‘I Love Democracy – As Long as You Agree With Me’: Notes on the Social Psychology of Authoritarianism

Nationalist autocrats (Trump, Erdogan, Putin): Different cultural backgrounds, shared cognitive template

The Democratic Model: Deliberating Discussions and Open Inquiry

Before going into workings of authoritarianism, it is useful to remind ourselves how functional, non-authoritarian systems look like in order to establish a baseline for evaluation. As I noticed during my recent holidays in Germany, politics appeared surprisingly sober and plain, absent of drama and high-stake ideological debates. For example, the Ministry of Environment proposed a tax increase for meat and milk from a subsidized 7% to a regular 19%, arguing the unfavorable carbon footprint of meat production. Being a traditionally meat-eating country, the proposal was immediately dismissed by the food lobby and most political parties. However, in the media, a vivid discussion emerged. Questions were asked such as ‘Should only the wealthy be able to eat meat?’ ‘Would it make more sense to tax meat, but to keep milk at the subsidized rate?’ ‘How about fruit: Should we also label fruit according to its delivery by plane (= higher carbon footprint) versus by ship (= lower carbon footprint)’?

Although the progressive idea of the Ministry may not have succeeded in the first round, the wider public started discussing the pros and cons, without a single politician or party hijacking the debate. This distributed discourse model stimulated in-depth analysis and new ideas that one day may serve as the basis for better-informed policies and laws. The point of public deliberation, after all, is to make well-informed decisions that are fair to all. The information processing in this model is conducted horizontally on a many-to-many basis.

Even on emotionally highly charged topics, such as the recent terrorist attack on a Christmas market in Berlin, the public debate took a widely pragmatic stand, ranging from critical analysis to prediction: How could a terrorist suspect, already in custody, be released by authorities? Where did authorities and the law fail? How can legal loopholes be fixed? How should the state deal with dangerous suspects in order to prevent future attacks?

Public discussion did not bother about ideological questions (such as ‘Does Islam endanger our Western civilization?’), but looked at pragmatic solutions addressing the problem at hand. Across political parties, a metacognitive principle was upheld to never blindly stigmatize and label groups of people and to differentiate within groups, such as e.g., fundamentalist Salafists versus moderate, integrated Muslims. Public consensus was that ontological and ideological judgments, due to their generalizing nature, tend to foreclose the discussion of specifics required for complex problem-solving.

Pluralistic Societies: Moving Beyond Group Conformity

In the cited examples, group affiliation or group membership did not determine the power of argument in the media. It is the suspension of group conformity that enables the unbiased public examination of arguments. Traditionally, social psychology dealt with issues such as social identity (Tajfel & Turner, 1979), social conformity (Asch 1953, 1956; Janis 1972, 1982; Milgram, 1963, 1974) and social comparison (Festinger, 1954). It is intuitive to conclude how group identities solidify attitudes and behavior. However, in complex, pluralistic societies, group memberships and identities overlap (e.g., for a person who is a single parent with a migration- and higher education background, representing at least three implied group memberships) and it is the specific needs and interest across those overlaps that determine social cognition, personal attitudes, and behavior.

In pluralistic societies, social norms of cooperation develop and group perspectives integrate under the aspect of superordinate goals. Subsequently, the psychology of pluralistic societies is multi-layered and distributed horizontally in terms of social group identities: in interdependent group-constellations costs and payoffs between groups balance, encouraging the emergence of shared values.

By contrast, ideological narratives in combination with strong emotions generalize and simplify a group’s worldview, avoiding the processing of specific cognitive content. A set of supportive narratives allows authoritarian leaders to turn people against their own interests, e.g., to manipulate working class people into believing that tuition-free education would be unaffordable for the government or that trickle-down economics benefits those at the bottom of the social food chain.

Authoritarianism simplifies people’s real-world problems and silences the diversity and complexity of modern life. It provides simplistic promises (‘Let’s make America great again‘) to complex challenges such as globalization, deindustrialization, and digitization, but it is incapable of developing adequate solutions to multi-faceted challenges. To this extent, authoritarianism opens Pandora’s Box – the very real prospect of collective failure and poor decision making by dismissing communicative, networked competence and independent critique.

The Foreclosure of Open Debate by Authoritarianism

There are a plethora of strategies available to foreclose, circumvent and disqualify open debate. The most obvious, as pointed out by Robert Reich, is the berating of public media as ‘dishonest’, ‘lying’, ‘deceitful’ or ‘scum’ (as labeled by American President-Elect Donald Trump) or as “Lügenpresse” (“Press of Lies”, as labeled by right-wing activist and neo-Nazis in Germany). The term “Lügenpresse” has been used continuously across diverse historical contexts by authoritarian regimes e.g., during the Third Reich to disqualify newspapers critical of the Nazi party or by the SED, the ‘Socialist Unity Party’ of former East Germany to label the Western press. Authoritarian leaders do not regard media as a prerequisite to democratic deliberation, but as a conspiracy working against them. Subsequently, authoritarianism thrives on paranoia which is why scapegoating, the dissemination of fears of outgroups, serves as an effective social control instrument to avoid the exchange of critical arguments.

As in all authoritarian systems, information is forwarded without further moderation and analysis top-down, from a leader to a complying group. In the 20th century, the choice of authoritarian transmission was by radio and state-owned newspapers. Today, technologies such as essentially fulfilling the same function of an efficient one-to-many transmission. Essential for the circumvention of collective cognitive processing is the convergence towards a single leader who manipulates the cognitive processing and behavior of followers. The problem for critics of authoritarian regimes is that they may fall into the trap of hanging onto a leader’s lips, similar to true believers. Instead, critics should refrain from commenting on every nonsensical statement, rather than questioning the legitimacy of underlying assumptions, putting a leader’s claims in the context of viable reasons, critically commenting on a leader’s socio-political and verbal behavior while exposing fabricated facts and holding writers of fake news accountable.

Other repressive strategies to disqualify the press include (1) the setting up of blacklists to punish authors that are regarded as too critical, (2) turning the public’s opinion against media in general and (3) threatening journalists with lawsuits by tightening libel laws. Simultaneously, media supportive of a regime are rewarded. In authoritarian regimes, media are no more conceptualized as bipartisan or unbiased information platforms, not as institutions that can be independently audited for the quality of their research, but as self-serving gratification outlets of a ruling oligarchy.

Authoritarianism is the reversal of democracy: Politicians stop perceiving themselves as public servants and they expect the public to serve them instead. Personal psychology such as politician’s need for self-affirmation dominate the debate, rather than the social psychology of shared deliberation.

1984-frontDoublespeak and Doublethink

On a social level, followers of autocratic leaders need to be provided an alternative version of reality to support their particular worldview. This process is accommodated in two steps: (a) Facts are re-interpreted to suit the agenda of the ruling class. In this light, truth does not exist in the form of objective, verifiable facts but as a convenient vessel to convey one’s convictions. (b) Once ‘alternative facts’ (‘doublespeak’) are widely accepted by a target group, attitudes, beliefs and cognitive styles around ideological interpretations solidify. Fabricated narratives lead to the ideological foreclosure of procedural cognition.

In his famous novel ‘1984’, George Orwell coined the term ‘doublethink’ for this type of sensemaking based on ideological indoctrination. A person affected by ‘doublethink’ is completely unaware of conflict or contradiction to obvious facts, oblivious to any cognitive dissonance (Festinger 1957, 1964). This is how ‘doublethinkers’ make for perfect supporters of autocrats – they will never question the fabricated facts upon which their beliefs are built. Followers rely on a seemingly coherent ideological worldview. The main characteristic of ‘doublethink’ is the absence and avoidance of cognitive dissonance, of divergent arguments and critical thinking.

In terms corresponding political behavior, autocrats dismantle democratic structures in two logical steps. Firstly, they surround themselves with a tight circle of people that share their worldview since they are intolerant to cognitive dissonance (Festinger, 1957). Secondly, they will set up mechanisms that circumvent media, the judiciary, and scrutiny by political parties to replace a democratic-divergent system with an ideological-convergent one.

Image above: Book-cover Design for George Orwell’s ‘1984’

The Social Psychology of Authoritarianism: Implicit Ideology as a Strategy to Quietly Dissolve Modern Democracies

The psychology of authoritarianism is based on regressing to the level of salient group identities.The hallmarks of authoritarianism were, as pointed out by Richard Reich and Elizabeth Warren, (a) the dissolve of open democratic inquiry, (b) the convergence towards appointed leaders (versus a pluralistic and diverse public), (c) the polarization of the public into true believers and traitors (or ‘the people’ versus ‘elites’), rather than acknowledging the specific interests of divergent groups and (d) establishing an oligarchy, an exclusive group of powerful people who self-sanction their rule by political and economic means.

The social psychology behind authoritarianism does not necessarily require an explicitly defined ideology, such as fascism, communism or religious beliefs. It suffices to imply a specific worldview indirectly, in particular in populations with a large liberal minority that would immediately reject explicit ideology. The minimal condition is for followers to believe that their charismatic leader knows best, that the leader is infallible even in the face of counterfactual evidence. To this extent, post-factual fabulation endorses a self-affirming fatalism in the case of negative outcomes, since beliefs and sentiment circumvent causal and correlational reasoning, The attitude held by autocratic leaders is ‘I never lose, I always win. It was the others that made me lose.’ Public platforms are regarded as an opportunity for self-validation, not for the sake of cooperative problem-solving, open deliberation or independent auditing.

Image: Kellyanne Conway, counselor to President Donald Trump (top) officially established ‘alternative facts’ (‘doublespeak’) in January 2017 in a blunt rejection of empirical facts when she denied the low attendance during President Trump’s inauguration. Her interpretation was reinforced by Sean Spicer, the White House Press Secretary (Source: NBC/ CNN)

In authoritarian regimes, mechanisms of group compliance take over, such as described by Milgram (surrender to imperative authority, such as powerful oligarchs), Asch (conforming towards ingroup consensus), Tajfel (the minimum group condition for social identity is identification with a leader’s perceived infallibility) and Janis (the emergence of groupthink, a group incapable of examining external and divergent perspectives).

Social motivation in authoritarian systems is supported by falling back on traditional beliefs, exclusive and unempathetic social norms as well as a set of counterfactual ideological narratives such as, e.g. ‘Man-made climate change is a hoax’, ‘Wealth trickles down from the rich to the poor, this is why we need to support the wealthy’, ‘Free education for all is a communist idea’, ‘Social welfare is only for the weak and lazy’, ‘The less government, the better’, ‘Deregulation is bad for business’, ‘Our nation first’ etc.

Authoritarianism defines itself also by the absence of metacognitive assessment (Metcalfe & Shimamura, 1994; Schraw, 1998) the question of why we think how we think. For example, Why would someone think that man-made climate change is a hoax? How do people derive conclusions about wealth and entitlement? Which are the justifications for a libertarian, a socialist, a consequentialist or deontological approach to social fairness?

Authoritarian mental processing excludes such metacognitive reasoning since it would potentially expose the lack of democratic legitimization. Instead, it appears safer to fall back on a set of constantly repeated, salient narratives. If repeated often enough ad nauseam, they will appear to be true – truth by assertion (Freely & Steinberg, 2009).

The described mechanisms of social conformity in combination with metacognitive avoidance dissolve the diverse, democratic processing of information. The monopolization of information processing in the hands of a few prevents open, independent inquiry and discussion. There cannot exist open and sensible discussion in a world where a leader already knows best. This is perhaps why current developments are a grave reason for concern. The appointment of autocratic leaders is not about putting up with a disagreeable political party or its political agenda, at stake is the foreclosing of participatory debate by the converging ideologies of autocratic leaders, fueled by their idiosyncratic, narcissist need for self-glorification.

Nationalist noise is designed to hide the deficits of personality-centered politics: the inability to listen to and understand the other, to include others, the inability for self-correction via independent critique and the inability to cooperative problem-solving.

The emperor has still no clothes.



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