The Tide of Authoritarianism

Why are people drawn to authoritarian leaders?

At first glance, support for authoritarianism seems counterintuitive. Common sense suggests that people like to be in control of their lives, and almost by definition, life under an authoritarian regime involves some ceding of personal freedom to the regime. So why do so many people willingly – gladly, in some cases – cede personal freedoms to some larger power?

The Role of Fear

The situation seems less counterintuitive when you consider the role of fear. If a person is  afraid of some external threat, they likely don’t feel very much control over their life. This means they’re already starting out with a sense of restrained freedom. Thus, if an authoritarian leader promises to address the threat they’re afraid of, the person might gladly sacrifice some other freedoms for an increase in their perceived freedom and control over their life.

The somewhat sinister extension to this argument is that a more fearful populace is more willing to accept an authoritarian leader. If a government (or any institution) wishes to become more authoritarian, then, one strategy would be to induce fear in the populace[1].

The Authoritarian “Personality Type”

Considerable research has been done in the realm of psychology and sociology on this issue, and some researchers argue for the existence of the “Authoritarian Personality Type”[2]. The psychologist Bob Altemeyer developed a test called the Right-Wing[3] Authoritarian Scale (RWAS), which uses a series of agreement-based questions to assess a person’s authoritarian tendencies. At the end, the person is assigned a numerical score, which measures the person’s degree of authoritarianism (Altemeyer, 2006).

There’s been all sorts of research on this question – such as figuring out which other personality traits correlate with authoritarianism – and also a proliferation of great pieces (mostly in Vox) published on the issue in the last year (one, two, three, four), all of which describe the test and its correlations in greater detail, but I’ll simply add that this site contains an open dataset of answers to the RWAS, which allows any interested researchers to poke around and discover statistical relationships.

For example, I did several analyses, and found a significant relationship between level of education and average authoritarian leanings[4].

More specifically, people with more education tended to score lower on the RWAS test:authority

Of course, it’s difficult to know whether the RWAS is an accurate assessment. After all, it was constructed by a group of academics – a demographic not particularly known for being “in sync” with the elusive Everyman – and thus, perhaps its questions were subtly geared to favor those with more educational background. And even if it is an accurate assessment, that doesn’t mean that people with less education are necessarily more authoritarian. The differences across educational groups are relatively minor, after all, and there are all sorts of conflating factors that could affect authoritarian leanings or might mediate this relationship. I include the figure merely as an illustration of the kinds of things an interested researcher could look at in the data-set.


 The above section described some of the efforts by researchers to identify a “personality type” associated with authoritarianism. While this research is certainly useful and important, I think it’s probably more relevant – and more direct, in some ways – to ask: What factors lead someone to become authoritarian?

That is, whether or not there is an “authoritarian personality type” or a predisposition towards authoritarianism, what influences people to adopt a more authoritarian stance towards institutions and the government?

My suspicion is that the best explanation is not any of the factors included in the dataset listed above (e.g. education level, gender, race, rural vs. urban living, religion, etc.). I think people are more malleable and complex than a set of demographic features would suggest or predict. It would be more interesting, then, to look at what events (as well as their media representations) predict crests and troughs in authoritarian attitudes over time. As far as I know, this data doesn’t exist – and some of it would be hard to even quantify – but this kind of analysis could lead to more accurate predictive models about the changing tide of public opinion.


Altemeyer, B. (2006). The Authoritarians. New York, (April), 261.

Hetherington, Marc, and Elizabeth Suhay. (2011) Authoritarianism, threat, and Americans’ support for the war on terror. American Journal of Political Science 55.3 (2011): 546-560.


[1] I’ll refrain here from overt speculation and theorizing, but regardless of political affiliation or leaning, it’s difficult to deny the role of the news media in propagating fear among the populace. This isn’t to suggest that such propagation and its possible authoritarian consequences is intentional – I suspect the true intent is simply to draw in more and more viewers/clicks/shares/etc., e.g. profit – but the two are probably connected.

[2] The type was theorized by writers as early as Adorno and others from the Frankfurt School, and enjoyed some discussion in sociology in the mid-20th century (e.g. the F-scale), but really gained currency in the 1990s, as described above.

[3] You might be wondering: about left-wing authoritarians? This was actually a major subject of debate, and various tests have been developed to identify factors that predict a relationship between left-wing ideologies and authoritarian leanings. As far as I’m aware, none of these tests have gained the same prominence as the RWAS, and many have faced difficulties because typically “right-wing” beliefs tend to correlate stronger with authoritarian leanings. This does not preclude the possibility of left-wing authoritarians, of course, nor does it mean that all right-wingers are authoritarians.

[4] A repeated-measures ANOVA of authoritarian percentage (a participant’s RWAS score divided by the maximum score) as a function of education level showed a significant difference across levels, F(4, 9865) = 13.97, p < .0001.

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