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Are We All Authoritarians?

What are the sources of authoritarianism, an anti-difference orientation?

For a democracy with diverse ethnicities and religions, authoritarianism is a problem. Stenner (2009) defines authoritarianism as a disposition to favor “oneness and sameness,” especially in situations of perceived disorder. Authoritarianism represents an inability to deal with difference.

But in a world of increasing migration due to global warming and capitalist globalization, orientations to flexibility, tolerance, and cooperation with others from different backgrounds will be key to getting along.

It's not just about politics though: Whenever we force our desires onto another, we are acting in an authoritarian manner. In that moment, we are unable to accept difference and negotiate compromise. When we have a disposition of authoritarianism in one or more parts of our life, we display inflexibility rooted in a stiffness of mind, often reflected in a lack of cognitive or social skills.

How does authoritarianism come about? We can distinguish five ways.

First, human beings have layered brains that aggregated pre-human physiological characteristics (e.g., spinal cord; Shubin, 2009) and psychological systems (mammalian emotional systems of rage, panic, fear) (Panksepp, 1998). We can all downshift to self-protectionist attitudes; we can go “reptilian” (Narvaez, 2014). Religious and spiritual leaders have noted that any one of us can get into an authoritarian mindset if we get carried away with our own ideas and try to force them on others, operating from the mindset of “I’m right! I know better than you.”

Second, dominator mindsets also can be culturally learned, like machismo that emphasizes male authority over females (Eisler & Fry, 2019). For example, to fit in, a husband might start ordering his wife around, expecting her to 'hop to,' as in the film The Stepford Wives.

Third, early experience can shape the brain to be susceptible to domination-submission social relations. Our mammalian emotion systems are shaped by early experience to be enhanced (from early toxic stress, leading to their dysregulation) or to be controllable by executive functions (this is self-regulation that caregivers help shape with nested care) (Narvaez, 2014).

Willem Reich, in explaining the move to authoritarianism and fascism in Germany, pointed to repression and consequent anxiety. Social control is a way to alleviate anxiety. When we grow up in an authoritarian household, we can become sensitized to the domination actions of others. We can be oppositional to those we do not trust, either from pattern matching or from cultural narratives. However, if we have learned to associate the dominator with fear and submission and have little experience expressing our own wills, we may subordinate ourselves to their demands.

Longstanding evidence points to corporal punishment, harsh treatment in childhood, as one potential factor for authoritarianism (Milburn & Conrad, 2016). But it's not just spanking. J.C. Moloney, examining the causes of Nazism, pointed to under-nurturing in the first years of life as a source of psychic frustration that leads to authoritarianism.

The Nazi childrearing manual by Johanna Haarer (1934) promoted such treatment:

"In The German Mother and Her First Child, Haarer wrote, 'It is best if the child is in his own room, where he can be left alone.' If the child starts to cry, it is best to ignore him: 'Whatever you do, do not pick the child up from his bed, carry him around, cradle him, stroke him, hold him on your lap, or even nurse him.' Otherwise, 'the child will quickly understand that all he needs to do is cry in order to attract a sympathetic soul and become the object of caring. Within a short time, he will demand this service as a right, leave you no peace until he is carried again, cradled, or stroked—and with that a tiny but implacable house tyrant is formed!'"

Clinicians have known for some time that harsh early experience leads to various pathologies (e.g., Balint, 1968; Maloney, 1949; Schore, 2002). Trauma in babyhood can undermine secure attachment and empathy and lead to a disposition to shift more easily into survival systems (fear, rage) or dissociation. Ideas similar to Haarer's were promoted in the USA by behaviorist psychologist John Watson (1928).

Fourth, adolescents can be susceptible to authoritarian ideologies. Adolescents are ready to take on the world and be heroes, but in civilized industrialized societies, they often miss what is part of traditional societies—the self-developmental vision quests or other challenges that develop their commitment to their community and the universe. Adolescence is when many individuals are open to alternatives to the frustrations they experienced in their lives (hence their recruitment to hate groups like ISIS).

Fifth, authoritarianism can be normalized through marketing. In 20th-century USA, authoritarian attitudes were given a libertarian packaging by Ayn Rand (Duggan, 2019; Weiss, 2012) and spread through U.S. high schools.

In an interview on Book TV, author Lisa Duggan (2019) asked the audience how many had read in high school Ayn Rand’s novel The Fountainhead. Most had. (I remember my high school boyfriend talking about it.) For decades, it has been given out freely to high school students (now offered freely online instead). Though its understanding of life and institutions and its wooden characters and writing have been criticized, the novel appeals to adolescents because of its emphasis on the heroic creative individual against the world (of “moochers”).

Jennifer Szalai reviewed Duggan’s book for The New York Times and writes: “As befitting machines, the novels seem less literary than engineered. The Randian heroine is a Mean Girl — tall, svelte, severe. The Randian hero is a Mean Boy — tall, muscular, severe. Rand was most successful as a fantasist and 'propagandist,' Duggan writes, who provided 'templates, plot lines and characters' that gave selfishness an alluring sheen.”

Duggan (2019) wrote the book to examine the ascendancy of right-wing white nationalism, evangelical Christianity, and economic globalization at the same time that social welfare has eroded. Duggan points out: “The unifying threads are meanness and greed, and the spirit of the whole hodgepodge is Ayn Rand.”

Duggan portrays Rand’s work as a bridge between the aspirations and desires of 19th-century colonialism and imperialism and the neoliberalism that governs many institutions globally today. As Jane Meyer writes in Dark Money, the Koch brothers, who funded anti-global warming propaganda that shifted public opinion away from accepting scientific evidence (see Climate Cover-Up) were highly influenced by Rand.

Clinician J.C. Moloney (1949) linked early childhood experience to the state of the nation.

“Children emotionally warped in early childhood by being subjected to traumata, at a time when they are too young and too helpless to integrate the experience, develop into fearful, unstable, and infantile adults. They frequently overcompensate for their fears with aggressiveness. Insecure, they develop neurotic techniques of mastery. They become demanding and selfish. They often become the bullies who start fights. And nations, comprised of such bullies, develop as bully nations that start wars.” (Moloney, 1949, p. 314)

“Wars are made by bullies. Bullies are made by fear. And this kind of fear is made by injury to the child, physical or emotional injury when the child is too young, too helpless, to be able to protect himself.” (Moloney, 1949, p. 337)

Interestingly, a prominent sociologist has described the USA as a bully nation.

“Greed is a direct derivative of internal feelings of weakness and worthlessness. Greed leading to the need to despoil and dispossess one’s brother, is lauded as healthy competitiveness. Destruction of the other man’s enterprise is an outgrowth of greed. There is no health in such a situation. Surprising as it may seem, this culture while vocally extolling strength and individualism, in reality induces a weakness that becomes the hothouse of greed.” (Moloney, 1949, p. 343)

A law professor argues that the USA's democracy is being destroyed by greed.

It may all come back to early childhood.

See my next post: "Authoritarianism Toward Babies: Roots of Pathology."


Duggan, L. (2019). Mean Girl: Ayn Rand and the Culture of Greed. Berkeley: UC Press

Balint, M. (1968). The basic fault: Therapeutic aspects of regression. London: Tavistock Publications.

Haarer, J. (1934). The German Mother and Her First Child (Die deutsche Mutter und ihr erstes Kind). Berlin: Lehmanns Derlag Munchen.

Kratzer, A. (2019). Harsh Nazi Parenting Guidelines May Still Affect German Children of Today. Scientific American, January 4.

Milburn, M.A., & Conrad, S.D. (2016). Raised to rage: The politics of anger and the roots of authoritarianism. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Moloney, J.C. (1949). The magic cloak: A contribution to the psychology of authoritarianism. Wakefield, MA: Montrose Press.

Narvaez, D. (2014). Neurobiology and the development of human morality: Evolution, culture and wisdom. New York, NY: W.W. Norton.

Panksepp, J. (1998). Affective neuroscience: The foundations of human and animal emotions. New York: Oxford University Press.

Schore, A. N. (2002). Dysregulation of the right brain: a fundamental mechanism of traumatic attachment and the psychopathogenesis of posttraumatic stress disorder. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, 36(1), 9-30.

Shubin, N. (2009). Your inner fish: A journey into the 3.5-billion-year history of the human body. NY: Vintage.

Stenner, Karen (2009). Three Kinds of "Conservatism. Psychological Inquiry. 20 (2–3): 142–159. doi:10.1080/10478400903028615.

Watson, J. B. (1928). Psychological care of infant and child. New York: W. W. Norton & Co.

Weiss, G. (2012). Ayn Rand Nation: The hidden struggle for America’s soul. New York: Macmillan.

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