Is the Republican Party attracting authoritarians? New research suggests it could be creating them.

March 23, 2021

Is the GOP breeding authoritarianism? (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

Partisanship may be driving some Republicans to become increasingly authoritarian, not the other way around, according to new research challenging widely held views about the stability of psychological traits through time.

There's no evidence from recent years that authoritarianism has led people increasingly to back the Republican Party or its presidential nominees, according to research published March 11 in The Journal of Politics, but plenty to suggest that staunch Republicans have themselves become more authoritarian, potentially in line with party leaders' shifting rhetoric.

The findings suggest that partisanship plays a powerful role in shaping and reshaping characteristics widely believed to be fixed, and could offer some hope for people worried about the ways the "authoritarian divide" between Democrats and Republicans could be impacting democracy itself.

"Authoritarianism is not exogenous from politics as widely assumed," author Matthew Luttig wrote. "Instead, the authoritarian divide appears to be largely a product of cue-taking on the part of the electorate mimicking their political leaders."

His research took a critical eye to the view that former U.S. President Donald Trump won the 2016 election in part through powerful appeals to a key chunk of the electorate — voters high in authoritarianism, a psychological trait "reflecting a preference for social uniformity, an intolerance of diversity, and a view of the world as a dangerous place."

Research discovering a strong correlation between authoritarianism and support for Trump received widespread media attention even before the outsider Republican's victory. 

Post-election analyses provided further fuel for the view that Trump had consolidated control over the nation's authoritarians, including a 2020 paper that found that "authoritarianism had the largest effect on white vote choice in 2016 than in any prior election that was analyzed."

Luttig, an assistant professor at Colgate University, set out to probe an assumption that lurked either implicitly or explicitly in commentary on the growing authoritarian divide — the idea that many voters with fixed authoritarian personalities saw their values reflected in the GOP and its pick for president, pulling them toward the party.

He examined data from two election studies to find out whether there was evidence to back that view up.

Luttig first analyzed nearly 1,800 observations from a 2016 panel study by Survey Sampling International, which included information on how respondents felt about Trump and the Republican Party as well as on their levels of authoritarianism. The trait is measured using responses to four questions about raising children, an approach that research has shown correlates with the broader authoritarian profile.

Using cross-lagged regression models, he investigated whether respondents' warmth toward Trump and the GOP grew over the course of the study's three waves as a function of their authoritarianism in the preceding wave, controlling for demographic variables.

His analysis found no significant effect of authoritarianism as measured in the study's July and September 2016 waves on changes in feelings toward either Trump or the GOP.

By contrast, a test of the "reverse causal dynamic" — that responses to the authoritarianism questionnaire changed as a function of warmth toward Trump and the GOP — revealed that people who had positive feelings toward the nominee and the party "increasingly chose authoritarian responses to the child-rearing questions as the 2016 election unfolded," according to Luttig.

A person who really liked Trump at the time of the first wave, rating him at 100 on the feeling thermometer scale, became about 12 percentage points more authoritarian between that wave and the second wave, he explained.

"However, a person who at Time 1 is strongly authoritarian does not become more favorable to Donald Trump by Time 2," he continued.

Luttig then analyzed over 1,400 observations from a second panel study on voters from 2012 to 2013, modeling a change in authoritarianism from 2012 to 2013 as a function of feelings toward the Republican Party and former presidential nominee Mitt Romney.

Again, Luttig's regression analysis revealed no evidence that authoritarianism had led people to rosier evaluations of Romney. Instead, individuals who reported warm feelings toward Romney became slightly more authoritarian from 2012 to 2013, he found.

Whether over the runup to the 2016 election or between 2012 and 2013, Luttig wrote, the data suggests loyal Republicans were actually growing more authoritarian to match values being signaled from the party's top brass.

"As the GOP became more conservative on social issues, embraced the religious right, advocated being tough on crime, advanced a more hawkish foreign policy and signaled their opposition to illegal immigration, they communicated that their party sees the world as a dangerous place and that they value obedience, respect, good manners and good behavior," he wrote.

Those cues caused Republicans to change their responses to the child-rearing questions that make up the authoritarianism questionnaire, a phenomenon Luttig conceded could simply reflect loyal Republicans' desires to broadcast values they thought went better along with the party's rhetoric.

But he believes the shift represents a substantive, top-down shift in these partisans' psychological make-ups.

"Part of the reason why I have come to believe this is the more cognitive neuroscience I read the more convinced I am that human beings are far more 'soft-wired' than 'hard-wired,' and that these aspects of our psychology are more malleable than I, at least, had previously assumed," he told The Academic Times, noting that further research is needed to determine what the changed responses amount to.

If it's true that partisan cues have made some strong Republicans genuinely more authoritarian over time, Luttig said, they should also be able to move in the opposite direction and take up characters better suited to life in a liberal democracy.

"Authoritarians are intolerant and want to use state power to punish those who they perceive as different, worrisome tendencies for citizens in a democracy to possess," he noted. "But this character can, I believe, change."

While that view puts him in "stark disagreement" with researchers who view authoritarianism as unchanging over a person's life, he said that more experts should reconsider how they characterize the authoritarian personality.

"Yes, authoritarianism is probably somewhat heritable," he said. "But heritable does not mean unmalleable. And if you just examine the structure of the authoritarian personality over time, we see quite a bit of variability … and the change that does occur appears to be partly a function of political attitudes."

The article "Reconsidering the Relationship between Authoritarianism and Republican Support in 2016 and Beyond," published March 11 in The Journal of Politics, was authored by Matthew D. Luttig, Colgate University.

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