The Five Electorates in 2020

You may think, as many people do, that there are only two kinds of voters in American politics, Republican and Democrat or Conservative and Liberal. You may even add a third category, Independents.


Whatever your current understanding, I think you’ll benefit from this alternate way of seeing American politics in 2020: there have been four kinds of voters in recent elections, but now, a fifth voter element is emerging, and that changes everything.

If you’re a candidate, or if you’re supporting a candidate publicly, this insight could help you greatly.

And if you’re a pastor or faith leader and hope to be an agent of bringing people together in these divisive times, building peace and mutual understanding rather than fear and mutual loathing, I think you’ll find this framework helpful as well.

I offer this with special thanks to Steve McIntosh for his excellent book, Developmental Politics, and to Vote Common Good and its work in helping faith leaders provide moral leadership in this time of great danger and opportunity.


American voters have organized themselves in two parties, but really, we have in recent years clustered ourselves around four sets of values:

Traditionalists: These voters feel less at home in a world of rapid, rampant change, and seek a return to old-fashioned values like

hard work (including honest, physical labor),

close-knit families that show special concern for children, mothers, and the elderly,

traditional character qualities and virtues like honesty, decency, respect, self-discipline, sacrifice, and service, and

faith communities that form character and contribute to the common good.

Conservatives: These center-right voters believe in a

strong national defense,

free and fair markets,

individual freedoms with minimal government involvement,

property and privacy rights, and

the dangers of debt and need for fiscal restraint.

Liberals: These center-left voters want to

champion America’s growth and global leadership,

protect the working and middle classes from dangerously powerful corporations,

promoting human rights and democracy around the world through aid and international agreements, and

good government – right-sized to meet the needs and opportunities of the moment.

Progressives: These voters are uncomfortable with the status quo, and are eager to

courageously face climate change and ecological overshoot,

honor the dignity and diversity of all people – especially the most vulnerable,

preserve and protect local economies while being good global citizens, and

humbly tell the whole truth – including uncomfortable truths about our nation’s past and present injustices.

In typical primary seasons in recent years, Traditionalists and Conservatives have battled for Republican nominations, and Liberals and Progressives battled for Democratic nominations. (Independents tend to share a mix of center-left and center-right values, so they play a larger role in general elections.)

In 2016, something far more significant happened than many people realize.

A new values cluster emerged.

Authoritarians: Authoritarians find security and delight in submitting to a powerful leader who promises to protect them from all enemies. Authoritarians value only one thing: winning. And to achieve that singular value, they

portray toughness — even cruelty and violence — with no admission of weakness or failure,

display an unapologetic willingness to break any and every rule to win,

demand absolute loyalty to the leader, offering constant praise and adulation,

sacrifice truthfulness and critical thinking, because the leader alone defines reality,

reward those who submit to him as good people and punish all who don’t as bad people, and

suppress of all dissent.

For all their differences, Traditionalists, Conservatives, Liberals, and Progressives all value the rules and norms of democracy. Authoritarians do not. The rules and norms of authoritarianism trump democracy. Authoritarianism can be defined as a process of centralizing power in an individual, party, or cabal* with four primary tactics:

using fear of a real, exaggerated, or concocted enemy to activate and unify followers behind the leader,

radical division of society, based on absolute loyalty to the regime and hostility to the identified enemy,

gross distortion of or diversion from the truth, so that whatever the leader says is counted as truth,

and suppression of dissent, especially by protestors, opponents, or the press.

Authoritarian leaders do not exist alone. Research by field-pioneer Bob Altemeyer and a wide array of anthropologists and social psychologists suggests that a rather consistent percentage of people across countries (about 33%) have a predisposition to become authoritarian followers. Their brains are more easily activated by anxiety, anger, or other strong emotions to willingly submit to an authoritarian leader, deriving great pleasure from that submission and the belonging it conveys.

While candidates with authoritarian tendencies have run for the presidency before, and while some presidents have shown authoritarian tendencies, Donald Trump is the most overtly authoritarian president in our history. During the 2016 election and in the four years since, every single committed Traditionalist and Conservative has had to make an agonizing choice: do they submit to the authoritarian leader and abandon their values, or do they hold to their values and resist, knowing that the very nature of authoritarian systems allows no dissent?

Those who refused to submit to Trump’s authoritarianism have been driven from the Republican Party and formed various groups like The Lincoln Project, Republican Voters Against Trump, etc. More and more of these lifelong Republicans are endorsing Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, because they realize that the values they hold dear are closer to these Democrats than to the Republican Party in its current authoritarian form.

Sadly, many religious communities have authoritarian tendencies, and in them, authoritarian leaders and followers find niches in which to gather and flourish. Unscrupulous political authoritarians are keen to exploit this set of pre-selected, pre-gathered authoritarian followers. Political authoritarian leaders woo religious authoritarian leaders, and they lead their faithful members follow them into authoritarian submission, recalling Jesus’ words about the blind leading the blind into a ditch (Matthew 15:14). Some authoritarian attempts to win over religious believers are crude and ham-fisted, while others are more clever and subtle.

Most if not all of the authoritarian followers of Trump still believe they are Traditionalists or Conservatives. They are unaware of the way Trump has subtly violated their former values and won them over to the Authoritarian playbook. They may resist recognizing themselves as authoritarian followers because they only think of old-school authoritarian leaders like Stalin or Castro; they don’t realize how authoritarianism has evolved to exploit weaknesses in modern democracies, as Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt explain in How Democracies Die. 

Because authoritarian followers believe whatever their leader tells them, they see themselves as patriots, “real Americans,” heroes, or whatever Trump tells them, and they will continue to support him even if he shoots someone on Fifth Avenue, insults war heroes, provides grossly incompetent leadership on COVID-19, loses the election and refuses to leave office, etc.

Authoritarian followership explains why relatively few of Trump’s base supporters will be able to break from him. The rest of us will have to come together in an unprecedented way on November 3. We should prepare ourselves for a challenging time.

Here’s a brief (12-minute) video that explains what’s going on using kitchen table logic …


For more information on authoritarianism and what to do about it …

See the seminal work of Bob Altemeyer.

Author/journalist/anthropologist Sarah Kendzior offers this powerful guide for surviving in authoritarian times. Together with author/journalist/film-maker Andrea Chalupa, she produces Gaslit Nation which traces authoritarianism in our politics today.

See Steve McIntosh’s Developmental Politics, mentioned above.

My upcoming book, Faith After Doubt (January 2021), explores the relationship between authoritarianism and faith.

And stay tuned to this blog. I’ll be writing more on this subject in the coming weeks.


* A note on the word cabal: A cabal is a group of people who work together in secret. They may be political leaders, wealthy individuals and families, religious leaders (to provide a sheen of morality), petty criminals (to do dirty work). organized criminals and mafia (for money laundering, etc.), owners of influential mass and social media companies, spies, media figures and celebrities, military and paramilitary leaders, and even scientists and academics. Cabal members may have overt public ties along with hidden secret ties. Authoritarian regimes generally maintain power through cabals. Robert Mueller described them as “iron triangles” in a speech in 2011:

“We are investigating groups in Asia, Eastern Europe, West Africa, and the Middle East. And we are seeing cross-pollination between groups that historically have not worked together. Criminals who may never meet, but who share one thing in common: greed. They may be former members of nation-state governments, security services, or the military. These individuals know who and what to target, and how best to do it. They are capitalists and entrepreneurs. But they are also master criminals who move easily between the licit and illicit worlds. And in some cases, these organizations are as forward-leaning as Fortune 500 companies.

This is not “The Sopranos,” with six guys sitting in a diner, shaking down a local business owner for $50 dollars a week. These criminal enterprises are making billions of dollars from human trafficking, health care fraud, computer intrusions, and copyright infringement. They are cornering the market on natural gas, oil, and precious metals, and selling to the highest bidder. These crimes are not easily categorized. Nor can the damage, the dollar loss, or the ripple effects be easily calculated. It is much like a Venn diagram, where one crime intersects with another, in different jurisdictions, and with different groups. How does this impact you? You may not recognize the source, but you will feel the effects. You might pay more for a gallon of gas. You might pay more for a luxury car from overseas. You will pay more for health care, mortgages, clothes, and food.

Yet we are concerned with more than just the financial impact. These groups may infiltrate our businesses. They may provide logistical support to hostile foreign powers. They may try to manipulate those at the highest levels of government. Indeed, these so-called “iron triangles” of organized criminals, corrupt government officials, and business leaders pose a significant national security threat.”