German social scientists who had fled from the Nazi domination of their country were, by the late 1940s, trying to understand the causes of the political events that had resulted in the rise of such an authoritarian regime. Theodor W. Odorno, who by then had become an American philosopher and psychologist, led a number of research projects into this intriguing subject. Why would people be so subject to Nazi propaganda and to the power of centralized control, hierarchy, compliance and loyalty?
Odorno discovered that people’s views on family relationships provided access into the deeper recesses of the psychology of fascism, and that a series of fairly simple questions could predict, with relative accuracy, their political disposition. At the time, he called this the Fascism Scale, which later became known simply as the F-Scale, and then evolved into into a theory that identified this tendency as the Authoritarian Reflex.
This disposition toward authoritarianism could be identified by people’s answers to child-rearing questions. For example: “When raising children, which of the following do you think is more important to emphasize? Order or openness? Good behaviour or creativity? Morality or reason and evidence? Obedience or questioning authority?”
People with a political tendency toward right-wing extremism over moderate or even left-leaning views showed a significantly higher preference for obedience over creativity, good behaviour over morality, and order over openness—all attributes of authoritarianism. However, these were only tendencies, not determinants. Although they do apply generally to the differences on the political spectrum between conservatives and liberals, they are activated in the extremes by very particular events.
The theory of the Authoritarian Reflex proposes that certain personality types are energized by perceptions of extreme stress. For the Germans in the early decades of the 20th century, it was a combination of the extreme reparations resulting from World War I and the economic consequences of the Great Depression. More recently, the F-Scale was an accurate predictor of the United Kingdom’s Brexit referendum—the UK was already experiencing economic and immigration stress. In the United States, it was the election of Donald Trump—he was a response (Make America Great Again) to the relative decline in power of the US in both economic and geo-political terms.
Other stresses, such as pandemics, can also trigger the Authoritarian Reflex. The lure of self-empowerment and popularism have been pervasive responses to covid-19. A politician who empathizes with people’s fears wins their support, without necessarily providing any scientifically-based solution to the pandemic itself—despite the timely arrival of the mRNA vaccine, about 6.8 million died worldwide, about 1.1 million in the US, and about 52,000 in Canada. As the interface between nature and human populations increases, more pandemics are likely to occur. With them will come the authoritarian inclination. Fear is not rational, and it commonly generates politicians with an ideologically radical tendency.
The other force percolating beneath the tendency toward authoritarianism is the global climate crisis. This is a stress operating at multiple levels. Extreme weather is a direct threat to the safety, predictability and stability that we cherish. The quest to reduce carbon dioxide emissions challenges the wisdom of the most ordinary assumptions that we make about our behaviour as ordinary consumers, and is reflexively interpreted as an assault on the basic structures of our economic system. The resulting anxiety is amplified by our concern about species extinction, ocean acidification, rising sea levels, the task of feeding eight-plus billion people, and the cultural impact of adapting to waves of refugees escaping places with intolerable living conditions. All indications are that these stresses are going to increase as weather anomalies intensify and pressures to reduce CO2 emissions continue to rise.
The global climate crisis is also a challenge to the fundamental concept of who we are as members of the biological community. If we are supposed to be so smart and special as a species, how did we get ourselves and the entire planet in this ecological mess? The catastrophic conditions that are now unfolding will require a complete re-evaluation of the proud history we have allocated to ourselves. The obvious answer and subsequent judgment will be so uncomfortable as to activate an extreme reaction.
Our best strategy against the Authoritarian Reflex is awareness. If we can collectively recognize the psychological dynamics that operate within us during stressful circumstances, then we can counteract their effects by moving them from the unconscious to the conscious level. Indeed, we are already noting extreme reactions to the mounting stresses. We have enough environmental problems to address without also having to combat the complexities created by our own psychological dynamics.
Ray Grigg for Sierra Quadra
Top image credit: NAZI hero Horst Wessel leading an SA unit during a Nazi Party rally in Nuremberg, Germany, in August 1929 – courtesy the the national archive of Poland via Wikimedia (Public Domain)