Liberal democracy has now exceeded many people’s capacity to tolerate it. A HOPE not hate special essay by Karen Stenner.

Taken from issue 44 of HOPE not hate magazine


I started writing this article in the midst of what is shaping up as the worst global economic crisis since the Great Depression, set in motion by a once-in-a-century pandemic that’s already taken over 1.2m lives. 

Our screens are now lighting up with horrifying scenes of riots and inter-communal violence unfolding in many major cities. Massive protests against the police brutality that every day kills black people in custody have been met with further police brutality. A toxic brew of white supremacists, anarchists and assorted agitators are exploiting the unrest and clamouring to “burn it all down”. 

President Trump has had peaceful protestors and clergy teargassed out of his way so he could walk to an historic church across from the White House, and implicitly threaten more violence while ostentatiously brandishing a bible, upside down.

The moment feels apocalyptic. The next steps we take must be thoughtful and extraordinarily careful. 

Even before these latest crises unfolded we were struggling with the precipitous rise of “far right populism” – riding a tsunami of alienation in the populace – and the escalating risks of climate change. Partly due to the diversion of attention and resources affected by these “far right” electoral successes, those real and mounting climate risks have been met with indifference, and a failure to secure the global cooperation necessary to slash emissions and avert climate catastrophe.

“liberal democracy has now exceeded many people’s capacity to tolerate it” 

The prospect of real progress on any of these fronts has been hindered by a decade of tribalism and political polarisation, alienation and mutual distrust that has unfolded across the liberal democratic West. Citizens with little comfort or security in their lives struggle to find identity, meaning and belonging as they confront, seemingly alone, social, political and economic complexity on a scale that overwhelms their capacities – leaving them with little to invest in caring for anything or anyone else.

If forced to summarise our current plight in just one sentence I offer this: liberal democracy has now exceeded many people’s capacity to tolerate it. Until we fix this central problem, nothing else works.

The Authoritarian Personality

All of us come into the world with a particular personality: a relatively enduring set of needs and wants, tendencies and inclinations that fundamentally shape who and how we are.

Our personalities influence the environments we prefer and the relationships we seek out, how we present ourselves to the world and interact with others, how we occupy and entertain ourselves, what we aspire to and what we become.

Psychologists have long understood that our behaviour generally springs from an interaction between our personality and the situation in which we find ourselves. The environments we experience and situations we confront influence how we express our personalities in behaviour.

But we generally try to find environments, and place ourselves in situations, congenial to our personalities. We come into the world a particular kind of person, and nothing changes that too much. How we express who we are is the main thing that varies, under different conditions.

”We come into the world a particular kind of person, and nothing changes that too much” 

Ever since Adorno et al. published The Authoritarian Personality (1950), social scientists have spoken of an “anti-democratic personality”, and struggled to understand its origins and dynamics. This authoritarian personality (or ‘predisposition’) stubbornly persists.

Despite our efforts to educate (and shame) them away, we are here in 2020 still grappling with a fundamentally different kind of human being… one for whom the joys of a ‘vibrant’ liberal democracy are not self-evident, even less so the more we try to persuade them of it.

Note I am talking about authoritarianism as a fundamental and enduring dimension of human psychology, persisting across time and space, rather than trying to characterise political regimes. Political actors can adopt autocratic rule, espouse intolerant policies, and deploy authoritarian rhetoric to attract authoritarians in the populace, without themselves being authoritarian.

I’m concerned only with the psychology of those followers, and how this renders them susceptible to these kinds of appeals, at every place and juncture… including now our own.

What Is Authoritarianism?

A number of scholars (e.g., Duckitt) have converged on a definition of authoritarianism something like this: authoritarianism is one’s conception of the appropriate balance between group authority and conformity vs. individual freedom and difference.

There are two distinct but interdependent elements here, (i) social process: how we want the world to operate (group authority or individual freedom); and (ii) end-state: how we’d like the world to turn out (conformity or difference). 

These two elements are intertwined. If my heart yearns for conformity and consensus, I must allow the authority (coercion, constraint) needed to achieve this. If I cannot abide imposing such restrictions on individual freedom, I must be willing to tolerate the diversity (racial, moral, political) this is bound to produce.

We are each located at some (relatively immovable) point along this spectrum” 

We are each located at some (relatively immovable) point along this spectrum. It’s how we come into the social and political world – an individual entering the collective – and determine what we owe, and can demand of each other.

Authoritarians’ deep need for what I call “oneness and sameness” then generates – in a primitive and largely unconscious way – a set of functionally related demands upon the polity, without much need for cognitive undergirding. It is their shared function (minimising difference) that gives authoritarians’ political demands some appearance of ideological coherence, within and across individuals, and societies. 

Difference-ism and Groupiness

At its core, then, authoritarianism is usefully conceived as “difference-ism”. 

Authoritarians look out at society and want to minimise difference in all its forms: racial, moral, political. They seek to establish and defend certain institutions, policies, customs and norms, all of which have the effect of reducing the diversity of people, beliefs and behaviours with which we are confronted.

If we switch our perspective from end-state to social process, we can understand authoritarianism as extreme “groupiness”. The groupiness and difference-ism go hand in hand and are mutually reinforcing. The comforting oneness and sameness that authoritarians seek are attributes of the collective rather than the individual.

They cannot be achieved without a shared concept of the boundaries of that collective (who is ”us”) – typically rooted in some legend or lore about what and how “we” are – and of the authorities, rules, customs and norms by which we exert collective control over other people’s behaviour.

”Authoritarians look out at society and want to minimise difference in all its forms” 

In the end, authoritarians are relentlessly sociotropic boundary maintainers, norm enforcers, and cheerleaders for authority whose classic stances all concern themselves with securing and defending those boundaries, norms and authorities. Often the collective will be demarcated based simply on some concept of shared race/ethnicity/nationality. But even there, a great deal of authoritarians’ energy will be invested in distinguishing, glorifying and privileging “us”, while excluding, disparaging and discriminating against “them”. 

The Authoritarian Dynamic and Normative Threat

Beyond simple racial order, authoritarians concern themselves obsessively with what I call “normative order”. 

In diverse and complex multicultural societies, the things that make us an “us” – that make us one and the same – are common authority and shared values. Having institutions and leaders we respect and revere, and consensus on core beliefs and values is a large part of how we all understand “us”, and derive a sense of identity, meaning and belonging. For the “groupiest” among us, this is an even more important part of understanding oneself, making sense of the world, and feeling safe and valued within it.

”authoritarians concern themselves obsessively with what I call ‘normative order’” 

Perceived threats to this normative order are then critical catalysts that activate otherwise latent authoritarian predispositions, and increase their expression in intolerant attitudes and behaviours. I call this “the authoritarian dynamic” and it has been my central contribution to our understanding of intolerance. Across decades of research, I’ve found that expressions of intolerance are principally a function of the interaction between one’s (un-changing) predisposition to authoritarianism and (changing) conditions of “normative threat”. 

So authoritarians express their intolerance to a greater degree under conditions of normative threat, and in reassuring conditions might hardly be distinguishable from anyone else. Likewise, societies can experience “sudden” flare-ups of racism and intolerance that seem to “come out of nowhere”, when the (always present but normally latent) predispositions of the populace are activated by threatening societal conditions. And this is where we are right now. 

Origins of Authoritarianism

So what makes someone authoritarian? 

Studies of identical twins reared together and apart (the ‘gold standard’ for separating the influence of nature and nurture) indicate authoritarianism is about 50% heritable. (This does not mean the rest is socialisation – there is much unexplained variance). 

Thus we all come into the world pre-disposed: wishing (with varying intensity) for oneness and sameness, or freedom and difference. From there, our environments and experiences modify us mostly at the margins, and influence the way we express our predispositions, under varying conditions.

”we all come into the world pre-disposed: wishing (with varying intensity) for oneness and sameness, or freedom and difference” 

There appear to be two critical determinants of authoritarianism. The first is lack of “openness to experience” (one of the ‘Big Five’ personality dimensions, itself substantially heritable). The second is best described as cognitive incapacity.

Lack of openness, and cognitive incapacity predispose one to authoritarianism by reducing one’s willingness and ability, respectively, to deal with complexity. People lacking openness to experience dislike variety, novelty, diversity and complexity, and are averse to the unconventional and unfamiliar. Those with cognitive limitations will naturally likewise prefer simplicity and be ill-equipped for complexity.

Democracy Is Bad For the Anti-Democrat

It’s easy to imagine such characters struggling mightily with the cacophony of modern liberal democracy: frequent elections at multiple levels of government, all of them hotly contested; bitter partisan conflict and disagreement; searing media critiques of the authorities and endless political scandals; citizen protests and rowdy dissent; a variegated, polyglot populace of mixed morals and lifestyles, from every corner of the earth; each day all contending anew for status, advantage and improvement.

A more congenial system for authoritarians is one where leaders are installed by decree and rarely overturned; their decisions are never scrutinised or challenged; issues are resolved in backrooms with no debate; citizens obey the rules without question; society is conventional and familiar; life is orderly and predictable; and everyone knows (and stays in) their place.

“A more congenial system for authoritarians is one where leaders are installed by decree and rarely overturned” 

This brings us back to the issue most critical to understanding our current moment, and finding a just and peaceful way through it: the impact of “threats to the normative order”. The vibrant society and polity sketched out above – which many of us don’t just tolerate but actually celebrate – is a perfect storm of normative threat for the authoritarians in our midst. And there are very many of them.

Measuring Authoritarian Predisposition

I generally find about a third of the populace is predisposed to authoritarianism, right across liberal democracy (see Table 1 for 2016 survey results from the EU). 

This is according to a “child-rearing values” measure: a “bare bones” measure of authoritarian predisposition rather than authoritarian attitudes. The results here depend simply on asking respondents: “Which is more important for a child to have? Independence, or respect for elders? Obedience, or self-reliance? Consideration for others, or good behaviour? Curiosity, or good manners?” 

This measure clearly reflects what I described as the core of authoritarianism: our conception of the appropriate balance between group authority and conformity vs. individual freedom and difference. And it does so not by referring directly to political issues, but by invoking our first and foundational model of individual submission to group authority: the relationship between parent and child. 

Table 1: Cross-tabulation of Authoritarian & Left/Right Self-Placement (28 EU Countries)


Non-authoritarian Neutral Authoritarian
Left-wing 21% 14% 14%
Right-wing 17% 16% 19%
Note: Cell entries reflect % of population falling into each category.

Data: EuroPulse survey, December 2016; n=11,188 Source: Dalia Research

Authoritarianism v. Conservatism

This child-rearing values measure also has the virtue of not confusing authoritarianism with conservatism. This confusion has hindered both theoretical and practical progress, causing many to misunderstand the true nature of the beast and driving away potential conservative allies, who feel wrongly maligned and under-valued.

There are two things often called “conservative” that we can readily distinguish from authoritarianism. The first is “laissez faire conservatism”: an enduring preference for free markets and limited government vs. government intervention and redistribution. In decades of cross-national research I’ve rarely seen anything but a small negative relationship between authoritarianism and laissez faire conservatism. Those who object to government intervention in economic matters are inclined to reject interference in all affairs of the individual, including their moral choices, political beliefs and activities.

Second, authoritarianism is only weakly related to “status quo conservatism”: a deep-seated aversion to change, and preference for social stability. Authoritarianism is primarily an aversion to difference across space (diversity, complexity) while status quo conservatism is primarily an aversion to difference over time (change). 

Thus the two dispositions share some general distaste for difference. Slowing the rate of social change does tend to reduce the variety and complexity of things we will encounter. Likewise, limiting the diversity of people, beliefs and behaviours will generally impede the pace of social change. Thus the concerns and preferences of these two characters might often coincide (hence their modest relationship).

”authoritarians can embrace massive social change, and blithely overthrow established authorities and institutions if these seem no longer to provide the normative order they crave” 

But, the two characters still differ in whether they find diversity or change more objectionable. And at momentous turning points, such as now, that distinction is absolutely critical. Why? Because authoritarians can embrace massive social change, and blithely overthrow established authorities and institutions if these seem no longer to provide the normative order they crave… especially if someone charismatic is promising greater oneness and sameness just the other end of the “shining path”.

In contrast, status quo conservatives will definitely not be on board for this “authoritarian revolution”. In this way, true conservatives can be a liberal democracy’s strongest bulwark against the dangers posed by intolerant social movements at moments just like this. The contemporary “left” would be well advised to recognise these crucial distinctions and stop alienating potential allies.

”true conservatives can be a liberal democracy’s strongest bulwark against the dangers posed by intolerant social movements” 

Whither ‘Left’ and ‘Right’?

And what about those concepts of “left” and “right”? Are they just empty labels? 

For our purposes, the critical thing to note is that “left/right” is not a fundamental and enduring dimension of human psychology. For want of a more elegant way to express this: the fact that certain stances “go together” in contemporary politics does notmean they go together in humans

And if they don’t necessarily (i.e., naturally) go together in humans, then the things from which the “left” and “right” have traditionally been constituted can always be reassembled. There is reason to suspect some such reassembly is underway, at least across Western liberal democracy.

In Table 1, we see that one’s self-designation as “left-wing” or “right-wing” is almost completely unrelated to whether one is predisposed to authoritarianism (according to that unobtrusive child-rearing values measure). Authoritarians are slightly more inclined to call themselves “right-wing” than “left-wing” (and non-authoritarians the reverse), but just barely. 

The apparent independence of authoritarianism from laissez faire conservatism, from status quo conservatism, and from the “left/right” spectrum (as commonly understood) means virtually everything is “up for grabs” in any realignment to come.

”self-designation as “left-wing” or “right-wing” is almost completely unrelated to whether one is predisposed to authoritarianism” 

There is certainly scope for things to line up differently. As intimated earlier, some traditional policy alignments can be seen as illogical if not unnatural, such as the incongruent conservative/ right-wing stance of being strictly ‘hands-off’ regarding the economy but keen for government to intrude into people’s moral choices. 

Likewise on the left, where the zeal for economic “levelling” sometimes has a real “oneness and sameness” vibe, and under the right conditions, might sit comfortably alongside demands for racial homogeneity, political repression, moral constraints, and punitiveness toward anyone who “steps out of line”. 

Freedom/Constraint v. Equality/Inequality

The realignment I foresee is one in which freedom/constraint replaces equality/inequality as the primary dimension along which parties and voters are arrayed. Simply put, a sizeable portion of the electorate seems to want government involved not merely in redistributing wealth and providing social services, but also in coercing and controlling individuals to enforce oneness and sameness, in all domains: racial, moral and political. 

These days, as the tectonic plates shift beneath our feet, traditional left-wing parties confront wellsprings of racial prejudice, anti-semitic and anti-immigrant sentiment, both in their own ranks and their traditional bases of support. They try out increasingly contorted stances on immigration as they attempt to wrangle ‘nativist’ and anti-globalist elements in their base. They also face contentious new divisions over civil liberties and moral freedom, e.g., around transgender rights and hate speech, pornography and prostitution, aggressive policing and stricter sentencing. 

”a sizeable portion of the electorate seems to want government involved not merely in redistributing wealth and providing social services, but also in coercing and controlling individuals to enforce oneness and sameness” 

For their part, traditional right-wing parties struggle to make peace with rising demand for isolationism in foreign affairs, protectionist trade policies, and government intervention to shore up the economy (including ‘corporate welfare’). As for matters of race? In their flirtation with nativist notions regarding the cultural superiority of “our people”, and growing defiance of the sacrosanct edicts of multiculturalism, the traditional “right” has seemed increasingly willing to “go there”.

Far Right Populism and The Authoritarian Dynamic

But not fast or far enough, apparently. 

This can be surmised from the hammering traditional parties both “left” and “right” have recently suffered at the hands of voters, a good many of whom abandoned mainstream offerings in favour of “far right populist” candidates. “Far right”, “extreme right” and “hard right” are all very murky concepts. 

What does it mean, conceptually, to be further to the “right”, more extremely “right”, or harder “right”? What it seems to mean in practice is a very reactionary conservatism with a heavy dose of groupiness and difference-ism – some racism, nativism, nationalism, ethnocentrism, xenophobia – in short, what I’ve described as authoritarianism.

As for the “populist” part of this “far right populist” equation? The animating sentiments of “populism” to me feel very much like perceptions of normative threat. Mainstream authorities, leaders and institutions are seen as corrupt, faithless, self-serving and out of touch with those they’re meant to represent.

They pander only to elites, minorities and dangerous “others” while exploiting “the people” (who are “pure”, “real” and “true”) – thwarting their desires, depriving them of their voice and rights, and undermining their values and identity. Populist politicians then portray themselves as the “outsiders” who will reclaim the rights stolen away from “the people”.

“Mainstream authorities, leaders and institutions are seen as corrupt, faithless, self-serving and out of touch with those they’re meant to represent” 

Many “far right populist” leaders play on this “outsider” status, decrying an alleged “political correctness” in the mainstream that denies voters their preference for certain verboten policies. Previously unmentionable sentiments regarding race and ethnicity are increasingly aired in public and normalised. 

The predictable slate of demands includes all the classic defences in the authoritarian ‘armoury’: racial/ethnic discrimination and immigration restrictions; nativism, isolationism and protectionism; restricting civil liberties and suppressing dissent; censorship and the criminalisation of moral “deviance”; stricter sentencing, and punishment over rehabilitation; greater emphasis on police, the military, and the use of force to control others’ behaviour, more generally.

Normative Order and Racial Order

I noted earlier that direct racial threats (to homogeneity, superiority, privilege) can serve as catalysts for authoritarians, just like leadership failures and loss of consensus. 

Undoubtedly, the European migrant crisis of 2015-16 exacerbated authoritarians’ perceptions of threat, and their intolerance in response. But even there, we might recall that reactions were especially focused on normative aspects of the challenge, in terms of perceived clash of cultures and values, i.e., focused on the predominance of Muslims among those fleeing the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, and how this made them harder to assimilate into European cultures. 

”the European migrant crisis of 2015-16 exacerbated authoritarians’ perceptions of threat, and their intolerance” 

I’ve rarely seen even direct racial threats activate authoritarians to the same degree as the classic normative threats. Feeling let down by institutions, leaders and compatriots, feeling like “no-one agrees on anything any more”, like “we’ve lost the things that once made us great”… this is very palpably the animating spirit.

The Authoritarian Dynamic In Action

Table 2 (below) gives us a sense of how far authoritarians in the throes of normative threat have remade our world in the last few tumultuous years. 

These findings are from my analysis of white Americans’ reported vote choices in the 2016 presidential election. I’ve run the same analyses, obtaining similar results for two other portentous votes around that same time: for Marine Le Pen in the run-off for the French presidency, and the Brexit referendum. 

All three votes were significant events for the free world. The combined impact of the votes for Trump and Brexit, in particular, has been momentous – genuinely world-changing. For her part, Le Pen came terrifyingly close to winning the presidency of a major Western European nation. All three scenarios show the same pattern of choices being substantially influenced by the interaction of voters’ predispositions to authoritarianism with perceptions of normative threat. 

Table 2: Percent Voting for Trump as a Function of Authoritarianism and Left v. Right Self-placement, if Low Normative Threat (or High Normative Threat)


Non-authoritarian Neutral Authoritarian
Left-wing 19% (19%) 28% (53%) 49% (66%)
Right-wing 64% (41%) 56% (76%) 63% (77%)
Note: Cell entries reflect % for Trump given different predispositions and under varying conditions. 

Data: EuroPulse survey, U.S. sample. December 2016; n=451 (whites only) Source: Dalia Research

Authoritarianism was measured simply by child-rearing values, with the most authoritarian respondents wanting children to be respectful of elders, obedient, well behaved and well-mannered. My measure of normative threat asked respondents whether the government was controlled by the rich elite, whether [their country] over the past five years had gone in the wrong direction, and how dissatisfied they were with their government, with democratic government, and with the way democracy worked in [their country].

”66% of left-wing authoritarians who felt threatened lined up behind Trump” 

These U.S. results are remarkable. Cell numbers indicate the percentage of those in each category who ultimately voted for Trump, first under conditions of normative reassurance, then (in parentheses) given perceptions of normative threat. 

Take as our example the top-right cell. We see that 49% of left-wing authoritarians who felt normatively reassured ultimately voted for Trump. But that attraction to Trump escalated in the presence of normative threat, with 66% of left-wing authoritarians who felt threatened lining up behind Trump. This represents a precipitous increase of 17 percentage points in voting for Trump, among left-wing authoritarians who felt threatened rather than reassured. We know that elections are regularly won and lost on margins much tighter than this.

Notice, too, the contrasting reaction of non-authoritarians — a pattern that turns up in all my investigations. As leaders fail, democracy disappoints, and compatriots test our bonds, non-authoritarians grow less attracted to populist candidates and causes, just like they become more racially inclusive, more politically tolerant, more morally lenient, less harsh and punitive… in general, less eager to use collective authority to control other people’s behaviour.

”non-authoritarians grow less attracted to populist candidates and causes” 

The Normative Order Is Not Set In Stone

I could not conclude without directly addressing some questions about threat inevitably raised by the Covid-19 pandemic, by the massive protests against racism and police brutality currently roiling the globe, and by the relentless campaigns of fear and division being waged by many leaders – most notably, the U.S. President – against their own citizens.

First, it is generally true that authoritarians constantly monitor the environment for threats to oneness and sameness. They are not, however, particularly likely to perceive normative (or any other) threat, they are just especially reactive once they do. This is a critical distinction. It is a misconception to imagine that authoritarians are generally perceiving a dangerous world out there. 

Once they do perceive normative threat, they react strongly with increasing demands for leaders to shore up oneness and sameness – by authorising the classic mix of policies and practices for boundary-maintaining, norm enforcing and buttressing the leadership.

“authoritarians constantly monitor the environment for threats to oneness and sameness” 

Authoritarians by nature want to be part of a cohesive collective, they want to believe their collective is intact and strong, they want to respect authorities and leaders, and trust their fellow citizens. If that’s on offer, if it’s remotely possible to see and feel that, they will. 

So authoritarians are the zealous ‘boosters’ of the collective… right up until the moment they’re not. That moment will be when some alternative authority (who might even be marking out the boundaries of a new “us”) seems to be offering a bigger, better, tighter, stronger, more cohesive, or more defensible “normative order”.

”authoritarians are the zealous ‘boosters’ of the collective… right up until the moment they’re not 

Understanding this reality, and the opportunities it presents us, is easier once we grasp the central lesson that much of what we see as racism is more appropriately understood as difference-ism. It is their essential groupiness that ultimately prevails, and in a state of flux, authoritarians might adhere to whatever is the most compelling normative order available to them. 

This is what makes it possible for devout Catholic clergy in Latin America to become Marxist revolutionaries, and for ‘Bernie Bros’ to blithely flip over to voting for Trump. 

Collective vs. Personal Threats

Note that when I’m talking about “threat” I’m not really imagining fear so much as someone detecting a risk to something they value… which is not exactly the same thing. In some ways it has closer relation to anger than to fear. Authoritarians are not generally ‘worriers’. They are not persistently “neurotic”.

Further, I’ve consistently found that personal threats have the opposite effect on authoritarians to collective threats. Whereas perception of national economic decline increases the impact of authoritarianism on intolerance, individual financial stress actually has the opposite effect, de-activating authoritarianism and minimising its intolerant ‘returns’. 

Much of the negative impact of authoritarianism springs from authoritarians being excessively invested in monitoring and protecting the collective. But things like individual financial stress and personal experience of crime, ill health, grief and loss… all of these things seem actually to distract authoritarians from their problematic concern with the fate of the collective, thereby ‘improving’ their behaviour. 

“Much of the negative impact of authoritarianism springs from authoritarians being excessively invested in monitoring and protecting the collective” 

As for the pandemic, it’s not yet obvious whether authoritarians will generally perceive the viral threat in personal or collective terms, but this will indelibly shape their reactions. So far Trump has effectively identified the pandemic as a collective threat sheeted home to the Democrats: a “hoax” they perpetrated upon his base to undermine his presidency. 

It’s not clear to what extent the Democrats will be able to reframe this now, and how much their success will depend upon people’s personal experience of the virus (in themselves or family and friends). Loved ones dropping from the virus is certainly hard to ignore, and harder to forgive, but it’s not yet clear who will ultimately be held responsible.

Opportunities and Risks

So there’s tremendous risk and opportunity in this moment, both in the U.S. and the U.K. 

The biggest question mark hangs over whether the pandemic is ultimately perceived as a collective or personal threat. But in addition to the horror of the pandemic, consider the scene that’s now unfolding: the cacophony of the protests against police brutality, now being met with further police brutality; the racial discrimination and division this exposes; the media focus on chaos and looting; the toppling of statues and other symbols of the old order.

Also the potential involvement of malign external forces (foreign intelligence and organised crime); a cataclysmic economic depression on the horizon; the bitter rancour and ‘give no quarter’ attitude of the warring partisans; Trump’s mental deterioration and apparent inability to keep his behaviour within bounds; leaders’ autocratic and heavy-handed responses to these challenges. 

Against this backdrop, I can imagine scenarios in which opposition parties and their allies manage to create some reassuring alternative normative order – something simple and compelling, to contrast with and counter the chaos – that has more appeal at least to some authoritarians than what’s on offer now. 

”Pulling together as one against a common foe … has a history of helping to unify groups and cement their bonds, to enhance solidarity and cohesion” 

They should seek to provide powerful images and feelings of oneness and sameness: something that might soon be beyond the capacity of our current leaders. Pulling together as one against a common foe (whether enemy forces, natural disaster or pathogen) has a history of helping to unify groups and cement their bonds, to enhance solidarity and cohesion. That could certainly happen here, if the game is well-played by opposition forces, especially with the aid of civil society. 

For example, much could be made of the service rendered in our hospitals by hard-working immigrants drawn from every corner of the globe. There would certainly be rich material available to formulate a compelling narrative and visual that was a masterpiece of “normative reassurance”: showing people of different race/ethnicity, from all different backgrounds and walks of life, pulling together as one – at great risk to themselves and their loved ones – to selflessly serve their community.

But it would have to be very powerful, emotive stuff to prevail. Trump has seemingly mastered the art of creating those normative threats guaranteed to rile up the authoritarians and bond them to him, as the (supposed) strongman leader who vows to save them from the “dark” people, the deviants and the dissidents.

”Trump’s capacities are evidently eroding, and there’s an increasingly united non-partisan opposition, including respected military, intelligence and scientific leaders” 

But his capacities are evidently eroding, and there’s an increasingly united non-partisan opposition, including respected military, intelligence and scientific leaders. They may well be able to offer that alternative normative order, and provide the normative reassurance needed for some authoritarians to switch allegiance, or at least ‘stand down’ and stop ‘manning the barricades’.

Authoritarians are actually remarkably malleable and can ‘turn on a dime’. If one side of politics is making them feel perpetually panicked, and the other is conveying a reassuring message of oneness and sameness – united against a common foe – some portion of those authoritarians might comfortably transfer their devotion to the new normative order.

This is more likely if effective appeals can be made to sacred values that we share. If one doesn’t dig too deeply, most of us agree on most things at the surface level… this is often all that’s required for the appearance of unity. We really must stop trying to save people’s ‘souls’ in politics and convert everyone to our own ‘faith’. I cannot emphasise this enough. 

”It is critical that progressives become far more effective at expressing our own objectives in the language and symbols of our opponents” 

There’s a large portion of the “progressive” side of politics that is always seeking to either win over, or triumph over the out-partisans – to convert them to our own faith, or failing that, to condemn and exclude them forever. It is critical that progressives become far more effective at expressing our own objectives in the language and symbols of our opponents: strength, dignity, honour and respect. This is all about ‘hitting the right notes’ for people whose entire being resonates to a very different tune than our own.

Where Do We Go From Here? 

So I come back finally to the central observation with which I began: liberal democracy has now exceeded many people’s capacity to tolerate it. None of the momentous challenges we now confront can be overcome until we address this.

What follows are my sure-to-be-counterintuitive suggestions. Many of these solutions can be summarised as: helping our fellow citizens to be their best selves. 

“liberal democracy has now exceeded many people’s capacity to tolerate it” 

The first recommendation is really for all of us: the world is too complex for a large portion of the population to navigate without experiencing exhaustion or alarm, and this is only accelerating. In every domain of life – social, political and economic – people actually need less information, fewer choices, and greater support to make decisions that are in their interest.

Some people have a deep need for oneness and sameness. They can no more change this than we can change our own love of diversity and complexity. Forcing their exposure to more diversity than they’re innately equipped to handle actually pushes them not to the limits of their tolerance but to their intolerant extremes. 

A true democracy ought to be able to accommodate this. We have to provide authoritarians the assistance they require to live in peace and comfort with the rest of us. This will likely require significant re-design of social and political processes to reduce what I earlier described as the “cacophony of modern liberal democracy”. 

”In every domain of life – social, political and economic – people actually need less information, fewer choices, and greater support to make decisions that are in their interest” 

Society could certainly benefit from a greater abundance of unifying institutions and rituals. And we don’t need to be always loudly celebrating multiculturalism and amplifying complexity and diversity. This will surely sound like a backwards step. But liberal democracy is most secure, and tolerance is maximised, when we design systems to accommodate how people actually are. And some people will never live comfortably in a modern liberal democracy. 

We must recognise that authoritarians are not inherently evil – it’s just a different way of being human. We must tolerate diversity of personalities just like we tolerate all other kinds of difference. We cannot enemify or exclude a third of the population. At least, we can’t do these things while claiming to be a democracy. We can’t do these things and be a well-functioning society either. Human communities require some folks that seek out novelty, diversity and complexity, and others who will monitor and guard against strange and foreign and unfamiliar things. It’s the balance between us that strengthens the whole.

It is worth remembering that no outcome can be guaranteed by freedom, including freedom. If people are free to choose, they’re free to choose un-freedom. The needs and preferences of authoritarians are of equal weight to our own and must be attended to and appropriately accommodated. They’re owed this much just as citizens in a democracy, but it’s also in our own interests to help them live in peace with everyone else. 

“We must recognise that authoritarians are not inherently evil – it’s just a different way of being human” 

A great deal of heat is taken out of political debates if we understand a lot of what we call racism is actually difference-ism. We cannot simply shut down these discussions and refuse to give diverse viewpoints a proper hearing. It only drives people underground or to extremes. We must allow people to engage in honest discussions about race and immigration in a multicultural society. 

We urgently need open discussion in mainstream political processes of how to do this well; of the rate at which, and means by which, immigrants from very different cultures can be effectively integrated into society; of where and when this could most usefully and effectively happen; and especially, of what kinds of resources and supports it will require to do it well (the answer is: significantly more). 

We must keep in mind that authoritarians are better able to tolerate racial and ethnic diversity if we increase, by whatever means possible, the appearance and feeling of oneness and sameness. This might be merely visual and superficial. It might require something more significant such as language proficiency. But somehow it must happen.

”A great deal of heat is taken out of political debates if we understand a lot of what we call racism is actually difference-ism” 

Well-supported and resourced local efforts to integrate and assimilate immigrants, especially if this involves the acquisition of native language proficiency, are critical. This is a very hard pill for many of us on the “progressive” side of politics to swallow, and feels uncomfortably like “blaming the victim” – making them responsible for ameliorating someone else’s character defects. But it nevertheless remains the strategy most likely to enhance tolerance and minimise harm, increasing peace and wellbeing overall. 

If such strategies set in motion more contact, more positive interactions and relationships, and rising levels of interpersonal and inter-communal trust, the beneficial effects should be widespread and durable.

One of the most important things a society can do to enhance tolerance is to increase economic equality, which is a kind of oneness and sameness we should all be able to get behind. Apart from anything else, inequality undermines the possibility for shared experiences and shared lives. Greater economic equality – particularly security of income and health care – is then a critical support to domestic peace and tolerance.

Well-supported and resourced local efforts to integrate and assimilate immigrants, especially if this involves the acquisition of native language proficiency, are critical” 

Most of all, we need to reduce our enemies list. We cannot set purity tests and simply reject and exclude all who fail them, with even the merest taint of something untoward. We should not write off true conservatives: they are, after all, our bulwarks against authoritarian revolution. But we can’t write off authoritarians either. Authoritarians are simple-minded avoiders of complexity more than closed-minded avoiders of change. 

In exactly these kinds of circumstances, they can embrace massive societal change that brings us greater oneness and sameness (including economic equality). They are very malleable, for better or worse – we need to make that work for the better. We must exploit the communal experience of suffering and our shared vulnerability in this awful moment to completely alter the boundaries of “us”, and forge a common identity that brings us the kind of meaning and belonging that end-stage capitalism and our badly frayed social contract have resoundingly failed to deliver. 

Karen Stenner (@karen_stenner) is a political psychologist & behavioural economist, author of The Authoritarian Dynamic www.karenstenner.com 

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