Mar 15, 2022Liked by Noah Millman

I think this taxonomy is interesting, but it does leave me wondering where the authoritarian impulse comes from. It sounds like both liberals and conservatives should be anti-authoritarian, the former because they think people should be free and the latter because they believe that even those in power are flawed. But clearly authoritarianism appeals to somebody!

You might have been getting at one possible answer to that with your comment that Reagan distrusted government bureaucrats but generally trusted police. That's a pretty common position to have, which suggests that the emotional impulses here might be more complicated than an attitude towards "authority" in general. For instance, how reformable do you think deviants and criminals are? Are people's characters pretty much fixed, or are they influenced by others, and in what ways? And another relevant question is, does gaining power, or certain types of power like policing, change people's character? I can see how the way someone answers those questions might lead to seeming contradictions like a mostly liberal person having no problem with growing police powers because they believe police will only hit "bad" people, while a conservative person might believe power is corrupting and that sorting the good people from the bad ones isn't that easy because we all sin yet can all be redeemed (this describes a lot of left-leaning Christians, for instance).

Or there might be an interaction between your first two categories going on: attaining political authority is one way of "winning," so if you combine the view that bad behavior requires a firm hand with the general assumption that whoever's at the top deserved to get there, you get authoritarianism. What's notable about this, though, is that also assumes that the "game" that people win at here is essentially fair, so that the right people win it. One thing that's interesting about our current political moment is that a large group of people who seem to revere winning are also convinced that the system is deeply unfair, mostly because the "wrong" guy won the presidential race, but for other reasons as well. In fact, saying that the political system is corrupt and unfair seems to be a pretty frequent excuse for an autocrat taking over.

Another possibility, though, is that what you're describing here is more philosophical than many people's politics are. The Fascists believed that a leader could win over the masses by speaking to them in an irrational and mystical kind of way that led them to see the leader as a kind of embodiment of the popular will, and clearly, that worked on a pretty large scale. The mystical and religious aspects of Trumpism, as seen in someone like Mike Lindell, show that this type of thing is still a factor in politics, and it seems a lot more personal and less predictable than the abstract "How do you feel about human nature?" questions.

Expand full comment

Are you familiar with George Lakoff's Moral Politics? https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moral_Politics_(book)

"Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think is a 1996 book by cognitive linguist George Lakoff. It argues that conservatives and liberals hold two different conceptual models of morality. Conservatives have a strict father model in which people are made good through self-discipline and hard work, everyone is taken care of by taking care of themselves. Liberals have a nurturant parent model in which everyone is taken care of by helping each other."

Expand full comment