s authors got their data exactly backwards – and that the correct results came “despite [their] expectations.” The original paper was much cited for supporting the supposed link between authoritarian tendencies and conservative economic and social views. The correction clarified that the association was really between authoritarianism and liberal political views.
To be fair, commentators on both sides of the issue have ignored the fact that the paper’s overarching point was that the supposed correlation between political views and personality traits in no way suggested that one actually caused the other. The authors never claimed that holding pro-market, pro-gun or anti-same-sex marriage views creates the willingness to forcibly impose policies on society, or vice versa. The people who quoted their study to the contrary were taking them out of context, which is hardly the researchers’ fault. And, as others have noted, a single study is no sound basis for sweeping claims about scientific truth, even in disciplines where results are more easily reproduced than political science.
But it still came as something of a shock to these academics to discover that it is actually people who leaned toward socially and militarily liberal policies who seem more likely to want to stifle dissent and short-circuit the constitutional checks and balances of a free society.
The correction probably did not come as a shock to Donald Trump’s backers, who routinely find themselves, as well as their preferred candidate, described as xenophobes, racists and fascists. James Freeman, in an opinion column for The Wall Street Journal, pointed out that it has become many commentators’ favorite cliche to compare Trump to major fascist figures of the early 20th century. Andrew Sullivan’s essay in New York Magazine, published in May, was one of the most popular, but it was hardly the only piece to describe Trump as a tyrant-in-waiting. As Huck Finn once said to Tom Sawyer, “Throwin’ mud ain’t arguin’,” but that hardly seems to be stopping anybody this year.
As I observed a few months ago, this election season has also brought groups who prefer to try to silence their least favorite candidate, rather than rallying behind the candidate they support. The protests have not abated as Trump moves closer to securing the nomination, and seem likely to continue throughout the election season. It is not enough to disagree with Trump and his supporters; for some, it is necessary to try to silence them.
The researchers’ correction probably also did not come as a shock to the broader body of political conservatives who have protested over and over as the Obama administration rewrote or applied laws to suit its political whims while daring anyone who opposed those whims to sue. (Many did, and many have won, most recently over Obama’s unilateral overhaul of national immigration policy.) From claiming he could determine when Congress was in recess to, at best, failing to stop a political vendetta at the Internal Revenue Service, the current president has hardly been a consistent champion of limits on executive power and free expression for his opponents.
The psychological abbreviation “P,” coined by psychologist Hans Eysenck, “is positively correlated with tough-mindedness, risk-taking, sensation-seeking, impulsivity, and authoritarianism,” according to the authors of the 2012 paper. The researchers’ self-confessed expectations suggested these traits would crop up more often in those who identify as politically or socially conservative. But why?
Mussolini’s Blackshirts gained power by forcibly breaking up strikes (notably a 1920 stoppage at the Alfa Romeo car company) and various left-wing demonstrations. Yet their enduring legacy does not stem from anything they said; it stems from what they did. There have been few, if any, instances this year in which pro-Trump (or generally anti-Democrat) protesters have invaded rallies by Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders with the goal of preventing them from speaking, or preventing audiences from reaching their rallies or hearing what they came to hear. Those anti-speech, anti-democratic behaviors have come almost entirely from the other end of the political spectrum this election season.
The fact that academic researchers came to the exact wrong conclusion and never sensed the errors in their own data reflects their confirmation bias. Their results told them what they expected to learn, so they never doubted that they were right. I think there is a broader lesson here in the way we view our own behaviors and the prism through which we view and label the behaviors of others.