Political scientists Marc Hetherington and Jonathan Weiler, both professors at the University of North Carolina, have again examined the fractured minds of Americans in their latest book, Prius or Pickup? How the Answers to Four Simple Questions Explain America’s Great Divide. Having read and appreciated their earlier 2009 work, Authoritarianism and Polarization in American Politics, I was aware that they did not find the focus of social scientist on “authoritarianism” to be always appropriate. So, the first thing I noticed in their new work was how they have developed an insightful new vocabulary. When I contacted Jon Weiler, he was pleased to respond to my questions about his latest work.
QUESTION: Please explain if (and how) you have been able to verify the underlying premise(s) (and subtitle) of your book, that “Four Simple Questions Explain America’s Great Divide?”
ANSWER: The parenting questions referenced in the subtitle have become powerful predictors of Americans’ political views. In our 2009 book, we showed that people’s answers to those four questions were very predictive of Americans’ party choices. That has only become truer since. Beyond our work, study after study shows how much these four questions explain the way people understand politics. Critically, it hasn’t always been true. Thirty or forty years ago, whether you answered the parenting questions in a fixed direction didn’t tell us anything about whether you were a Republican or Democrat. Now it does. That matters because what is now at the heart of the partisan divide is something so visceral and core to who we are that it makes it difficult to view political disagreements only as political disagreements. Instead, we view them in much darker, more condemnatory, more moral terms. It makes finding middle ground difficult. The middle ground isn’t always the right answer, by the way. But that the very notion of compromise is becoming anathema is a problem.
QUESTION: I like your division of political views into “fixed,” “fluid,” and “mixed.” Please explain how you came up with these labels and what has been the reaction of other academics to these labels, if any?
ANSWER: In our previous book, we used the terms authoritarian and non-authoritarian, which has been standard in the social sciences for decades. We were always uneasy about those terms. We wanted to find different terminology because the term “authoritarian” is a conversation stopper. The term was getting in the way of the research. Fixed was meant to connote people who want to keep old norms and traditions fixed in place. Fluid was meant to connote people who are more open to changing them. In addition, the term authoritarian suggested an outlier personality type, but our research showed that the opinions of these so called “authoritarians” are not at all rare. Those who answer the parenting questions in that direction are not outliers. In fact, their opinions are more like the mixed than the fluids are compared to the mixed on some of the most contentious issues of the day.
Fixed and fluid do a better job of connoting the substantive underpinnings of people’s worldviews than the previous terminology.
QUESTION: At page 160 of your book, you state: “Political psychologists typically use the term ‘authoritarian’ to label those we call fixed in their worldview, believing such a worldview to be dangerous.” What do political psychologists use for your “fluid” and “mixed,” if they have a label?
ANSWER: The focus of political psychology has been on authoritarianism. Usually, those other categories are just default categories, like “non-authoritarian” or “less authoritarian.” I think it’s an important shortcoming that the worldviews of the less fixed have not been as fully fleshed out, or subject to close study or scrutiny. It adds to the sense that one is “normal” and therefore doesn’t need to be understood.
QUESTION: Continuing with page 160, you note: “This harsh label—‘authoritarian’—may seem out of place in today’s debates about domestic politics.” Why is authoritarianism out of place today? Are you dismissing over a half-century of research because it seems “dangerous” or “harsh”—or why? On this page you state that Amanda Taub’s 2016 article, which relied on well-founded research and titled “The Rise of American Authoritarianism,” was “remarkable.” Why did you find it remarkable? Was Ms. Taub’s piece remarkable because she was one of the very few journalists to examine Trump and his followers in the context of authoritarianism?
ANSWER: We wanted to say there that, when the term first emerged, it was to explain the rise of fascism and the devastation it had wrought. Of course, many Americans are terrified that we are, indeed, headed in that direction. But whatever one thinks about what is happening, we are not close to a totalitarian society a la Nazi Germany. More important, the present moment in American history makes clear that people do not have to have an “authoritarian” worldview to support authoritarian ideas. Nothing close to a majority of Republicans have “fixed” or “authoritarian” worldviews. Indeed, the disturbing premise of our arguments is that you don’t need that for a serious democratic erosion to take place. Partisans just have to hate the other party so much that they’ll turn a blind eye to just about anything. Turning a blind eye is easier for the fixed than the mixed, but Trump’s stratospheric approval ratings among Republicans make clear that worldview-weaponized partisanship is the real problem, not just people with “an authoritarian” worldview.
QUESTION: As you know, I have written about authoritarianism in the conservative movement which I find worrisome because I spent many years with this tribe, watching them become more radical and more aggressive. You have concluded, however, “it seems a stretch to argue that the United States is on the cusp of such rule today.” Do you have any data to establish that Donald Trump and his followers have not placed the United States on the cusp of authoritarian rule?
ANSWER: Our data are about people’s attitudes, not about governments. We do, however, catalogue a number of very troubling things that have occurred during the Trump presidency. I am fearful, too. But it is still the case that, so far anyway, courts have overturned many of Trump’s policy initiatives. His party has been losing special elections consistently since 2017 and may lose the House in a month. There is vigorous opposition to virtually all of the administration’s efforts, and the intensity, savvy, and depth of organization of those efforts seem to be growing by the day. And despite all of his handwringing, a major federal probe—the Mueller probe—continues to proceed against him and many of his associates. I am not suggesting that this is predictive of anything. But for now, I don’t think we can draw parallels between the US today and fascist regimes of old.
QUESTION: Am I correct in reading your previous book with Marc Hetherington, Authoritarianism and Polarization in American Politics, as written for “academic” reader, while the new book is written for the general reader? Also, I am curious how much you relied on material in your prior book in writing Prius or Pickup?
ANSWER: Yes, the original book was meant for an academic audience, replete with regression tables and the like. And absolutely, the new book is meant for a much broader audience. While we, of course, rely on some of the basic concepts, the material and approach in Prius or Pickup is new. This is because it’s a decade later and much has changed, and some of our own thinking has changed. For example, the first book focused entirely on politics. But we demonstrate in this book that much of the passion about politics derives from the fact that the left and the right make such different decisions in their personal life—where to live, whether to worship, what to eat, etc. People really care about these things—not politics—and they send messages every day that people in the other party are just not like them.
QUESTION: What concerns you most about the current divide in American politics?
ANSWER: I am of two minds about this. One the one hand, I find the current Republican Party extremely dangerous to our institutions and the well-being of ordinary people. That hardly needs elaboration. And I am loath to try too hard to draw equivalencies where I don’t think they exist. But it is also troubling that, in a very basic sense, we cannot see each other’s humanity, because the toxic nature of partisanship today means that if you are on the other side, you are less than fully human. I’m not suggesting that everyone feels that way, but more and more people do. That means disagreement is almost automatically understood as venality and bad faith. Here I draw a distinction between party leaders and regular folks. I have nothing good to say about McConnell, Ryan, Trump, etc. But ordinary people are mostly just trying to get by, are likely to help a neighbor in need, and in a less toxic environment would be more likely to accept that you can disagree with someone without regarding them as evil.
QUESTION: Why do conflicting worldviews result in polarization?
ANSWER: Conflicting worldviews always exist. And partisan disagreement is ever present. The distinctive feature of this moment is the convergence of worldview and partisanship. That’s been decades in the making, the product of the particular issues that the major parties have come to emphasize (race, gender equality, sexual orientation, immigration, etc.). This is polarizing because people reason about these issues more in their guts than in their heads. When the parties were divided by how big government should be, understanding what side you were on required a lot of thinking. And the two sides could always compromise on how big. Now that the parties are divided by worldview, understanding what side you are on happens on the gut level. People’s party attachments are, as a consequence, more visceral.
QUESTION: Is Donald Trump “fixed,” “fluid,” or “mixed?” Please explain.
ANSWER: I don’t know that we can guess the worldviews of public officials. They’re all performers, to some degree. George Wallace was a moderate on race until he hit pay dirt by the most virulent racial appeals. It matters less what politicians are personally and matters more what they are offering to those who might follow them. When it comes to race, immigration, gender equality, and the proper way to deal with terrorism, Trump is a near perfect vessel for someone with a fixed worldview.
QUESTION: What can we learn from your work about how Donald Trump got elected? And about his prospects in 2020 to be reelected?
ANSWER: Commentators note Trump’s strong appeal among less educated white voters. Worldview is why. Those with a high school degree or less are most likely to fixed worldviews. People with advanced degrees are the most fluid. In short, worldview explains why we now have a party divide based on education and no longer income. The divide obscures our ability to appreciate how differently other people see the world. In my world, Brett Kavanaugh made a disastrous mistake when he made a raging, conspiracy-minded partisan defense at his confirmation hearings. But for a very large swath of Americans with a different worldview, he was strong, admirable, and resolute. Part of why we seem to live in two different realities is more partisan media, but it is also because those on one side don’t share the same worldview with the other. I think Trump begins the 2020 presidential election in a hole, because more Americans dislike him than like him. But outrages of the sort that people previously always thought of as “disqualifying” aren’t disqualifying. So, waiting for some mistake or even legal finding to defeat Trump is misguided. Indeed, I’d like to ban the word “disqualifying” from political analysis. The only thing that matters in elections is winning more votes (in the right places). The worldview divide only underscores that reality. Most people are going to stand by their man or woman almost no matter what. We need to understand and adapt to that reality.
This brief Q & A does not begin to describe the facts that emerges from a book of some 248 pages, and while I like the labels the authors have developed—fixed, fluid and mixed—to describe worldviews, I believe there are times that a soft description does not do the job of warning others about dispositions and predilections that cannot and should not be ignored. Such is the case with conspicuous authoritarian leaders and their followers. This is not to say that there is not great merit in employing the worldview descriptions that Hetherington and Weiler have developed, for they had made a significant contribution.
Yet, as someone who has written about authoritarianism, both the so-called social dominators and the right-wing authoritarian followers, as well as those who test high for all traits, I have found the abrasiveness of the term itself is important. Yes, as Jon Weiler notes above, it can be a conversation stopper, for those who are unsure of their own thinking and are embarrassed to discover their authoritarianism. With some of these people, they do not want to be authoritarians, and change behavior upon being told of their disposition. On the other hand, there are those who know exactly what they are, and they embrace, even luxuriate, in all the negativity associated with authoritarianism. Does anyone think that Donald Trump, or Steve Bannon, on Steven Miller, or Ivanka Trump Kushner, or Kellyanne Conway, along with those who show up at Trump rallies, are in the slightest troubled by being labeled authoritarians? In fact, many of them would so describe themselves.
It strikes me that exploring worldviews with less overt questions to discover whether such views are fixed, fluid, or mixed works nicely in separating the wheat from the chaff. But there is more winnowing to be done. I want to know once you have broadly separated fixed, fluid, and mixed, who are the authoritarians—are they social dominators or merely followers, and the myriad other matters the last 60 years of social science has explored with these people. I agree with Jon Weiler that Trump and his followers have not taken us to a pre-fascist state, and Trump is no Hitler. Yet he and his followers cannot be fully understood by the fact that their worldview polarizes them from others. They are the very people who history shows can destroy our democracy to accommodate their worldviews, and as decades of testing demonstrates, these people are not our better angels.
Marc Hetherington and Jonathan Weiler provide a wonderful (and inoffensive) way to label divergent people along the political spectrum, and in doing so they provide a better understand our political polarization. It is a fascinating read, and well-written book.
Note: I confess that I have been waiting for Prius or Pickup? How the Answers to Four Simple Questions Explain America’s Great Divide for months to determine whether to write further on this topic myself to explain Donald Trump, the Republican Party, his enablers and followers, and the threat their authoritarianism possess to the United States. After reading an advance copy of Marc and Jon’s good work and providing a blurb I hope will encourage others to read their work, I decided I needed to further addresses authoritarianism. Accordingly, I sought out Bob Altemeyer, the leading authority on authoritarianism who assisted me when writing Conservatives Without Conscience (a label I would give to the most extreme authoritarians in 2006, never dreaming they would put one of their own in Oval Office, Donald Trump). Bob and I are actively exploring how we can best collaborate to address the story of authoritarian takeover of the GOP, and what this reality means for everyone.