Why Conservatives Love Authority and Hate Government

A cozy relationship between Capitol police and rioters shows this contradiction.

Posted Jan 13, 2021

Scholars of political orientation identified right-wing authoritarianism as the main component of conservative temperament. Conservatives love authority. Yet, they hate government. How is that possible?

Love of Authority

Conservatism involves respect for all kinds of legitimate authority figures. This includes respect for religious authority and for government leaders. It establishes men as the leaders within families and ascribes a subordinate role for women.

Indeed, recent research has shown that respect for dominant white men is a significant predictor of support for Trump in both presidential elections even when controlling for nativism, sexism, homophobia, and xenophobia.

Researchers referred to this phenomenon as support for the hegemonic male. The hegemonic male is dominant not only over women but also over nonwhites, homosexuals, and less assertive men.

This version of masculinity is expressed in uniformed authorities such as police and this helps to explain the affinity between conservatives and law-enforcement.

It may also account for the obsession with symbols, including flags (e. g., the Confederate flag), with the Bible as the authoritative Christian book, and with the paraphernalia of male dominance from guns and pickup trucks to military fatigues.

One of the oddest results of the 2020 election was increased support for Trump among the disparate group called Hispanics. This was surprising given that he had gone out of his way to disparage them. Perhaps this group was as much swayed by male hegemony as by hatred of the socialism that was falsely attributed to Joe Biden. Men who are not very confident in their own masculinity for one reason or another may find comfort in identifying with a strong male leader.

If the hegemonic male is perceived as the winner in a competition against rivals, this offers a strange rationale for some women to allow themselves to be subordinated. After all, they can benefit by competing among themselves over the biggest perceived winners. In that mental framework, Neanderthal posturing is interpreted as providing masculine protection.

Love of authority is not peculiar to conservatives, of course. When researchers assessed left-wing authoritarianism, they found that liberals were even more trusting of authority in domains such as the science of global warming.

While there is a fervent respect for dominant male leaders, conservatives often express a deep mistrust of the government.

Hatred of Government

This hatred of government doubtless animated the mob attacking the U.S. Capitol but hatred and distrust of government is a feature of nonviolent conservatives. Their dislike of government is multifaceted but one key feature is that strong governments infringe on individual liberties, for example by insisting that people wear seatbelts when driving, or don face masks to protect public health during a pandemic.

Conservatives offer many explanations for why governments should be small, including the well-worn theory that government spending is inherently wasteful and inefficient.

Government is also seen as providing opportunities for advancement for underprivileged groups. This is rejected not just because of hostility to out-groups but because it is seen as undermining fair competition among individuals that is considered to be the basis of economic success. This sense of grievance is amplified in a world where many whites see their economic status declining.

If the unsuccessful are supported by government handouts, the theory goes, then the motivation to compete is sapped and the society is weakened.

This dog-eat-dog version of society was originally used by philosopher Thomas Hobbes as a justification for strong government but philosophers like Friedrich Nietzche and Ayn Rand argued that the strong should be allowed to prevail over the weak.

At an extreme, conservative hatred of government is manifested in refusal to pay taxes, It also involves a fascination with guns that are accumulated as a way of defending against the intrusions of government agencies as manifested in episodes such as Ruby Ridge and Waco Texas where armed extremists died in confrontations with the government.

Violent Consequences

There is a jarring inconsistency between hatred of government in the abstract and slavish devotion to specific government leaders. How can government be bad if specific leaders are admired?

This contradiction is encapsulated by a president who projects masculine strength but has no respect for the institutions of government. So he had no compunction about inciting violence against the institution that had elected him when it was engaged in counting the votes for his successor.