The new authoritarianism

Complacency is the Killer

There’s something rotten in the West. In the UK, the rabid anti-immigrant rhetoric of the Brexit campaign translated into a vote to leave the EU. In the US, a lunatic sociopath won the presidency on the back of a racialised political programme, Biblical levels of misogyny and a constant, almost cult-like worship of aggression and rudeness.

This is the new authoritarianism. It’s not just in the US and the UK. It’s spreading across Europe too. ParlGov data shows a surge in support for authoritarian parliamentary parties in 34 OECD countries. They are on the rise in Switzerland, Austria, Sweden, Denmark, Italy, Hungary, Germany, France and Holland. Liberal values have never been more under threat.

People have typically analysed the Brexit and Trump votes in terms of age and income. This is partially successful. In the UK and the US the age of voters was a pretty good indicator of their behavior. Brexit offered a negative correlation between income and support for Leave, although this wasn’t replicated in the US. Educational attainment is another useful variable. Identity – especially racial, especially in the US – is particularly powerful. All these variables have something to recommend them. But none offer as good a prediction of voting intention as values.

There was an incredibly strong correlation between a Leave vote and support for the death penalty, which is a key indicator of what social psychologists sometimes call the Right-Wing Authoritarianism personality. Seventy-one per cent of those most in favour of the death penalty said in 2015 they’d vote to leave the EU, compared to 20% of those most opposed.

You find a similar effect if you analyse the Trump vote in the US. Social psychologists have a neat little trick. They ask survey respondents the following question: “Is it more important for a child to be considerate or well-mannered?” It sounds identical, but people who tend to think of the interests and wellbeing of others, and who therefore tend to be more open and left-wing, answer ‘considerate’ and people who admire respect for authority above all else, and therefore tend to be more closed and right-wing, answer ‘well-mannered’. It’s a useful way to assess someone’s personality without all the problems involved in directly asking them to describe themselves accurately.

As Birkbeck’s professor of politics, Eric Kaufmann, has written, the authoritarian dynamic helps explain these votes with alarming effectiveness. He is basing his work partly off that of Karen Stenner, who divided personality types in two: those who welcome diversity and difference and those who are alarmed by it. It looks like the former type is losing to the latter type.

YouGov data from 12,000 people in 12 countries show nearly half the population of Europe now holds nationalist anti-immigrant views. Strong foreign policy views, and opposition to human rights laws, EU institutions, and European integration policies are also on the rise. In Britain these views are shared by 48% of the country. In France it’s 63%, in Poland 78%, in Romania 82%.

How did we get here? The truth is we got complacent. It felt like the tide of human progress pointed in the direction of the free. World Values Surveys consistently showed the West becoming more liberal on sex roles, gender fluidity, LGBT rights, diversity and secular values. It felt like history was a conveyor belt trundling in our direction. The more older conservative voters shuffled off the mortal coil, the more young, tolerant people took their place. It was all a question of time. We just had to wait it out.

But that’s not how history works. It goes forwards and backwards. It stalls. Sometimes it shoots ahead faster than you ever expected. But you never get to sit back and let it do its thing. You have to fight for change. Even now, we cannot wait for the young to take over. People’s minds and values are not static. This period of reactionary politics could limit and reverse their progressive views.

There are plenty of explanations for how we got here. Economics is surely part of it. When people have a rising salary and decent schools and hospitals, they have less to blame others for. Technology is also key. The internet has filled the world with nonsense news stories designed to confirm people’s existing prejudices and led every hate-filled dimwit conspiracy theorist to feel as if they are part of a movement rather just a lonely troll in a basement.

The right has lost its Burkean commitment to individual freedom and become drug-addled on post-truth hysteria and mob rule, gleefully harnessing nativism to pursue its agenda. They can’t control it. They are like a tourist on a wild horse. But they haven’t worked that out yet. Even seemingly respectable figures on the Tory backbenches pour gasoline on these fires, still lost in the belief that somewhere behind them there is a fire extinguisher should they really need it.

The liberal left, which came disconnected from the labour movement when it gave up the economic fight in the late eighties, has stopped being able to talk to the people it claims to represent. It tried too often to pursue change through the courts rather than public meetings and the ballot box. It is lost in policy wonkery. It has no fire in its belly. It has no heart or spine or balls.

We are now in a very dangerous place. When you read the paper or go online you will see stories of health tourists, or refugee children having their teeth checked, or Muslim judges being told they cannot preside over certain cases, or hatred for the judiciary, or a fetishisation of ‘the people’, or excuses for Nazi terrorists, or efforts to make abortion illegal, or bans on ‘unconventional sex acts’, or demands that people wear poppies at all times during the remembrance period, or social media hate campaigns against women or ethnic minorities.

The attacks are always focused on someone else until they are focused on you. But in reality they are attacks on all of us. The real target is not immigration, or Europe, or political correctness, or human rights, or judges, or any of their other excuses. It is liberalism: the belief that you can do as you like unless you are affecting someone else.

The new authoritarians are here. The only way to defeat them is to stand up for the rights of the individual: to live where you like, to do what you want, and to say what you damn well please.

Political programmes to reverse what is happening will grow on the centre and the left and even – we must hope and pray – the centre-right. But for now, the first step to resisting this change is to live your life freely and without hesitation. The personal is political.


Ian Dunt’s book Brexit: What The Hell Happens Now? is out now from Canbury Press.



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