The Appeal of Authoritarianism

07 October 2019

Why do some people find authoritarian leaders appealing? Why do they sometimes secure vast numbers of votes in democratic countries? These are some of the questions we’re asking in this week’s show. 


Authoritarian leaders tend to corrupt the political system, rig the courts, assail the free press, jail their opponents, constrain or close universities, and lie brazenly to their citizens. They pit social groups against one another, depicting some as “real Americans” (say) and others as interlopers and/or exploiters. It’s hard to imagine what any fully rational voter could see in such a leader. Why would anyone rationally choose to vote for someone like that? At the cost of our collective rights and freedoms, and of our cohesion as a society?


One answer would be to say that supporters of authoritarians are not in fact making a rational, authentic choice. Either they’re being forced to go along with the regime (as in Germany, say, in the 1940s) or they are being tricked into it. Authoritarian regimes deploy vast propaganda operations, continually demonizing opponents, celebrating the impeccable virtue and relentless successes of the Great Leader, stroking the (perhaps wounded) ego of the fan-base, fanning the flames of prejudice, ginning up fear of outside forces (there’s always a caravan waiting to invade), and warning of the dangerous “enemy within.” (George Orwell described all of this brilliantly in 1984.) And unfortunately, propaganda has a way of working.


Another option would be to say that the irrationality comes, at least in part, from within. Maybe there is, as Adorno and others have argued, an authoritarian personality type. Some of us love the freedom and variety we find in democratic societies, with the many different lifestyles they make possible, the many different standpoints and attitudes, the many different cultures that flow into our life together. This group also welcomes (positive) social change, as taboos are overcome and barriers lifted. A second group feels indifferent to such change and variety, with no strong feelings either way. But a third group finds it psychologically intolerable. To them, perhaps, it feels like chaos; to them, anything—even tyranny—is preferable to that. (That’s more or less what the character Socrates says, give or take the psychological language, in book 8 of Plato’s Republic.)


Maybe the fear, in some cases, goes even deeper than that. There’s a fantastic section of The Brothers Karamazov in which Ivan imagines what would have happened if Jesus had returned to earth at the height of the Inquisition. The Grand Inquisitor, he says, would have had Jesus executed, because Jesus’s message of freedom is ruinous. “Nothing has ever been more insupportable for a man and a human society than freedom,” the Grand Inquisitor says. “So long as man remains free he strives for nothing so incessantly and so painfully as to find someone to worship.” I don’t think this is true of everyone—but what if it’s true for some people? And what if their terror of personal freedom, intensified by the vision of unfettered choice presented by the media every day, drives them into the arms of an authoritarian?


So far we have some pretty unimpressive “reasons” for signing up: people are being tricked by propaganda, pushed by their own prejudice, or pulled by their fear of disorder, change, and freedom. We’re left with two remaining possibilities. One is that the voters in question simply have the facts wrong. (Entirely plausible in the era of widely-circulated fake news.) If someone genuinely believed that, say, cats were radioactive, that everyone was lying about them being safe, and that only Pat Smith could save us from them, maybe it would be rational—albeit misguided!—to vote for Pat. (“Fear the cat, vote for Pat.”)


But here’s a more troubling possibility. What if part of the reason is that democracy, at least in its current general incarnation, isn’t everything it’s cracked up to be? Politicians are often more interested in getting re-elected than in doing what’s best for the country; they’re often subject to pressure from lobbying groups and from rich donors; and even at its best, democracy can only deliver compromise solutions to the problems facing society. 


Imagine if you could bring about sensible gun control in the USA—something substantial majorities want to see—by closing the government for a day. Would you do it? Would you be acting rationally? Would democracy survive?

Comments (11)

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Monday, October 7, 2019 -- 12:29 PM

A number of years ago, my

A number of years ago, my brother asked me what I thought was the greatest problem facing mankind. I thought about it for all of three minutes and replied: fear. He was, at that time, unconvinced, thinking there were surely greater challenges to be overcome. I do not know what he thinks now---we have not crossed the subject in a dozen years or more. But, my contention stands. Why? Because, throughout the ages of man, fear has been a common denominator, leading to wars and social unrest generally. That people embrace authoritarianism is but a symptom. We are, many of us, willing to sacrifice much to governance which is perceived as strong; governance which will protect us from all the bad people who would take what we have; governance which would save us in spite of ourselves... Fear is ugly, pervasive, and perennial. Always was. Always will be. Trust is hard-won; fickle, and fragile. You see what we are up against here?

davide's picture


Tuesday, October 8, 2019 -- 1:17 PM

Ask JK Rowling for the secret

Ask JK Rowling for the secret to creating an anti-authoritarian polity aka a group of individuals whose hearts and minds have been shown the virtues of tolerant, democratic, in a word anti-authoritarian, values. In all seriousness, the internalized values of key individuals (think whistleblowers) and masses of individuals (think voters) are crucial bulwarks against authoritarianism. I believe that telling good stories, engrossing ones with broadly relevant themes, like the Harry Potter stories, is one highly effective way to impress anti-authoritarian values (and a wariness when confronted with their opposites) on many millions of current and future contributors to open society.

MJA's picture


Wednesday, October 9, 2019 -- 8:32 PM

I'll go with Democracy isn't

I'll go with Democracy isn't everything it is cracked up to be. That said, what pray tell would make it better? Important question! Wasn't it Thomas Jefferson who said Democracy needed to be in today's terms "rebooted" every ten years? I'd be in favor of that, starting anew.

My biggest issue with our current state of Democracy is why we elect someone to represent us when I would prefer to simply represent myself. Do our elected representatives truly represent us or do they represent the corporations that truly elect them? That's were the campaign money comes from isn't it? Does anyone you know give money to a campaign? And why do we need representation in a world where everyone has instant communication? We all have cell phones, right? Wasn't our existing form of representative government created because there was no distant communication devises invented yet? The only reason! Why can't we vote on everything ourselves? Here are some everyday things we all could vote on and have instant results:
Ban on Assault weapons Yes or No
Universal Healthcare Yes or No
Free Education Yes or No
Go Green and save the planet yes or no
Peace yes or no
Abortion Yes or No
Freedom to choose Yes or No
Would you rather represent yourself? Yes or No
Is it time to reboot?
I think we should all answer these important questions and many others ourselves.
I'm not even telling you which ones to vote for, decide yourselves.
Do we not currently vote away our self-termination, our self-control and give our power, our strength, to people we truly do not even know? How smart is that?
Thanks for the political dialog,
Reboot yes or no


RepoMan05's picture


Friday, October 11, 2019 -- 4:45 AM

"Rebooted" you could still

"Rebooted" you could still take that a couple different ways. The big problem with democracy is that the democrats vote themselves too many freebies and rome collapses. If by democracy being "rebooted" you meant "reset to factory defaults," you might be on to something. What about the democrats rigging the primary's for hillbillary says "democracy"? Its fair to say democracy doesnt work. Too much faith in ad populum fallacy, yasee. Thousands of people can absolutely be wrong. Usually are too.

Groups dont have enough determination to be correct and right. In war, being right is everything. When people cant look the lies right in the eye and not be afraid to see too clearly, mafia runs the show. Mafia doesnt keep their mutts fed either. Honey trapped sure, but not fed. Nancy Pelosi reminds me of Coroline's 'other mother.' At the same time, Rush Limbaugh is clearly her catamite look a like 'other brother'. Guess where the state of the union is at right now? All the way in pope ponzi's dirty pocket.

British loyalist feminists sold themselves(and everyone else) out. Honey trapped mutts.

Extremist dichotomies arent supported by rational people. They're supported by eachother. Thusly, dichotomies are always false dichotomies.
The left and right of our dichotomy are both owned by foreign powers(mainly british and catholic). Left = british catamite scum and mafia(satan). Right = self serving superficial sanctimonious sycophantic pederasts(vatican). Two sides of the same soulless fiat currency.

Bipartisanship only exists to rape the moral rational people's out of their due.

Our form of goverment is not a democracy and it's not a republic either. Its a functional corruption. Its one thats no longer functional either because it engineered its own destruction while no one was paying any meaningful attention.

RepoMan05's picture


Friday, October 11, 2019 -- 7:42 AM

"Why do some people find

"Why do some people find authoritarian leaders appealing?"

It excuses them from responsibility knowing the chief is in charge of the tribe while making them comfortable knowing the battle for his position leaves opportunity to disregard his rule. It gives a nepotistic oportunity to be selfish and excused.

It's innate.

We're still innately haram based tribalists by nature despite our developed subjective inhumanist idealism. This leaves us only a two dimensional mind and thought process. Adding a third dimension comes from marginalizing further rationalism and rationalists till a fourth dimension of thought results. Complete pariahs, the completley psychotic.

None of which dimension of thought are still expendable without suffering unthinkable loses. They're the funtimentals to many other dimensions of thought. But they are not core.

Anthropomorphized aspectualisations seem even deeper.

RepoMan05's picture


Friday, October 11, 2019 -- 7:37 AM

Perhaps the topic could be

Perhaps the topic could be reframed as, "the allure of exploitation. "

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Tuesday, October 15, 2019 -- 12:13 PM

Kudos to RepoMan! And that,

Kudos to RepoMan! And that, my friends, is pretty much what megalomanic authoritarians are all about. Seems to me...

RepoMan05's picture


Saturday, October 19, 2019 -- 2:35 PM

Doesn't a maniacal

Doesn't a maniacal authoritarian need to be either maniacal or authoritarian? It's important to know that words dont actualy mean anything. Scribbles and "meaning" do not naturally belong to one another. "Scribbles and their meaning" doesnt mean anything. There's no proof of ownership.

Manu Oquendo's picture

Manu Oquendo

Friday, November 15, 2019 -- 11:16 PM

The dynamics of parlamentary

The dynamics of parlamentary or representative democracies create system forces that deterministically drive them to become despotic.

This was the diagnosis of Tocqueville in his "Democracy in America". I suspect that very few people reading this author get to the last 60 or so pages of the book. When this 4th "book" or chapter is published independently of the rest --there is at least one edition in France-- its title is "Le Despotisme Democratique".

Later on, in the 20th century, a Neurologist, Ashby, discovered what we know today as "Ashby's Law". This law establishes that as complexity grows in any system, its Controls must grow accordingly if whoever is in command wants to retain Power. This growth of control is very expensive and, in not many electoral cycles, those societies find that the cost of control is higher than real production and get into Negative Returns for them as a whole. The only way out of it is, for those in Power, to restrict Liberty.

Thanks and Regards

Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Friday, February 25, 2022 -- 8:33 AM

Authoritarianism is an -ism

Authoritarianism is an -ism like all others, and I can't separate it from facts on the ground, history, or economy. Some situations call for this -ism, some call for its abolition. Sometimes it is best to leave authoritarian leaders to their worlds, and most of the time to leave authority to its path leads back to our own door.

This show took place in the Trump presidency, to which it references and alludes. Now we face an Olympics in China to which they sold no tickets, and ratings in the West, at least, were poor at best. Now we face the loss of Ukraine to the democratic world, and now the message of the show is much harsher than three years ago.

There is no way to deal with the forces at work in our world other than to gird the consequences of dealing with dictators. There will be a great deal of suffering to right this ship, and it's not human nature to choose suffering over scapegoating. We have too strong an us/them model for dealing with authoritarian regimes in real-time.

Technology and economics might address what politics and philosophy cannot, but not without some sacrifice. We have to find fellowship with the citizens of authoritarian regimes. We need to share learning and technology that allows them to liberate their lives. Allowing Russia and China to own social media, steal technology and wantonly threaten Europe (Ukraine and others) and Southeast Asia (Taiwan and others) will limit us in short order if we don’t take action to stop it now. We need to push technology to everyone and eliminate poverty without scapegoating a them that sooner or later will be an us if we don't push now and with unanimity.

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Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Thursday, December 1, 2022 -- 11:06 AM

Earlier this year, a term

Earlier this year, a term was coined in reference to authoritarianism: "authoritarian populism". Within less than twenty-four hours, the president of the United States had used the phrase, semi-Fascism during a press conference and no more than twenty-four hours later, no one knew or could/would say anything about authoritarian populism. I tried to look up a definition for the term online but could find nothing. Now,, phrases come and go, terms get supplanted by others, language morphs as mass and popular culture evolve. I don't know if any other term or concept has vanished in so short a time. It is fascinating in a bizarre sort of way.. Trumpetry* also appears to be dying out. This has taken far longer. You will not find a definition for it either. Think of it as a variant of puppetry. You will figure it out.

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