Stenner, authoritarianism & winning over status quo conservatives

As someone from the left/liberal camp, a fascinating Twitter thread led me to discovering potential communication tactics for “status quo conservatives” and how to differentiate them from voters with authoritarian tendencies.

The tweets are largely based on the work of Karen Stenner, a political psychologist and behavioural economist. Stenner’s research leads her to conclude that:

Authoritarianism is a deep-seated, relatively enduring psychological predisposition to prefer—indeed, to demand—obedience and conformity, or what I call “oneness and sameness,” over freedom and diversity. Authoritarianism is substantially heritable—about 50 percent heritable, according to empirical studies of identical twins reared together and apart, a standard technique for separating out the influence of nature vs. nurture.

Stenner observes that:

fears regarding immorality and crime, claims about the critical need to reestablish some normative order, and elaboration of plans for accomplishing this” occupied the bulk of “their psychic space,” consuming a hugely disproportionate share of their time and energy.

As the Twitter thread points out, this leads to some significant implications for those of us campaigning from a progressive position.

A vital distinction (especially from a comms perspective) that Stenner makes, but that was not made clear in the Twitter thread, is between authoritarians and conservatives.

Status quo conservatives are those who are psychologically predisposed to favor stability and resist rapid change and uncertainty. They are in a sense the true conservatives: the heirs of Edmund Burke. Status quo conservatism is only modestly associated with authoritarianism and intolerance, and only under very specific conditions. It tends to align with intolerant attitudes and behaviors only where established in stitutions and accepted norms and practices are intolerant. In a culture of stable, long-established, institutionally supported and widely accepted tolerance, status quo conservatism and authoritarianism will essentially be unhitched, and status quo conservatism will lend little support to intolerant attitudes and behaviors.

Authoritarianism Is Not a Momentary Madness – Karen Stenner & Jonathan Haidt

She believes that these types of conservatives are open to messaging by the liberal-left, if the focus is on:

authoritative reminders that tolerance and respect for difference are privileged ideas in our national tradition;

“reassurances regarding established brakes on the pace of change, and the settled rules of the game to which all will adhere;”

“confidence in the leaders and institutions managing social conflict , and regulating the extent and rate of social change.”

Effective messaging is thus based on emphasising commonalities rather celebrating diversity.

All the available evidence indicates that exposure to difference, talking about difference, and applauding difference … are the surest way to aggravate those who are innately intolerant, and to guarantee the expression of their predispositions in manifestly intolerant attitudes and behaviors,” she wrote. The appearance of sameness matters, and “apparent variance in beliefs, values, and culture seem to be more provocative of intolerant dispositions than racial and ethnic diversity,” so “parading, talking about, and applauding our sameness” seems wise when possible

Shared social institutions, practices, and experiences; unifying celebrations; common rites; etc. are more what I had in mind … alongside less appearance of/public airing of political conflict and partisanship…Shared, positive experiences are key.

These are not applicable to those inclined to authoritarianism, who are distinguished from status quo conservatives by the following characteristics:

…authoritarianism is far more than a personal distaste for difference. It becomes a normative worldview about the social value of obedience and conformity (versus freedom and difference), the prudent and just balance between group authority and individual autonomy (Duckitt 1989), and the appropriate uses of (or limits on) that authority. This worldview induces bias against different others (racial and ethnic outgroups, immigrants and refugees, as radicals and dissidents, moral “deviants”), as well political demands for authoritative constraints on their behavior. ‘The latter will typically include legal discrimination against minorities and restrictions on immigration, limits on free speech and association, and the regulation of moral behavior (e.g., via policies regarding abortion and homosexuality, and their punitive enforcement).

The crucial fact to bear in mind when communicating that it is change — specifically pace of change and concerns over the impact of this — which matter most to status quo conservatives. In contrast, authoritarianism is against complexity and diversity.

useful to think of authoritarianism as primarily an aversion to difference across space (i.e., diversity of people and beliefs) and status quo conservatism as primarily an aversion to difference over time
(i.e., change).

Three Kinds of ‘Conservatism’ Psychological Inquiry, 2009

As Stenner put it, authoritarians are:

simple-minded avoiders of complexity more than closed-minded avoiders of change

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