Do you have a susceptibility to authoritarianism that deeply influences your viewpoint and possibly your voting behavior?
This is your chance to find out, on the privacy of your own laptop, cell phone, or iPad, with results for you alone to see. Simply by clicking your level of agreement or disagreement with 20 statements, you can learn where you stand in comparison with other Americans.
The Boston Globe’s online authoritarianism exam measures your inclination toward authoritarianism using a scale developed by Robert Altemeyer, a retired professor of psychology who has spent decades studying, researching, and writing about authoritarianism.
Do you dare? That is, do you want to know?
(Find the test here if you don’t see it on your browser.)
If you suspect you have a strong impulse toward authoritarianism, the likely answer is that you don’t. After all, research shows that personality type is defensive, and a penchant for authoritarianism isn’t considered a positive quality, except perhaps by an authoritarian leader.
That said, it could be edifying — and perhaps even personally helpful. In Altemeyer’s work, when people learn that their test scores reveal an authoritarian impulse considerably higher than the norm, their scores tend to drop significantly toward average when they take the test again.
“They are very sensitive to whether they are too different,” said Altemeyer, who, with John Dean of Watergate fame, is coauthor of “Authoritarian Nightmare,” an important 2020 book about the antidemocratic forces at play in America.
But let’s pause a moment to define authoritarianism and why it’s worrisome.
As it pertains to voters, it’s a willingness to submit too much to high-profile public authority figures. And how do you define too much? Well, as Dean and Altemeyer write: “When followers choose to believe a leader who demonstrably and repeatedly lies to them, ignore undeniable contradictions in his rationale, and back him to the max when he makes very bad decisions — that’s ‘too much.’ When they turn a blind eye to obviously immoral and outright unlawful acts he performs, support him when he places himself above the law and repeatedly tries to undermine the nation’s founding principles, and they generally think, feel, and do what he tells them to because he is their leader, that is way too much.”
It’s not just high authoritarians who should be concerned, however. Many of us have at least some authoritarian sympathies. They leave us susceptible to manipulation by charlatans and shysters adept at political pitches targeted at our fears or grievances, our almost unconscious nationalism or nativism, our unexamined biases.
The last half-decade has refocused the attention of political scholars, scientists, and observers on the peril authoritarianism presents to democracy.
From Venezuela to Brazil to Hungary to Poland to Turkey to the Philippines to the United States — to name some prominent examples — authoritarianism has been on the rise, with illiberal strongmen intent on the consolidation and preservation of power using the tactics and techniques of right-wing populism to erode democratic safeguards and understandings.
That should be worrisome to everyone who cherishes democracy, no matter their personal political leanings or party affiliation. After all, as Harvard government professors Steve Levitskyand Daniel Ziblatt write in “How Democracies Die,” in the modern era, the answer is usually not through a swift and sudden coup. Instead, democratic death is more likely to come through slower civic strangulation at the hands of a legally elected demagogue who, once in power, sets about undermining formal checks and balances and informal democratic norms to keep himself there.
Our current era has seen public debate centered on ideas and concepts cede ground to a politics whose animating features are resentments and divisiveness. Factual arguments have been in retreat in the face of specious claims and blatant falsehoods. Reporting that points out the actual truth has been routinely dismissed as “fake news,” an insidious assertion aimed at eroding any sense of overarching truth and delegitimizing the media organizations traditionally trusted to present those truths.
One thing everyone should have learned from the Jan. 6 insurrection at the US Capitol is that the notion that our constitutional arrangements and understandings are inviolable and everlasting rests on shaky assumptions indeed.
Dean, who half a century ago helped bring down authoritarian President Richard Nixon, offers this chilling assessment of the state of American democracy: “It is very fragile.”
“If you don’t have a thinking electorate, democracy can’t survive,” he said in an interview. “The element of critical thinking is what’s so important, and that’s where authoritarians fall down.”
The best defense against authoritarianism is an informed and vigilant citizenry alert to its dangers and able to recognize the tactics and tropes of authoritarian leaders.
And how does one go about becoming that kind of citizen? A good first step might be reading Dean and Altemeyer’s book, newly out in paperback. Meanwhile, Altemeyer’s short digital book, “The Authoritarians,” is available online for free. Matthew MacWilliams’s 2020 book, “On Fascism: 12 Lessons from American History,” is an instructive overview of authoritarianism in our national story, while Anne Applebaum’s “Twilight of Democracy” puts “the seductive lure of authoritarianism” in global perspective. “How Democracies Die,” by Harvard’s Levitsky and Ziblatt, is essential reading. Political scientist Karen Stenner, whose work can be found at karenstenner.com, writes expertly and with versatility on the topic
First, however, take the test.
And remember to be honest with yourself, you must be honest with your answers.