Authoritarians to the Right of Me, Authoritarians to the Left
Updated: Aug 8, 2019
Authoritarians to the Right of Me
Trump’s election caused a spike in sales of George Orwell’s famous novel, 1984 – apparently to people who believe that his becoming president may be a harbinger of an Orwellian dystopia across our country.
Last year, my first book was published. It concerns why Americans have let the principles of liberty on which our nation is founded recede so far, and how they might assert them again. The introduction references Orwell’s novel extensively, and I am pleased that those scared of the rise of authoritarianism in the USA are picking it up.
What exactly is authoritarianism, though? It’s rather hard to defeat an enemy that one cannot define, let alone understand.
Broadly, authoritarianism is the desire to impose one’s own worldview on others in one’s society by institutionalized coercion. Authoritarians, therefore, see punishment as an appropriate response when members of the group with which they identify (the United States, in this case) diverge too far from values that the authoritarian believes are best for society – even if the punished person has neither caused direct harm to another nor infringed another’s rights.
Those of us who don’t believe that’s an effective or moral way to run society raised flags of warning in response to Trump’s suggestions, when he was campaigning, that media outlets that publish things he doesn’t like should be shut down; that whistleblowers should be executed, or that businesses should be penalized for not making widgets where the dear leader thinks they should, to name just a few.
It goes without saying that authoritarians often have good intentions regarding the ends they wish to achieve, but neither the intentions nor the ends make their political methods any less coercive.
Many progressives responded to Trump’s election with real shock, concerned that the very essence of their country is at stake, wondering if they really are American any more or, to put it another way, if America is the place they understood it to be. They wonder whether it is actually filled with essentially decent people, or with millions of people of barely human beings of dark intent who should really be regarded as moral aliens by the rest of us.
If there really is a right-wing authoritarianism astride our land, our progressive friends will only be able to defeat it if they understand it, which means first and foremost, understanding its causes.
Here’s what we know.
Authoritarianism becomes a significant force in the politics of a society when a psychological disposition to authoritarianism is activated among enough of the people who possess it. Any large country has a significant minority that score highly for the authoritarian psychological disposition. Usually, however, that disposition is latent, driving neither behavior nor political preferences.
Political authoritarianism is a political preference for infringing on people’s rights to enforce political and societal norms – which can be progressive or conservative. It arises when conditions of normative threat trigger protective reactions by those with the disposition. This term, normative threat, refers to the perception that the range of behaviors and views that are tolerated in a society is too wide for the society to continue to exist in a form that that the person can identify with.
In short, normative threat is experienced as moral or cultural alienation from the group with which one identifies.
We all experience ourselves in part in terms of the groups with which we identify, and authoritarians do so, on average, more than others. A feeling of alienation from the society with which they identify is therefore a threat to their personal identities, which they seek to protect by supporting authoritarian methods to keep that society in their cultural, moral or political etc. comfort zone.
These methods involve using society’s institutions to reduce the influence of members of their society whose views diverge too widely from acceptable norms.
So if Trump represents a kind of right-wing authoritarianism that the Left wishes to put an end to, then the Left needs to know what normative threat all those Trump voters was reacting to.
In fact, Clinton inadvertently answered this question when she (in)famously called many of them “deplorables” during her presidential campaign.
Inasmuch as Clinton’s comment divided “us” from “them”, it represented a denial of our shared identity as Americans. Inasmuch as it makes “us” morally superior to “them”, justifying political action that took no account of their concerns, it threatened them. Of course, Clinton alone didn’t create the conditions of normative threat that triggered the self-protective, populist backlash that was the last presidential election. But it was just the perfect crystallization – and confirmation – of it.
Who were the Americans who felt so alienated by what Clinton represents, that they perceived it as worse even than Trump?
Americans who feel alienated by a society in which their culture, most of the media, those held up as the great and the good, call them “racists” because they want to know who is coming into their country – even though they don’t experience themselves as racist at all; “transphobes” because they think that a man with a deep voice in a dress struggling with a gender transition, isn’t the exact same thing as a woman; “sexists” because they believe the data that show that the wage gap is more a result of choices made by different genders in the aggregate than by employers’ voluntary reducing their profit by paying for more expensive male employees when they could get the same work done for less by women; or “fascists” because they believe that whereas people have a moral duty to be kind to others, free speech, even when unkind, shouldn’t be met with force, such as occurs when the government compels a certain expression of that kindness, or university authorities exclude from campus a speaker with a minority view.
All of the moral put-downs included in the above labels, of which Clinton’s “deplorable” comment was a one-word summary, constitute the “otherization” of regular people by others - often with status. That otherization creates the normative threat, referred to above, which is experienced by those on the receiving end as, “I don’t know this society any more” - or more to the point, “this society doesn’t know me any more”.
Authoritarianism will continue to rise in America in a vicious cycle as long as the authoritarian left feeds off perceived threats to society from the impositions of the authoritarian right – and vice versa.
Authoritarians to the Left
Unfortunately, though, the loudest part of the Left that today, often called “Social Justice Warriors”, which overwhelmingly dominates some of the commanding heights of our culture - especially education - seems every bit as authoritarian as those they claim to oppose.
Why would that be so? How can it be that one group with such avowedly different political goals from its opponents can use very similar political methods?
The answer is that authoritarianism, like its opposite libertarianism, is less exercised by what political choices society makes than by how it makes and implements those choices.
Specifically, while libertarianism has little moral concern over whether society chooses to be hard-working or not, individualist or communitarian, traditional or progressive, it cares that those choices are made freely by individuals and not by the exercise of force by some against others.
Similarly, while authoritarianism per se has little moral concern over the ends of the choices made by the community, it is concerned that no one strays too far from, and so represents too much of a threat to, the norms and mores that are identified with the society.
This is not to say that particular libertarians and authoritarians can’t also have very strong opinions about how people should behave and the society they wish to see – rather, it is to say just that libertarianism or authoritarianism can both be held consistently with conservative or progressive views. The latter are concerned with where our politics is taking us. The former are concerned with how we get there.
Fearing the ascendancy of a strident, socially conservative political grouping that it cannot understand, let alone tolerate, the cultural Left feels threatened. The threat meets the high threshold for an authoritarian response for many reasons. First, Trump as figurehead not only fails to share many of liberal cultural concerns that are of particular importance to the left today: he doesn’t even pretend to respect them. Second, the degree and nature of support he received was shocking to millions of people who were caught off-guard, heightening the sense of threat and uncertainty. Third, Trump is extremely personally distasteful and unlikeable to many of his opponents; this makes it even harder for them to relate to the people who voted for him.
With their own authoritarian elements triggered (used advisedly), many SJW progressives follow basically the same political playbook as “the enemy” – but they step it up. They claim to be under threat; they use that perceived threat as justification for wielding the force of the state and legal institutions to coerce behaviors, and most Orwellian of all, whereas Trump can be rightly accused of spreading falsehoods to generate support for policy, they (re)define words to compel behaviors.
An example of this is the claim that someone’s views can make someone else feel “unsafe”, or that speech, or even just the holding of opinions, can equate to physical violence to a listener who identifies with a designated victim (and therefore morally privileged) group. This equation between speech and physical action “justifies” an actually violent response, such as is now being seen on campuses to prevent speakers with divergent political views from being heard.
When I wrote “Orwellian”, I meant that literally. It is straight out of 1984 in both its application and its intent: the equating thought or speech with action represents a kind of Borg-like collectivism that is more serious than a simple insistence on collective rights or the dangers of identity politics: it literally denies the very existence, or at least the meaning, of the individual.
If I assert that your speech against me can be violent, then I am claiming that I have no control over its effect on me - in just the same way that if you hit me, I cannot prevent the pain or injury inflicted.
But that would be false, because all human beings have control over how they experience and react to ideas, claims, opinions and assertions. As far as we know, that control is the very basis of our humanity.
Indeed, the only entity that can actually have a conscious experience is the individual – the thing we call “I”. It is the “I” who gets to choose how to respond to its experiences. It is the “I” who chooses how to interpret them. It is the “I” who gets to mediate between the sensory information that comes in and the feeling it has about it.
And because of all that, it is the individual that is responsible for its actions and is therefore a moral agent.
In fact, Descartes more or less laid the foundation for modern Western philosophy and the scientific project on just this most fundamental of truths, when he observed “Cogito ergo sum”.
In other words, I may be able to be unkind to you in words, but I cannot be violent against you with words because you get to choose the effect they have on you.
... Which is why, of course, parents start teaching their kids, as soon as they encounter other kids, “sticks and stones can break my bones but names will never hurt me”.
There’s a paradox, then, in the claim made by many on the authoritarian Left that not to change one’s behavior to accommodate self-identified victims is a “denial of their humanity” or an act of “invalidation”. It is this: a person literally denies her own humanity when she denies her own power over her own mind, emotions and responses.
If you claim that my speech can be an act of violence against you, then you have just denied your own humanity.
Authoritarianism of any stripe is dangerous. But it is this form that is its most extreme and therefore deadly expression – and for a simple, if subtle, reason.
The emotional driver of authoritarianism as a political method is the fear of what may happen to me if people aren’t prevented from believing and doing certain things. Therefore, to the extent that I have confidence in my ability to be happy, or at least in control of myself, regardless of what life can throw at me, I am unlikely, to become one of its proponents or pawns.
On the other hand, if I don’t even believe in my ability to control my own experience when someone I don’t know has or expresses a different opinion from me, or, worse still, sees me differently from how I see myself, then I can’t be anything but an authoritarian if I am to have any chance at happiness at all – because if I can’t control my own emotions, then the only option I have is to control other people’s behavior.
The relationships between psychology and politics, the individual and society, humanity and its institutions, all come down to that single conditional.
Here I am, Stuck in the Middle with George
George Orwell knew that.
In fact, he spent most of a lifetime thinking hard about social justice, economic justice and the nature of tyranny, writing 1984 not long before he died. That book, and his other famous work on tyranny, Animal Farm, took almost a lifetime to write.
And I genuinely hope a new generation of progressives learn all of the lessons that Orwell tried to teach.
Orwell was an unapologetic self-identified international socialist. More than that, the core of his socialism was the notion of equality. In essay after essay, he champions the classless and victimless society.
So naturally, he railed most against institutional hierarchies, the free market, the dangers of nationalism, the backwardness of patriotism, the difficulties of particular disadvantaged groups in society, right?
Not at all.
Orwell didn’t have the benefit of all that sociological and psychological research that enables me to write with confidence about the psychological and political aspects of authoritarianism. But his lifelong pursuit of egalitarian social and economic justice was enough to convince him that abusive authoritarianism is necessarily collectivist.
So this great socialist thinker, who wrote arguably the two most important political cautionary tales in the English language, doesn’t warn us against the individual pursuit of self-interest but against collectivism and, specifically, the turning of his progressive values into an orthodoxy that doesn’t liberate but crushes; doesn’t eliminate discrepancies of privilege, as in theory, but increases them in practice.
In Animal Farm, Orwell didn’t write, “All animals are free, but some animals are freer than others”, which might have warned against the evils of libertarianism; he didn’t write, “All animals have opportunity, but some animals have more opportunity than others”, which might have warned of the evils of capitalism; rather, he wrote, “All animals are equal; but some animals are more equal than others”, which warned of the dangers of the socialism that he espoused. He was telling us that tyranny and privilege would most likely prevail under a banner of welfare and equality.
Years before he wrote either of those novels, in an essay entitled, “My Country Left or Right”, Orwell was already identifying the dangers not so much inherent in socialism as a philosophy, but in how it would be politically wielded by his friends on the Left who held such condescending attitudes to the regular citizens who weren’t as smart and moral as they.
Patriotism has nothing to do with conservatism. It is devotion to something that is changing but is felt to be mystically the same … I would sooner have had that kind of upbringing than be like the left-wing intellectuals who are so ‘enlightened’ that they cannot understand the most ordinary emotions.
Right then in 1941, it’s as if Orwell was commentating on “Make America Great Again” on the one hand and the condescension to the “deplorable” on the other. If only he had been around to advise the Clinton presidential campaign, she might have achieved a very different result.
Any philosophy applied in a manner that takes no account of the emotions of the people in whose interests it is supposed to operate, will ultimately have to be imposed by force and by a few. And so Orwell’s 1984 is a warning against political “orthodoxy”, which, he explains in 1984, “means not thinking--not needing to think. Orthodoxy is unconsciousness.”
Orwell is recognizing that the morality of a political ideology, even his own, cannot be judged in the abstract. It must be judged according to the results it will have on the lives of everyone subjected to however it would have to be administered in practice by real human beings.
It was as if C.S. Lewis was channeling Orwell a few years later when he effectively explained what would make even the most humane philosophy in theory a tyranny in practice.
Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience
Breaking the Cycle
Authoritarians - whether they lean left or right - justify their politics, like everyone else, by arguing for particular positions on issues they care about. But if your goal is a free and kind society, then arguing an issue on its merits with an authoritarian may often be to shoot yourself in the foot. Doing so can mean buying into the unstated assumption that underpins all authoritarian politics – that an argument that X is right is automatically an argument for using force to make people do X.
More than that, the moral difference between the two is the philosophical foundation stone of liberalism, and a deepening understanding of that difference over centuries is how America came to be a free country.
Specifically, the fact that “X is morally right” is a long, long way from, “It is morally right to compel people to do X”, because the latter actually means, “It is morally right to harm someone for not doing X”… and whether that is true can only be determined by an unprejudiced comparison of the harm caused by not doing X vs. the harm done by the enforcement. The which can take many forms, such as loss of a job for a professor with the wrong views, or even fines or imprisonment for someone who deploys their honestly earned limited resources in the “wrong” way.
In any political argument with an authoritarian of any stripe, the real issue – the meta-issue, if you will - is whether, even if he is right about the best way for people to behave in a certain situation or for society to organize itself, what makes it right to cause physical harm to compel it?
Breaking the vicious cycle of authoritarianism - in which left authoritarians and right authoritarians react more coercively to the threat perceived in the actions of the other – requires that we go to that question regardless of the issue at hand. In other words, we make the use of force the real issue – because it is.
This means moving the moral burden back on our authoritarian interlocutor. Ask them: what punishment do you propose for this transgression? Can you justify its proportionality? What harm will be done by enforcement? Given that, how do you know it wouldn’t be worth using non-coercive methods, such as persuasion or education, to move society in the right direction? On what principle do you determine when force is preferred? More fundamentally, how exactly does my opinion or speech hurt you? Do human beings have the power to control their emotions? If so, do you? If you don’t, what makes you different from me in this respect? Can anyone get to decide what speech is violent?
I’m not just being rhetorical. Good salesmen are trained to answer questions with questions to take control of a dialogue. The anti-authoritarians need to learn not only to win the argument, but to focus it.
Per the American novelist, Thomas Pynchon, “If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don't have to worry about answers.”
But Orwell was ahead of Pynchon.
Arguably, Orwell’s most famous “invention” in his most famous book was “Newspeak”.
Abject tyranny is achieved when not only our freedom of action is constrained by power, but our freedom of speech, and therefore thought, is constrained too.
In Orwell’s dystopia, a collectivist authoritarian regime actually created words and forced people to speak them on pain of physical punishment. The purpose was to force people to interact with each other and perceive the world in a way that conformed to the wishes of the political leaders.
To my friends who identity with the political Left, Orwell was one of you. He cared about what you care about. He devoted his life to the values of equality, and eliminating privilege. He fought the real fascists, when there were real fascists. He fought the real Nazis, when there were real Nazis.
And this is what he wants you to learn: a philosophy of equality that seeks to treat everyone fairly and kindly will not deliver if it has to be imposed by force on people whose honest feelings and views it ignores. You can try it if you insist, but then you will be authoritarians, however progressive the values that drive you.
If George Orwell came back from the grave to sign a few copies of 1984 on an American campus, he would definitely have a few words of warning about Donald Trump. He would likely draw the parallels between Trump’s techniques and promises, and those of authoritarians of his day. As a stickler for truth, he might tell you that Trump tells lies and that America needs to do better and to do better fast. But he’d also urge you to understand the people who voted for him – and to respect what drove them to do so.
But then he’d move on to something really serious.
He’d admit to not having coined the term “speechcrime”, but he’d coin it today, and point out that’s it is just a hair’s breadth from “thoughtcrime”.
He might, for a moment, smile as he wondered whether the naming of those things was inspired by him.
And then he would have to leave the stage – stage Left - to cry.