The Roots of Authoritarianism in the 21st Century – Part 1

by Peter Prontzos

The rise of authoritarian movements and leaders around the world, from the Philippines to India to the United States, is one of the most dangerous developments in modern times. Not only are they anti-democratic and often xenophobic, but they are one more significant obstacle to dealing with such other dangers as the climate crisis and war.

This danger is not trivial: a 2018 report by the democracy watchdog group Freedom House suggests that…”democracy is facing its ‘most serious crises in decades.’ Seventy-one countries experienced net declines in the guarantee of political and civil rights.” And this is not just an aberration. “For the 12th consecutive year, global freedom declined. Since 2006, 113 countries have reduced their commitments to individual and collective freedom.”

“France, the Netherlands, Britain and the United States have experienced the rise of extremist groups and rising intolerance toward ethnic minorities and immigrants. Germany and Italy have seen a resurgence of neo-fascism. Systematic measures to weaken the rule of law, attempts to eradicate judicial independence, curtail civil liberties, restrict voting rights and intimidate journalists have occurred in Poland, Hungary, Turkey and the United States.”

“The Great Recession of 2008 was the social and economic context for the emergence of contemporary autocracy in Europe and the United States. The reaction to the recession…reflects what Harvard economist Dani Rodrik calls the, “political trilemma of the global economy”: the incompatibility between democracy, national [self-]determination and economic globalization. Right-wing extremists were able to effectively link job loss, “uncontrolled” immigration and loss of national identity with globalization.

“Immigrants are framed in racist terms as criminals who steal jobs, weaken national values and threaten Christianity.”

“In their book, How Democracies Die, Harvard researchers Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt identify four indicators of an emerging autocrat: a rejection of democratic rules, a denial of political opponents as legitimate, toleration of violence, and a willingness to curtail civil liberties of opponents and the media. Donald Trump is assuredly the first president to exhibit all these autocratic traits and has been the most blatant in trying to implement them. Yascha Mounk has argued that what has prevented Trump from becoming a full-fledged autocrat is his incompetence.”

Even though Trump lost the popular vote (in spite of wide-spread voter-suppression and gerrymandering), he received over 62 million votes (46%). It is hardly surprising that the wealthy and powerful would vote for someone who would make them even wealthier and more powerful. But what about all those, especially working people, women, and people of color, who voted for a candidate committed to an agenda (e.g. increasing inequality, racism, environmental destruction) which was against their own rational self-interest? Why were they fooled in such great numbers?

Trump benefited from the “turn to authoritarian leaders and institutions for security” that fear often produces. Other factors which account for much of the irrationality of working people voting for a member of the elite: namely, a view of the world (and themselves) that is neither conscious nor rational, but based largely on reflexive actions, unconscious feelings, and social conditioning – all of which can lower a person’s “emotional intelligence”. Such ideologies, “like virtually all other belief systems, are adopted, in part, because they satisfy various psychological needs.”

This post considers three levels of unconscious influences on political ideologies.

Part One starts with the automatic processes which we inherited from our primate ancestors, such as the “flight, flight, or freeze” response to perceived threats, as well as the tendency to be biased towards those ideas that make us feel better.

Second, are the effects that parenting, socialization, education, and modeling have on our thoughts and actions, as well as our view of ourselves and the world – our ideology. This conditioning may begin before birth, and have profound effects over the years.

A third critical driver of unconscious, irrational behavior are the dynamics of a particular situation in which a person finds him or herself. Social psychology has shown that situations and the actions of peers can shape both an individual’s beliefs and behaviors.

To paraphrase Charles Lamb, we see the world not as it is, but as we are – and as we are conditioned to see it.


Any explanation of human activity – including political behavior and beliefs – that ignores the unconscious processes that shape our worldviews – our ideologies – is incomplete. Most of our thoughts and feelings are below the threshold of consciousness and, in the view of Cordelia Fine: “your unconscious is smarter than you, faster than you, and more powerful than you. It may even control you.”

For instance, George Lakoff reports that, “most of our thought – an estimated 98 percent – is not conscious.” This “cognitive unconscious…is reflexive – automatic, uncontrolled, and “our ideas of morality and politics are embedded” in the structure and function of the brain.

A classic example is fear, which has long been used by the elites to reinforce their power and to make people do what they would normally not do. When told that their very lives are at stake, people are more likely to follow orders without thinking. As neuroscientist Daniel Siegel described:

“Before you are even consciously aware that you are afraid, your lizard brain responds by clicking into survival mode. No time to assess the situation, no time to look at the facts, just: fight, flight or freeze.

“And when we are afraid…our logical mind actually shuts itself down. Fear paralyzes our reasoning and literally makes it impossible to think straight.”

This automatic reaction is reinforced by our instinct to look to parental authority figures to comfort us and keep us safe. In this case, Siegel was discussing how the Bush regime inflated the fear of terrorism to win the 2004 election. (with the deliberate help of Osama bin Laden, according to the speculations of journalist, Robert Parry.)

Another factor is the tendency to see people in terms of “us” versus “them,” especially when feeling threatened. While group bonding and cooperation was necessary for the survival of our hunter-gatherer ancestors (as it still is!), this tendency often reduces those outside of one’s group to the “Other,” shutting down our natural empathy, thereby dehumanizing them and making it easier to mistreat or even to kill them.

…more to follow


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The The Roots of Authoritarianism in the 21st Century – Part 1 by The Primal Mind, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5 Canada License.

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