Sometimes I just sit and sigh. Then I often seek out something to read from our founders or a noted historical figure.
This quote from one of our founders, Samuel Adams (yes, the beer guy), reflected my thinking about our current state of affairs.
“It does not take a majority to prevail... but rather an irate, tireless minority, keen on setting brushfires of freedom in the minds of men.”
Very recently we have seen elected members of a state government expelled, a candidate for our highest public office extolling the virtues of the three most notorious autocratic leaders on the planet, and the profound disregard again of people in leadership, ignoring a huge majority in public opinion, choosing guns over innocent lives.
While those are only a few examples, the public discourse increasingly includes concern about the rise of authoritarianism.
Beginning in the 19th century, authoritarianism came to be described as the view which promoted a hierarchical leadership where one person, or one group, is dominant and governs the rest of us in a manner that compels voluntary obedience without question. Authority is demonstrated when others can be commanded to do something simply on command. The word authority comes from the Latin “auctoritas” which means “a kind of intangible social authority tied to reputation and status.”
Assenting to authority is a part of all of our lives. Having authoritarian leaders is of a different scale. Almost 75 years ago, Theodor W. Adorno and his colleagues studied authoritarianism in America.
Entitled “The Authoritarian Personality,” they admitted that their study had to recognize “the potential (for desiring authoritarianism) existing in the character of the people.”
They identified two different types of authoritarianism.
The first they called “authoritarian submission” where some people think our country is in desperate need of a mighty, strong and dominant leader.
The second type they called “authoritarian aggression.” These are people who think we need a leader who will destroy and eliminate the things perceived as ruining our country.
A review of this historic book reminds one that authoritarianism in America has a long and dark history. In the 1930s and 40s, numerous far-right groups exerted extremist pressures in our government until they were exposed as “the Nazi Underworld of America.”
In the 1950’s, there were the witch-hunts known as McCarthyism and its focus on treason and “subversives” in our federal government. Beginning in the 1970s and continuing to this day, the
fundamentalistic religious right increasingly blended with politics to promote and force minority ideas upon the majority.
Seventy years of studies have shown that those who tend to be very religious, often move toward authoritarianism, with fundamentalists having the strongest association with authoritarian ideas. Those ideas include
submission to authority and conventionality, respect for social order, and an intolerance for outside groups. In other words, what the Adorno study exposed was the social and psychological context in which an authoritarian leader or group could rise.
It is a part of our past. It is a part of our present.
Finally, the study underscores how political “gaslighting” is favored by authoritarians. The term comes from the 1930s play “Gas Light” in which a manipulative husband tries to fool his wife by meddling with her perception of reality. He dims the gaslights and pretends it's only she who thinks they are flickering as the rooms grow darker. Like authoritarians, he exerts power and control by creating doubts about what is real and what isn’t.
Yet it is in ordinary Americans like most of us where Adorno’s study finds its remedy. Authoritarianism can be cleansed through a widespread and robust willingness to reject it and to replace it with demanding, sometimes precarious, and always hard labor-intensive efforts at maintaining and restoring a democracy.
President Lincoln said it best.
“We the people are the rightful masters of both Congress and the courts, not to overthrow the Constitution but to overthrow the men who pervert the Constitution.”
In other words, Vote ‘em out.
Words of wisdom to say the least. There's a long history of using fear to divide, but fortunately there's also a more hopeful history of people coming together in spite of their fears and differences. Thank you Dan!
100%. Thank You.
Sorry, Dan. Sometimes I think you slept through Paul Stor's lectures about drawing correct conclusions on observed facts. By the way when ALL of the votes are counted we are not a minority.
I could not agree more. Based on their voting record, Vote Them Out, applies to (1) Tom Tiffany our representative in Congress, (2) Rob Stafsholt our state senator, and (3) Shannon Zimmerman our state assemblyman.
Thank you, Dan Bruch, for your well-researched history and common sense.
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