Andrew Bjelland: How should we cope with friends and relatives of an authoritarian disposition?

We need a balance between those who value novelty and those who cling to tradition.

Years of intense political polarization are exacting a heavy emotional toll. Liberals find it difficult to understand and cope with those of a more authoritarian disposition. In response to a 2021 American Enterprise Institute poll, 28 percent of liberals report “they are no longer friends with someone due to political differences.”

A friend recently described an exchange he had with his sister-in-law. During a visit to her out-of-state home, she complained to him: “My three sisters are intelligent but I can’t fathom why they don’t accept Trump as the nation’s leader.” She then implored him “to just watch FOX News and get straightened out.”

After he returned home, he wrote a 10-page letter explaining his opposition to Trump. He concluded his tale: “All she could write back was ‘Hunter Biden’s laptop’ and something about ‘A person convinced against their will is of the same opinion still.’ Now she won’t talk to us. Makes me want to scream.”

My friend’s sister-in-law exhibited several authoritarian traits. The social psychologist Sharon Stenner, author of The Authoritarian Dynamic, reports that “about a third of the populace” is predisposed to authoritarianism. Stenner notes, however, that the authoritarian personality is “just a different way of being human.” Within the context of democratic pluralism, we must not demonize or exclude a third of the population. Stenner states we instead “must tolerate diversity of personalities just like we tolerate all other kinds of difference.”

In a well functioning democracy, Stenner advises, an appropriate balance between those who “seek out novelty, diversity and complexity” and those “who monitor and guard against [the] strange … and unfamiliar … strengthens the whole.” Consequently we must understand our differences, seek accommodation and strive to restore an encompassing sense of national identity and purpose.

People of an authoritarian predisposition highly prize their group identity, their cultural traditions and social stability. They are often supportive neighbors, loyal friends and hard-working, law-abiding citizens. They are respectful of authorities and often impart socially beneficial cultural and moral traditions to their children.

Researchers have discovered, however, that individuals of this type often prove cognitively incapable of dealing with rapidly evolving social circumstances. When their group identity and their social status are threatened they find diversity, moral ambiguity and complexity highly troubling.

During periods of social instability they become increasingly inclined to follow a leader who projects an image of strength, energy and decisiveness; who pledges to restore order; who presents a simplistic alternative to the complex reality that confronts them; and who sets tribal boundaries whereby “outsiders” are readily identified, opposed and scapegoated.

Persons of this psychological type often endow their leader with an aura of infallibility. They seldom question their leader’s pronouncements or submit them to the tests of experience and logic. They frequently ignore, minimize or even celebrate their leader’s mendacity and violation of norms.

Regressive leaders know that people of an authoritarian disposition are readily manipulated. Autocrats employ emotive propaganda and conspiratorial fantasies to instill fear, anger and other negative emotions within their followers. They thereby consolidate a loyal political base.

Challenging the beliefs of the emotively indoctrinated by appealing to facts is often counterproductive. More personal forms of persuasion can prove effective. We liberals can model tolerance by respectfully listening to their concerns. We can ask questions that stimulate reflection. We can appeal to their patriotism and can attempt to establish common ground concerning the meaning and value of fundamental constitutional rights. We can appeal to their sense of fairness and point out that every basic right claimed for oneself is accompanied by the duty to respect that right as inherent within others. We can help them realize that the weakening of democratic institutions and norms is harmful to their own interests. We can inspire them to embrace democratic ideals — especially the ideal of equality of opportunity. We can invite them to join us in identifying and devising solutions to problems that confront us all.

Together we must forge a more expansive national identity — a larger group identity that provides aggrieved citizens with a stronger sense of belonging. If we fail to establish a distinctively American identity grounded in democratic ideals and practices, our democracy and our interpersonal relationships will remain imperiled as seldom before.

Andrew G. Bjelland, Ph.D., is professor emeritus, Philosophy Department, Seattle University. He resides in Salt Lake City.