Wednesday, August 30, 2006

The return of the authoritarians

Continuing her series on authoritarians at Orcinus, Sara Robinson, in Tunnels and Bridges, Part I: Divide and Conquer, reminds us through the words of our founding fathers that democracies must:

...[re-create themselves] continuously as each generation reasserts its freedom against fresh generations of would-be rulers. It's an ongoing conversation about liberty, equality, and power that's re-negotiated – sometimes more peacefully, sometimes less -- every day.
...High-social-dominance (SDO) authoritarian leaders are always among us, always pushing, always scheming, always looking for their next chance. There is no opportunity to take control, legally or illegally, that they won't fail to exploit, as long as the gains promise to outweigh the costs. As Edmund Burke did not say (but usually gets the attribution for anyway): all that's required for them to succeed in this endless quest for power is for the rest of us to do nothing.
We can't sit on our laurels lest:
the day comes when you've got a fundamentalist school board trying to teach your kids young-earth creationism; or militia guys jackbooting up Main Street at noon and performing blitz redecorating on the local synagogue at midnight; or a born-again president trying to bring on Armageddon for the profit of the oil companies and the acclaim of his Rapture-minded followers.
We have witnessed the above come to pass. Now what do we do? Sara proposes we understand the three classes of authoritarians.

First, (1) SDO leaders are virtually all male in ruthless pursuit of their own goals. They never change or relent in using all possible means including the thwarting or changing of law and decisions that kill people, e.g., the Iraq War. What's the best counter-measure remedy besides recognizing who they are? Isolate them.

Next, (2) hard-core right-wing authoritarian (RWA) followers reared in "authoritarian homes" or brainwashed with a lengthy adult indoctrination rarely give up their ways. Don't expect them to change. Just move on.

Last, (3) “soft-core” RWA followers:
...[they] probably came to authoritarianism during an episode of major life stress, or were seduced into it with heavy propaganda from friends and right-wing media. This group may form as much as half of the current authoritarian voter pool in America. These people usually weren't always authoritarians; and they're the ones we have the greatest hope of bringing back around to a full embrace of democratic principles.
Now for the game plan. Sara navigates us through approaches to all three types. For (1) SDO authoritarian leaders, it's best to "identify and isolate" them. Sara recommends books such as John's Dean's, Conservative Without Conscience, to heighten one's skill at spotting traits and modus operandi. To isolate them, expose them publicly with proof. Luckily, the
predictable amorality of high-SDO authoritarian leaders means they've got piles of bones buried in their back yards -- many of which can be dug up with surprisingly little effort, especially in these days of electronic public records and global Web access.
These guys leave victims behind, people who can testify, laws that have been broken. Document it.

Second, exploit schisms:
In most authoritarian groups, whether religious or political, schisms are so frequent as to be almost comic. Jealousy between leaders runs high, egos are prickly, tempers volatile, emotional intelligence not much in evidence. The more followers they get, the less stable alliances become. This internal instability is predictable -- and exploitable, in the hands of a smart opposition. (According to one experienced activist, if you've got good dirt on one leader, make sure it first gets into the hands of his most ambitious co-consipirator – then sit back and watch the fun begin.)
All we need to do is stick together better than they do. For some of us, that's not always easy; but victory belongs to the last team standing. Sometimes, with these guys, it's just a matter of waiting for their own hubris to finish the job for you.
For (2) the RWA follower, don't "count on their outrage" when their leaders have been discredited although they "usually just fade away quietly into the woodwork."
However, be sure you get their names before they go: the odds are good that you'll see them again, years later, emerging under the banner of another charismatic leader....
...This is the group most likely to commit political violence. As these followers move away from their discredited leaders, it's especially important that strong community voices make it absolutely clear that aggression will not be tolerated -- and will be prosecuted, either in the court of law or the court of public opinion. In particular, they need to be told in no uncertain terms that, in the larger community, there is no such a thing as a righteous or acceptable violent act. We know who they are; we regard them as troublemakers; and they will not enjoy our support or mercy if they continue to create problems within our community.
For the last group, (3) “soft-core” RWA followers, arrives the best news-- they are "more likely to be sensitive to public embarrassment." When their leaders become discredited, they can feel betrayed.
Their leader has exposed them to the jeers of their peers, and made them look personally ridiculous. For people who believe in their deepest hearts that they are more moral and righteous than others, the public and humiliating loss of moral authority within the community can lead to a moment of re-direction.
During that shift, many of them will be looking for stronger, more stable authority to lean on. Remember that RWA followers respond to legitimate authority -- and for most of the soft-care, that usually still includes the cops, courts, and clergy. It's critical to have these authorities standing by to provide the rules and structure these followers crave, and who can model constructive behavior.
Sara's excellent work does not end here. In Tunnels and Bridges, Part II: Nothing to Fear But Fear Itself, she examines the need to minimize fear:
Taking fear reduction to the community and national scale is pretty much the same process. The ground rules are: find and build from our common ground; appeal to authorities they're bound to respect; and speak from strength, always avoiding weak and ambiguous language.
Click the link for a detailed breakdown about family, moral common ground, credible authorities, passionate speech, and other tactics.

In Tunnels and Bridges, Part III: A Bigger World, we learn about the abysmal state of civics knowledge among high school graduates, the lack of liberal education, cultural isolationism, and the failure of the Democratic Party for its rural flight from small-town America.

Sara's series will continue with Landing Zones. So stay tuned or visit Orcinus for the next installment.

PREVIOUSLY on this series at RealSpiel:
Authoritarians: who are they?
John Dean on authoritarians
Recovering from authoritarianism
Authoritarian follow-up
Helping authoritarians change