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Authoritarianism and Polarization in American Politics
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28 of 30 people found the following review helpful
on February 14, 2010
I can say for myself why this book is so important, but I will just quote form Nicholas Kristoff's
recent column about the book:

The book establishes "a fascinating framework of the role of personality types in politics, explored in a recent book, "Authoritarianism and Polarization in American Politics," by two political scientists, Marc J. Hetherington of Vanderbilt University and Jonathan D. Weiler of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. They start by exploring data showing a remarkably strong correlation between state attitudes toward spanking children and voting patterns. Essentially, spanking states go Republican, while those with more timeouts go Democratic.

Professors Hetherington and Weiler contend that the differences stem from profound differences in cognitive styles. Spankers tend to see the world in stark, black-and-white terms, perceive the social order as vulnerable or under attack, tend to make strong distinctions between "us" and "them," and emphasize order and muscular responses to threats. Parents favoring timeouts feel more comfortable with ambiguities, sense less threat, embrace minority groups -- and are less prone to disgust when they see a man eating worms."

So we have worldviews about many things, which means that how we raise our children maps on to
our political views. This is a very important explanation about the differences between red and
blue states.
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15 of 18 people found the following review helpful
on March 30, 2010
Because I'm working on a book in the area of personality and politics, one of the criteria on which I based my selection of this book came from one of its reviews indicating it addressed personality dimensions in relation to political orientation. It doesn't. While the book does center around the construct of authoritarianism, the authors emphasize that they are addressing authoritarianism as a worldview and attitude--not a dimension of personality. Perhaps the reviewer missed that distinction, although it can be an important one, depending on one's motivation for selecting this book. This is not to criticize the perspective the authors have chosen to take (they are political scientists and not psychologists), but to clarify how they approach authoritarianism. (In terms of dimensions of personality, you may want to do a little research on "The Big Five." These are probably the most "popular" personality dimensions within the psychology community. Some of these dimensions may be alluded to in the book, but only by inference. Wikipedia has a decent summary of them.)

Another useful attribute of the book for potential readers is its tone. While academic in nature, it hardly requires a PhD to understand the authors premises. But it also does not have the popular appeal of say Twenge and Campbell's "The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement." Assertions are invariably referenced which may be a drag for some readers but a boon for others.

Given the political climate in which we (Americans) currently live, this book provides a useful framework (authoritarianism) for understanding what's going on--at least from a social if not an individual level. Then again, the lack of impact of personality characteristics and how those are generated and relate to political behavior is what is motivating me to write my book.

Since I haven't yet finished "Authoritarianism and Polarization in American Politics," I can't say how or whether the authors address the problems they uncover. But I hope I've read enough to provide some useful decision-making information for prospective readers.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on June 22, 2011
This book is easy to read and provides important if not penetrating insights into how to better understand some of the extraordinary dynamics being generated by the right to far right side of the political spectrum. Authoritarianism while not well accepted by many offers an important perspective in terms of psychological/social elements of how a large group of people can arrive at a position of blind adherence to what are often ineffective and more recently highly destructive social, political and financial ideologies. I strongly recommend the book to anyone wishing to gain insight into contemporary political and social dynamics.
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on February 14, 2010
Loved this book and recommend it to anyone interested in better understanding what lies underneath our nation's electoral decisions. Why is America inexorably polarized? I believe this book has the answer.
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18 of 25 people found the following review helpful
on September 18, 2009
We've just gone through a summer of intense political difference, and I don't see or hear much that helps explain why the country is in such discord. Thanks to these guys, we have some answers, and new ways of thinking about why the country is so divided. Everyone, read up....

Bill Bishop
Austin, TX
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on May 6, 2011
Although this book is horribly dry reading (it IS a scientific study), it is fascinating to see what makes people conservative or liberal and how this difference can be ascertained. In addition, the authors delve into exactly when this split in the great chasm between the political ideologies happened and what caused it.

I've always wondered how we came to see have the political deadlock we have found ourselves in for the last several years. This book sheds a light on the subject that no other book has.
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Authoritarianism is an important construct, and I'm glad the authors have brought it out of the shadows. But this was not the broad conceptual analysis I was hoping for. It is really an academic piece, laying the foundation for broader discussion of the concepts. They do a great job establishing that authoritarianism is a growing force in the polarization of American politics. But past that, I had difficulty seeing where they were going with it. I hope others will build on this.

I suppose that this is also a strength of the book. There was no hint of a political agenda behind the research. It really serves one basic purpose--to establish that authoritarianism is a real phenomenon, that it influences the world view of citizens, and that it is having an increasing impact on polarization in the United States.

In the face of what's on TV from FOX or MSNBC--demonstrating florid polarization every day--this was a pretty dry read, with an abundance of statistical explanations. I suspect that the authors felt it was overreaching to also try to draw broad conclusions about the ultimate meaning of authoritarianism and polarization in our political climate. To give it more context, my syllabus would include two other books on the same basic themes: "Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think" by George Lakoff (2002), and "The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion", by Jonathan Haidt (2012).
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on June 25, 2013
Hetherington and Weiler focus on a subject that is central to the divide we see in the U.S. and around the world today. The book is, I think, one of the better discussions on the two primary worldviews confronting each other today, authoritarianism and non-authoritarianism. It is not only an elaboration and expansion on ideas developed by Adorno in 1950 (The Authoritarian Personality) and Altemeyer in 2006 (The Authoritarians), but I think establishes new ground in the understanding of these two worldviews. The focus on threat as the driving force behind authoritarianism and the polarization that occurs as a result of the variance in preceived threat is well documented in this book. The point that we all move further up the scale of authoritarianism the more we preceive a threat is an important point that is also well documented in this book. Hetherington and Weiler provide ample documentation to support their presentation and their bibliography is a wonderful source of further reading for those so inclined.
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on November 4, 2012
Since the 1960's a big sort has been going on in American politics. Hetherington and Weiler (H&W) argue that the left and the right have become sorted not merely on the basis of issues or even on the basis of ideology but on something deeper. That something deeper is personality.

What do H&W mean by personality? In the book they specify there are large numbers of people who feel at an instinctive level the need to question authority while, in direct contrast, there is another large group who feel the need for order.

After WW II a vast literature was developed on what is now known as the authoritarian disposition. Those who score high in authoritarianism tend to have a greater need for order and to protect the existing norms of society than those who score low; they more easily perceive threats to order and norms and behave aggressively toward those groups perceived as threats. Those who score high also tend to see the world in concrete, black and white terms while those who score low see shades of grey and look for the complexity of things.

H&W are of the view that the personality disposition of authoritarianism is now the fundamental demarcation between Republicans and Democrats. As an example one can see this disposition at work on the issue of how to deal with terrorist threats and what civil liberties can be violated to sustain order. The different positions taken on this issue argue H&W are in large measure a function of one's level of authoritarianism. To a perilous degree each side has little or no empathy for the other's position, they not only talk past each other but fail to understand or even to accept the other's position as legitimate. These are dangerous waters, as the example of France in the time of Dreyfus and its aftermath well demonstrates.
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on December 11, 2010
Trying to stay neutral and understand both sides of current emotional debates. Good insight here. Not the whole story, but a thoughtful perspective.
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