Ronald Inglehart on “us” versus “them”

Ronald Inglehart is one of the most prolific political scientists ever. On Wednesday afternoon he visited Albion College to talk about “The Authoritarian Personality and the Authoritarian Reflex.” Rarely do Albion students get an opportunity to attend a talk by a scholar of Inglehart’s magnitude, so the auditorium was rightfully packed.

Inglehart underscored that the distinction between “us” and “them” has been with the human race throughout our history. The only difference is that before we used to fight over food and shelter while today we compete over economic resources. An interesting dynamic underpins the authoritarian personality trait. Mainly, when groups are faced with an existential threat, their cohesion increases and authoritarian leaders come to the fore. Thus the authoritarian personality seems to be always present, the only question is whether it will be activated or not.

Why does any of that matter for American Politics? Most Americans are not going hungry or without shelter. In fact, obesity is arguably more of a threat to contemporary America. But Inglehart sees a different type of threat we have to contend with. He links the rise of Trump to the rise of winner-take-all economy. Since 1970s the real wages of most Americans have remained flat while the top 1% continues to get richer every year. It might be true that the unemployment rate is very low, but the middle-class jobs are for the most part low paid and insecure. Thus the aggregate measures of economic performance give us a misleading picture. The pie is getting bigger, but it is the already wealthy who enjoy a disproportionate share of the new profits (it should also be added that they are sheltered from incurring any loses by invoking the “too big to fail” insurance policy).

Furthermore, Americans do not have safety nets comparable to that of other developed countries (e.g., universal healthcare). This means that an average American has a stagnant income, operates in a very fragile economic environment, and has little protection in case of an economic downturn. No wonder that the middle-class Americans feel insecure and see others (immigrants, minorities) as threats to their economic and social well-being.

In fact, Inglehart‘s slides showed that Americans are much more insecure than Canadians, for example. Again, the smaller the economic safety net the higher the authoritarian personality trait. Operationalizing this variable on a scale from fully authoritarian to post-industrial dimension, we see an almost perfect relationship between voting for Trump versus voting for Clinton. Voters with strong authoritarian personalities unsurprisingly prefer Trump while people with post-industrial values prefer Clinton.

There are many interesting conclusions stemming from Inglehart’s talk. But perhaps none is more important than the observation that economically insecure voters voted for Trump, even though Clinton and the Democratic Party promote economic policies that arguably align with their economic interests. This, I think, raises serious questions about both the program of the Democratic Party, and perhaps its inability to communicate it effectively. This issue will need to be addressed if the Democrats have any hopes of defeating Trump next year.

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