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

The second is that “the notion of partisan identities as social identities — defining what Democrats and Republicans are stereotypically like as people — has intensified, leading the two partisan groups to hold increasingly negative feelings about each other.”

As a result, the authors argued:

given that authoritarianism is (a) strongly linked to partisanship and (b) activated by ethnoracial diversity, it is likely that some of the “affective polarization” in contemporary American politics can be traced to authoritarianism. That is, perceptions of “us” and “them” have been magnified by the increasing alignment between party identification and authoritarianism.

Ariel Malka, a political scientist at Yeshiva University, contended in an email that there are further complications. “Public attitudes in Western democracies,” Malka wrote, “vary on a sociocultural dimension, encompassing matters like traditional versus progressive views on sexual morality, gender, immigration, cultural diversity and so on.”

Recently, however, Malka continued:

some evidence has emerged that the anti-immigrant and nativist parts of this attitude package are becoming somewhat detached from the parts having to do with gender and sexuality, especially among younger citizens. Indeed, there is a meaningful contingent of far-right voters who combine liberal attitudes on gender and sexuality with nativist and anti-immigrant stances.

What do these trends suggest politically? According to Malka:

As for how this relates to democratic preferences, citizens who hold traditional cultural stances on a range of matters tend, on average, to be more open to authoritarian governance and to violations of democratic norms. So there is some basis for concern that antidemocratic appeals will meet a relatively receptive audience on the right at a time of inflamed sociocultural divisions.

I asked Pippa Norris, a political scientist at Harvard, about the rising salience of authoritarianism, and she provided a summary of her forthcoming book, “The Cultural Roots of Democratic Backsliding.” In a description of the book on her website, Norris wrote:

Historical and journalistic accounts often blame the actions of specific strongman leaders and their enablers for democratic backsliding — Trump for the Jan. 6 insurrection in America, Modi for the erosion of minority rights in India, Netanyahu for weakening the powers of the Supreme Court in Israel and so on. But contingent narratives remain unsatisfactory to explain a general phenomenon, they fail to explain why ordinary citizens in longstanding democracies voted these leaders into power in the first place, and the direction of causality in this relationship remains unresolved.

Her answer, in two steps.


Deep-rooted and profound cultural changes have provoked a backlash among traditional social conservatives in the electorate. A wide range of conventional moral values and beliefs, once hegemonic, are under threat today in many modern societies. Value shifts are exemplified by secularization eroding the importance of religious practices and teachings, declining respect for the institutions of marriage and the family and more fluid rather than fixed notions of social identities based on gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, community ties and national citizenship. An extensive literature has demonstrated that the “silent revolution” of the 1960s and 1970s has gradually led to growing social liberalism, recognizing the principles of diversity, inclusion and equality, including support for issues such as equality for women and men in the home and work force, recognition of L.G.B.T.Q. rights and the importance of strengthening minority rights.

These trends, in turn, have “gradually undermined the majority status of traditional social conservatives in society and threatened conventional moral beliefs.”


Authoritarian populist forces further stoke fears and exploit grievances among social conservatives. If these political parties manage to gain elected office through becoming the largest party in government or if their leaders win the presidency, they gain the capacity to dismantle constitutional checks and balances, like rule of law, through processes of piecemeal or wholesale executive aggrandizement.

For a detailed examination of the rise of authoritarianism, I return to Hetherington, the political scientist I cited at the start of this column. In his email, Hetherington wrote:

The tilt toward the Republicans among more authoritarian voters began in the early 2000s because the issue agenda began to change. Keep in mind, so-called authoritarians aren’t people who are thirsting to do away with democratic norms. Rather they view the world as full of dangers. Order and strength are what, in their view, provide an antidote to those dangers. Order comes in the form of old traditions and conventions as well. When they find a party or a candidate who provides it, they support it. When a party or candidate wants to break from those traditions and conventions, they’ll oppose them.

Until the 2000s, the main line of debate had to do with how big government ought to be. Maintaining order and tradition isn’t very strongly related to how big people think the government ought to be. The dividing line in party conflict started to evolve late in the 20th century. Cultural and moral issues took center stage. As that happened, authoritarian-minded voters, looking for order, security and tradition, moved to the Republicans in droves. When people talk about the Republicans attracting working-class whites, these are the specific working-class whites that the G.O.P.’s agenda attracted.

As such, the movement of these voters to the G.O.P. long predated Trump. His rhetoric has made this line of conflict between the parties even sharper than before. So that percentage of high-scoring authoritarian voters for Trump is higher than it was for Bush, McCain and Romney. But that group was moving that way long before 2016. The seeds had been planted. Trump didn’t do it himself.

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