how the war on experts helped the rise of authoritarian attitudes
If you care about democracy, this is a particularly grim time. An ever so slight majority of voters in 27 nations say that democracy is failing them, while just over a quarter of Americans, 13% of Canadians, and one in ten UK residents want to live in a dictatorship. Meanwhile, according to Freedom House, nearly a third of all countries became more authoritarian in 2021, marking 16 years of steadily eroding democracy worldwide. And all this has researchers both alarmed and curious about what caused the rapid u-turn in global attitudes since the turn of the millennium.
Now, obviously, what causes each country to gravitate towards authoritarianism, for how long, and to what degree, depends on countless factors and their unique histories and cultures. But a growing body of studies point to common, universal themes. As it turns out, the more scared you are by change and complexity, the more resentful you are of those successfully adapting to change and trying to pass on their knowledge and expertise, and the more impulsive you tend to be, the more you want to see others’ freedom trampled by those in power.
Yes, there is also growing frustration with the fact that our current crop of leaders insists on not actually solving many critical problems for reasons that tend to boil down to incompetence and corruption, pretending we can keep the world running as it has for the past 200 years even as the wheels on the world-as-a-factory model are coming off, but that’s its own can of worms. For the time being, let’s focus on resentment and impulsivity since they’re tied to anti-democratic views, while being fed up with our leadership leads to far more multifaceted data.
they hate you ‘cause they ain’t you
First, let’s consider a long-simmering study from New Zealand about people’s attitudes toward so-called “tall poppies” from surveys of 52,000 participants. As you’ve probably guessed, a tall poppy is a person who stands out because they’re either outspoken and listened to, successful, or otherwise granted status and respect. Participants with lower self-esteem, more submissive attitudes, and more likely to agree with authoritarian and traditionalist views, were also eager to see those tall poppies “cut down to size” for stirring up too much commotion.
In more practical terms, when experts tell people feeling touchy about their place in society that they need to do something differently, or should look into new ideas and ways of doing things, their reaction is “Who the hell are you to tell me what to do? Shut up egghead, nobody asked you!” even though someone did most certainly ask them. And the same attitude applies to any person who questions the traditional beliefs they use like an emotional safety blanket, which are now packaged with a hefty dollop of outrage bail and sold to them on social media.
We can also anecdotally prove that this study is on the right track by considering the common topics of far right media outlets who are constantly attacking “cosmopolitan elites who want to tell you what to do” and who “need to be shown that you aren’t just gonna sit there and take it.” Who are the elites? People who are knowledgeable, successful, outspoken, and, most critically, tell them new things that challenge their worldviews. Just by existing and opening their mouths, they’re supposedly “looking down on normal, hard-working folks” and become targets of rage.
of poor impulse control and critical thinking
But hold it, you might say, do people leaning toward authoritarianism really have such knee-jerk reactions to everything they hear? Well, another study of 737 adults provided the answer to that question by asking subjects to solve simple math problems designed to trick subjects into giving quick, intuitive, but wrong answers, then correlating their results with their views on election disinformation. As you’ve probably guessed, those who bought into conspiracy theories about the 2020 presidential election did terribly on their problem-solving accuracy.
Again, the only trick to the problems was the need to slow down and carefully think through the framing because they were developed to separate those who tend to just go with their gut from those who like to be thorough when encountering new questions. This doesn’t mean that those who go with their gut are always wrong and deliberate thinkers are always right. In fact, some deliberate thinkers can take things too far and fall down rabbit holes of absurdity. But this study is more about the kind of thought process pro-authoritarian subjects tended to do.
Based on the results, it really seemed that those who justified the January 6th Insurrection and believed in baseless claims of voter fraud thrown out of every court in the country, just went with their gut and stuck with it, and that tends to be a typical flow for them: I like it, looks good to me, that’s my answer, moving on. Combine that with a distaste for experts, politicians, and activists who contradict their gut, or, worse yet, point out that they should give their beliefs more thought, and you get a downright rabid reaction from people who want a) a dictator to tell them what to do while silencing critics, and b) punish anyone challenging their beliefs.
how and why authoritarians go for your angry gut
All right, so what does this all mean? Was this just a long winded way of insulting people trying to find their place in an uncertain, crumbling world? It certainly could be taken that way if you’re so inclined, but it’s definitely not the point. Today, a lot of people are struggling to figure out what comes next and live in countries where leaders have no ideas and are increasingly desperate to keep voters engaged, so what many have done is to appeal to the dark traits we just discussed to give people something to vote against, pitting citizens against friends and neighbors.
More and more of us are being encouraged to go with our guts, to not think too hard about the future and what we can do to move forward, instead of desperately trying to turn back the clock or carry out a vendetta against the other political tribe. Lackeys for (almost always) right wing parties constantly target and harass “tall poppies” on which to focus their followers’ rage with visceral, shallow language. Lost? Tired? Frustrated? Want things to be simpler? Forget about boring policy platforms, here’s who to take it out on, vote for us.
How do we fight this vicious cycle? Simply, and very importantly, we have to slow down and take a lot of time to think about what we want and why, to ask ourselves tough questions, and to sit with our own thoughts for a while. If you were flying a plane and the engines caught on fire, the first thing you’d do is find the nearest airport, land, and fix the aircraft before flying it again. We should consider adopting the same attitude here. Band aid fixes aren’t working anymore, so it’s time to put everything but the basics on hold and run a full diagnostic.
how doubt and curiosity is the only way out of this mess
Even more important, moving forward, we need to focus heavily on education for both children and adults, especially when it comes to critical thinking. Humans are naturally curious, restless, and while we like our routines, most of us also want adventure and to learn more new, exciting, and interesting things. Today, far too many educational systems trample on that curiosity and thirst for adventure in favor of preparing us for factory style bullshit jobs and standardized tests, churning out cogs in a big machine rather than well-rounded, creative individuals.
A populist would say that the paragraph above sounds like “hippie utopian crap” because it very much goes against the status quo they’d like to see maintained. But the reasoning for trying to turn humanity loose to pursue its passions as much as possible has nothing to do with altruistic notions pioneered by Russian cosmists at the turn of the previous century. No, it’s necessary for running the post-industrial world in which we understand that growth and consumption cannot be infinite because it violates the laws of physics and math.
Our problem right now is that we don’t know what comes next, so we need to be a as curious, adventurous, and innovative as possible, and that can only come from freedom and a focus not on what looks good on today’s macroeconomic dashboards or a timesheet, but what will actually work, and what will solve real problems. As we’re failing to actually let people be creative and go on adventures to see, to learn, to come up with ideas, and to get them to challenge themselves, it’s little wonder so much of the world is backsliding into an angry micro dark age.
See: Marques, M., et al, (2022) Attitudes towards favoring the fall of tall poppies: the role of social dominance orientation, authoritarianism, political ideologies, and self-esteem, The Journal of Social Psychology, DOI: 10.1080/00224545.2021.1944034
Painter, D., Fernandes, J., (2022) “The Big Lie”: How fact checking influences support for insurrection, American Behavioral Scientist, DOI: 10.1177/00027642221103179