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We have met the enemy, and he is us.
The Index of American Authoritarian Attitudes is my tool for estimating the gap between the universal values, beliefs, and attitudes Americans are reputed to hold and our actual commitment to democratic principles and ideas.
The results are eye-popping.
While the Declaration of Independence says “that all men are created equal,” 14 percent of Americans think that some groups of people are simply inferior to others. We assume that the Constitution and the rule of law are essential governing precepts, yet 34 percent of Americans say it is more important to follow the will of the people today than the constitutional principles on which the rule of law stands. Thirty-one percent of Americans agree that having a strong leader who does not have to bother with Congress and elections is a good way to govern the United States. And 13 percent of Americans say we should junk the Bill of Rights and let the president limit the voice and vote of opposition parties if the country is threatened in any way.
The data in the index comes from national surveys taken in the United States between 2016 and 2017. They reveal attitudes that are inconsistent with what so many know or think they know about our fellow Americans. For example, 26 percent of white Americans think black Americans are somewhat to very lazy; 27 percent are more likely to say Hispanic Americans “do not share my values.” Thirty-six percent think Muslim Americans are somewhat to very violent. And when it comes to equality of opportunity, 42 percent oppose the notion that all groups in America should have an equal chance to succeed, or feign neutrality on the issue.1
How do we square these opinions with the story of American exceptionalism and the values that ostensibly anchor it? We must start by recognizing that these findings are a symptom of something deeper—an underlying disposition that has been with America throughout its history. That disposition is authoritarianism.
Approximately 18 percent of Americans are highly disposed to authoritarianism. Another 23 percent or so are attitudinally just one step below them on the authoritarian scale. When these two positions are taken together, roughly four out of every ten Americans tends to favor authority, obedience, and uniformity over freedom, independence, and diversity. (A more detailed explanation of how “authoritarianism” is estimated is discussed in Appendix 3.)
When fear or circumstance, inflamed by the rhetorical misrepresentations of a would-be autocrat, activate the authoritarianism latent in these Americans, many of them will sacrifice liberty for security. They will side with the strongman and other purveyors of tyrannical majoritarianism, choosing to escape from freedom rather than defend it.2
Their activated, unyielding support for a strongman can become a new identity that provides a sense of belonging, generates social and material benefits, and delineates group boundaries for its members to patrol, enforce, and defend. In its most virulent expression, when the benefits of division and othering (identifying a particular group as intrinsically different and potentially threatening) exceed those of unity of people and purpose, this process of group identification, aggression, and protection can spiral into fascism.
Our fervent belief in the myth of American exceptionalism persuades us that we are uniquely immune to the activation of authoritarianism. Some of us contend that we are different from people in every other country in the world.
We are not.
To understand one of the root causes of polarization in America today, set aside the fairy-tale story of American history. Our ancestors were not magically cleansed of their disposition to authoritarianism upon alighting on the shore of Plymouth Plantation, being dragged off a slave ship in Savannah harbor, or disembarking on Ellis Island. Fascism may be a twentieth-century foundling birthed by Mussolini’s Fasci de Combattimento, but its taproot, authoritarianism, is a disposition that is as old as humanity itself. Like smallpox and other Old World diseases that ravaged the native populations in the New World, authoritarianism migrated with the first settlers to America.
Copyright © 2020 by Matthew C. MacWilliams