Why Do People Choose Authoritarianism Over Democracy?

A new way to understand the psychology of the “authoritarian personality.”

Joe Pierre
7 min readApr 15, 2024
Picryl/Public Domain

For the past several years — let’s face it, ever since Donald Trump was elected president in 2016 — historians, political scientists, and psychologists alike have been foretelling the possible end of the American democratic experiment.

Echoing Hannah Arendt’s classic work on Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia, The Origins of Totalitarianism, recent books like Steven Levitsky and Daniel Zimblatt’s How Democracies Die (2018), Cass Sunstein’s Can It Happen Here? Authoritarianism in America (2018), Fathali Moghaddam’s Threat to Democracy: The Appeal of Authoritarianism in an Age of Uncertainty (2019), Anne Applebaum’s Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism (2020), and Ruth Ben-Ghiat’s Strongmen: Mussolini to the Present (2020) have been offering cautionary tales of populist movements-turned-authoritarian regimes supplanting democratic governments around the world — whether in Poland, Hungary, Turkey, Venezuela, Brazil, or the Philippines — to warn us that the same thing may very well be happening here in the US. As Applebaum put it:

Given the right conditions, any society can turn against democracy. Indeed, in history is anything to go by, all of our societies eventually will.

And yet, despite these and countless other warnings based on established blueprints throughout history, people — often, but not always, from the political Left — keep scratching their heads in disbelief, unable to comprehend why anyone would vote to elect a President who has been open about his admiration — if not outright envy — of “strongman” dictators like Vladimir Putin, Kim Jong Un, and Viktor Orbán. Indeed, after bragging that “I have an Article II, where I have the right to do whatever I want as President” in 2019 and more recently admitting that he plans to be a dictator on day one if re-elected to a second term, Trump has been actively working on removing the Constitutional guardrails that would normally prevent the expansion of executive powers to autocratic levels [1–3].

People seem just as confused about why anyone would vote for someone who has abandoned the traditional decorum of a statesman in favor of a crude, brash, vitriolic, and vengeful interpersonal style or, for that matter, someone who’s being actively prosecuted for multiple crimes. The only way to explain it, they seem to reason, is that Trump must be afflicted by narcissistic or antisocial personality disorder or frontotemporal dementia and that his supporters must be brainwashed automatons in thrall to a cult leader.

The “Authoritarian Personality”

In much the same way, political scientists and psychologists have traditionally sought to explain the appeal of authoritarian regimes by portraying them as “cults of personality” (in reference to their often “charismatic” leaders) and their followers as having an “authoritarian personality” as if it’s a form of psychopathology or deficit of character. Arendt, for example, believed that the defining feature of the “masses” that are drawn to authoritarian movements is “atomization,” meaning a kind of loneliness due to disconnectedness with society and the world [4]. Drawing from psychoanalytic theory, Theodor Adorno characterized the “authoritarian personality” as a willingness or need to submit to authority figures due to a “weak ego” along with the embrace of outgroup prejudice and aggression due to repressed and displaced hostility towards one’s parents resulting from punitive child-rearing with inconsistent affection [5–8].

Following a thorough critique of the many shortcomings of Adorno’s theory, more recent psychological models have steered away from trying to understand authoritarianism through the lens of psychopathology as an individual personality type in favor of thinking of it as a broader social attitude or disposition. In the 1980s, for example, the psychologist Bob Altemeyer modeled right-wing authoritarianism according to social learning theory as an attitude that’s simply adopted from others [9]. More recently, Karen Stenner has characterized the appeal of authoritarianism as determined by one’s interest in “normative order” (i.e., the status quo) and a matter of where one sits in the balance between group authority and conformity vs. individual freedom and difference:

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 [10].

Noting that authoritarianism tendencies occur in about a third of individuals, whether on the political Right or the Left, Stenner adds that the appeal of authoritarianism is often linked to a perceived — if not necessarily real — threat, and especially a perceived political threat, typically in the form of a challenge to the normative order or an assault on something that one values:

…political threats are especially salient to authoritarians. The most substantial and consistent result [of her research] was the pronounced interaction effect of authoritarianism with perceived ideological diversity. The more ideological distance authoritarians perceived between themselves and [others], the more prejudiced, intolerant, and punitive they become [11].

The Appeal of Authoritarianism

This framing helps us to see that the appeal of authoritarianism is too often chalked up to a desire for conformity or a submissive willingness to give up personal freedoms, which, since it seems unfathomable in a democratic society, can only be imagined as a character flaw. When the appeal of authoritarianism is instead understood not as a kind of submission to authority, or about being controlled, but as wanting to end up on the side that’s doing the controlling, it becomes much clearer why authoritarianism so often arises from the ashes of a failed democracy.

Indeed, when thinking of authoritarianism in this way, we can also see why Stenner warns that “liberal democracy has now exceeded many people’s capacity to tolerate it” [10]. In the increasingly multicultural United States, we’ve lost the common racial, religious, ideological, and moral identity that we once had, leaving some unable to see the persisting value of diversity and pluralism. No longer feeling the common bond of democracy and freedom — what Moghaddam calls “omniculturalism” as opposed to multiculturalism — some are left feeling unmoored from any sense of collective group identity with just the kind of loneliness and atomization that Arendt described.

For those harboring a deep sense of nostalgia for a past when that sense of identity was more palpable, cohesive, and unifying, modern-day diversity — and therefore democracy which protects it by giving every citizen an equal voice — is regarded as an existential threat. And when people are left longing for the old days (e.g., “Make America Great Again”) based on the conclusion that their country has descended into moral depravity and that immigrants and other “enemies from within” are trying to destroy the American Way, replacing democracy with authoritarianism can seem like not only a necessary evil, but a worthwhile trade-off in which the ends justifies the means.

As for Trump’s appeal, there’s a scene in the classic 1972 movie, The Godfather, where Michael (played by Al Pacino), the new head of the Corleone crime syndicate, tells Tom Hagen (played by Robert Duval), the family’s longstanding lawyer, that he’s out of a job because he’s “not a wartime consigliere.” So long as the family’s dealings are legitimate, Tom’s their man. But in preparing for war, and the violence that goes along with it, the Corleone family no longer needs by-the-book legal counsel or diplomacy, so much as a new strongman. A strongman who can stomach breaking the rules, sniffing out the enemies and traitors, and crushing the opposition at all costs, statesmanship be damned. When a demagogue like Trump pledges to be such a champion — in 2019, he told a fervent crowd, “I am your warrior. I am your justice. And for those who have been wronged and betrayed, I am your retribution. I am your retribution.” — those who see the country as stuck in an us-and-them war with no room for compromise, regard him as a Messianic savior.

That’s what authoritarianism is all about. For those that are drawn to authoritarian leaders, it’s not about submitting to authority, conforming, or giving up personal freedoms. It’s about wanting to be on the side of authority that protects and preserves the values and national identity that one holds dear and embracing a leader that isn’t afraid to trample the egalitarianism of democracy underfoot to do so. For those whose way of life feels threatened, the death of democracy in favor of authoritarianism, totalitarianism, and even fascism seems like a small price to pay in the hopes of getting it back.

Of course, the trouble with replacing democracy with authoritarianism is that in practice, that trade-off often becomes a Faustian bargain (see Jonathan Metzl’s Dying of Whiteness for an account of how policies intended to benefit a privileged class often don’t work out that way). If democracy has any hope of surviving, we must start by de-pathologizing those who believe they’ll benefit from authoritarianism, while convincing them — by looking at other authoritarian regimes now and throughout history — just how much is lost when the soul of freedom and democracy is sold to the devil.

This piece originally appeared in Psych Unseen, my blog at Psychology Today.


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Joe Pierre

Dr. Joe Pierre is a professor of psychiatry at UCSF and author of the Psych Unseen blog at Psychology Today. Twitter @psychunseen.