Poll: Authoritarianism at Home

Way back in February, a piece by David Brooks referenced the work of Matthew MacWilliams, who[se editor] claimed that he had discovered “The One Weird Trait That Predicts Whether You’re a Trump Supporter”:

If I asked you what most defines Donald Trump supporters, what would you say? They’re white? They’re poor? They’re uneducated?

You’d be wrong.

In fact, I’ve found a single statistically significant variable predicts whether a voter supports Trump—and it’s not race, income or education levels: It’s authoritarianism.


Keeping watch over America’s fortunes (Source)

If you’re anything like me, you are looking askance at this point. After all, if there’s one thing Americans love, it’s FREEDOM–we will brook no tyranny, be it by king or kaiser! But it turns out that Mr. MacWilliams didn’t rely on bumper stickers in rally parking lots to draw his conclusions. Instead, he used

a set of four simple survey questions that political scientists have employed since 1992 to measure inclination toward authoritarianism. These questions pertain to child-rearing: whether it is more important for the voter to have a child who is respectful or independent; obedient or self-reliant; well-behaved or considerate; and well-mannered or curious. Respondents who pick the first option in each of these questions are strongly authoritarian.

I know, I know, you’re thinking “Whatevs!” right about now. How could child-rearing, for Pete’s sake, have anything to do with authoritarian inclinations? The linguist George Lakoff explains how our upbringing might be related to our policy preferences:

What do social issues and politics have to do with the family? We are first governed in our families, and so we grow up understanding governing institutions in terms of the governing systems of families.

In the strict father family, father knows best. He knows right from wrong and has the ultimate authority to make sure his children and his spouse do what he says, which is taken to be what is right. Many conservative spouses accept this worldview, uphold the father’s authority, and are strict in those realms of family life that they are in charge of. When his children disobey, it is his moral duty to punish them painfully enough so that, to avoid punishment, they will obey him (do what is right) and not just do what feels good. Through physical discipline they are supposed to become disciplined, internally strong, and able to prosper in the external world.

It looks like the prophet was on to something.

If Lakoff’s reasoning seems a tad too liberal-artsy, MacWilliams did some more math and published this response:

One simple way to test this question and answer skeptics is to assess whether Trump voters express authoritarian attitudes on questions that theoretically should engage their authoritarianism. In other words, if Trump voters really are authoritarians, more often than not they should behave like authoritarians.
On most of these questions, Trump voters exhibit statistically significant and substantive authoritarian attitudes.

Regardless of where you stand on Trump and those who report voting for him, it’s fascinating that attitudes about child-raising have such predictive power when it comes to our picks for president.

And of course I’m curious–how authoritarian are the readers of BCC? I know we have a reputation as a liberal hotbed, but we’re also Mormons and Mormons are big into obedience, strong leaders and families presided over by fathers. So there’s gotta be some “spare the rod, spoil the child” types rattling around the Bloggernacle to leaven the lump.

So let’s give it a try. For each pair, mark the characteristic that you believe is more important for a child to have:


  1. I feel like all of these traits are equally important and require balance for both parent and child. Is that cheating?

  2. There is a hidden brain podcast that discusses this too. http://www.npr.org/2016/09/13/493615864/when-it-comes-to-our-politics-family-matters

  3. Thanks for the link, Bruce.

    I hear you, G. It’s not like anyone is setting out to raise a monster.

  4. The poll has obviously been skewed considerably by letting us know that picking one equates to supporting Trump, but a fun exercise nonetheless. That said, I think my own answer varies considerably depending on the age of my children. For example, obedience is much more important for little children; as they become older, however, self-reliance takes a higher priority.

  5. The only one that tripped me up was good manners vs. curiosity. I value both, and good manners is the same thing as consideration to me.

    Interestingly, the Lakoff article came up at a small conference I attended last weekend. It was a very, very liberal group of primarily women. They really took to Lakoff’s explanation for the Trump phenomenon. At the same time, I sat back listening and found that the language, arguments, emotions, etc. demonstrated were exactly the same as I was finding in my conservative Mormon universe. The biases and the directionality were just different. Neither group seemed particularly aware of that.

  6. I’ve managed to raise children who are neither obedient nor self-reliant. This is probably because I’m an anarcho-communist.

  7. Very interesting. Wow, I’m a godless liberal! Who knew? I voted for Bush, for crying out loud!

    I was wondering how my answers might differ if I was thinking about my husband rather than my kids. I think the slight differences there stem from the fact that I hope my kids will eventually leave. Maybe that’s why women skew Democrat.

    I find that I feel so strongly about these things that I really have no patience for people who wish to control their children in authoritarian ways. Basically, I think authoritarians are terrible parents.

  8. I’m afraid I see a lot more parents who don’t parent their children at all than I see parents who control their children in authoritarian ways. Neither one is good.

  9. Kullervo, good point. Given how little appreciation I have for other people’s kids, maybe everyone is a terrible parent, not just the authoritarians. The helicopterish bail-out parents are also awful. Maybe I just don’t like people.

  10. I was ponderizing this post this morning and had an additional thought… It seems clear to me that ‘the world’ is moving further and further away from valuing authority. The younger generation in particular doesn’t relate. Is it then a surprise that a church with authority as its end-all-be-all, trump-card (no pun intended) to truth isn’t palatable to even its own youth? And that this same religion is taking off in countries far behind in terms of cultural growth?

  11. I think you’re on to something, ReTx.

  12. Yeah, I voted for Bush too, but only once. I didn’t make that mistake twice. I then voted for Obama twice with no regrets. And I will not be voting for Adolf Drumpf.

  13. Generally parenting styles are classified as: authoritarian, authoritative, permissive and uninvolved. The ideal parenting style is authoritative. Permissive and uninvolved parenting styles are the least desirable (I think kids need some structure to feel cared for). I think the leadership style in the church is authoritarian and many members are authoritarian followers. I was raised in a more authoritarian-type (and Republican) household but married someone raised in a permissive household. I would like to think we met, more or less, in the middle–authoritative style–raising our kids. I certainly didn’t want to copy my parent’s style–and didn’t adopt their political leanings either.

  14. Anecdotally, this strikes true for me. My parents are insanely authoritarian: my dad’s hobby is adopting absolutely insane beliefs that virtually no one agrees with and then trying to bully people into agreeing with him and living by his arbitrary rules. With a little more charisma, he’d make a good cult leader. He’s a massive fan of Trump, ironically because he believes Trump is “anti-authoritarian” and that Clinton is a would-be dictator who will turn America into an authoritarian state.

  15. Whatever kind of predictive validity this test has in regard to this election, it reeks of the F-scale (F for fascism) in Adorno, et. al. *The Authoritarian Personality,* wherein the goyish traditional father-headed household is pathologized as being responsible for fascism and therefore deserving of suspicion.

  16. Another factor, that weighed heavily on me when I considered (recriminated myself on) how I was raising my children in the ’70s and ’80s, is that it is much easier and takes less skill to be authoritarian. Yelling for obedience was so much easier than the “when you do that it makes me feel” dialog.

  17. Wilhelm, I recall a similar response to the film The White Ribbon:

    With its lurking sense of doom and moral fatalism, the grim fairy tale of “The White Ribbon” doesn’t presage World War I so much as World War II, seeking to locate the seeds of fascism in a generation infected by religious hypocrisy and authoritarian abuses of power. It’s a simplistic notion, disturbing not in its surprise or profundity, but in the sadistic trouble the filmmaker has taken to advance it.

    fbisti, that rings true to me.

    my dad’s hobby is adopting absolutely insane beliefs that virtually no one agrees with and then trying to bully people into agreeing with him and living by his arbitrary rules.


  18. You’re kidding me, right? Digging up dirt from a liberal’s half-baked study that does not disclose its testing methodology. It’s from one of many media organization that WikiLeaks shows has been involved in blatant collusion with the Clinton Campaign, so go figure:
    Just like other doozies which (try to) show that Trump supporters are racist and other laughable (at best) findings:
    Give me a break! Keep trying!

%d bloggers like this: