‘The Seeds Had Been Planted. Trump Didn’t Do It Himself.’

Over the past 30 years, authoritarianism has moved from the periphery to the center, even the core, of global politics, shaping not only the divide between left and right in the United States but also the conflict between the American-led alliance of democratic nations and the loose coalition of autocratic states including Russia, China, Iran and North Korea.

Marc Hetherington, a political scientist at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and a co-author of “Authoritarianism and Polarization in American Politics,” has tracked the partisanship of white voters in this country who rank in the top 15 percent on measures of support for dictatorial rule.

Replying by email to my inquiry, Hetherington wrote:

In 1992, those whites scoring at the top of the authoritarianism scale split their two-party vote almost evenly between Bush and Clinton (51-49). In 2000 and 2004, the difference becomes statistically significant but still pretty small.

By 2012, those high-authoritarianism white voters went 68-32 for Romney over Obama. In both Trump elections it was 80-20 among those voters.

So from 50 Republican-50 Democrat to 80 Republican-20 Democrat in the space of 24 years.

The parallel pattern of conflicting values and priorities that has emerged between nations is the focus of a paper published last month, “Worldwide Divergence of Values” by Joshua Conrad Jackson and Dan Medvedev, both at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business. The two authors analyzed data from seven studies conducted by the World Values Survey in 76 countries between 1981 and 2022.

Jackson and Medvedev found that over these 41 years, “Values emphasizing tolerance and self-expression have diverged most sharply, especially between high-income Western countries and the rest of the world” and characterized this split as a clash between “emancipatory” values and values of “obedience.”

I asked Medvedev whether authoritarianism represents the antithesis of a regime based on emancipatory principles and he wrote back: “It certainly does seem that authoritarian regimes tend to reject values that we categorize as ‘emancipative.’”

He said he would prefer to use the word “traditional,” but “that’s just my preference — I don’t think it’s incorrect to use authoritarian.”

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