The Rise of the Authoritarian Voter

By Brian D. McLaren

The United States, over most of our lifetimes, has had four primary electorates. These electorates cluster around four sets of values, each with its own priorities. But in recent years, we are witnessing the rise of a fifth electorate: the authoritarian voter.

I don’t just write about authoritarian voters in the abstract: they are my neighbors, the people I meet in the grocery store, at the gas station, at the doctor’s or dentist’s office. I am an outspoken progressive currently living in Florida where I interact with members of this fifth electorate on a daily basis. Recently, I was part of a Vote Common Good rally that was disrupted by about 75 Proud Boys and their associates, requiring police intervention. Sadly, too many voters around the country are encountering similar intimidation as they head to the polls. It’s time for everyone to better understand their own authoritarian voter neighbors.

Authoritarian voters value centralizing power in one individual, party, or network in order to defeat a real or concocted enemy. They divide society based on loyalty to the authoritarian leader or regime, and because winning is their ultimate value, they do whatever is necessary to win, including distorting or hiding the truth, breaking norms and rules, and suppressing dissent. Because winning is their prime directive, lying, cheating, colluding with foreign adversaries, and using violence and violent threats are not seen as moral failures, but rather, acceptable tactics.

All voters are values voters. The four traditional values voters have included Progressive voters who prioritize values like protecting the global environment from climate change, replacing race/gender/class prejudice and oppression with full racial and gender equality, developing a sustainable and regenerative economy as opposed to an extractive and exploitive one that leads to ecological overshoot, reversing the concentration of wealth and power by a group unaccountable super-elite oligarchs so that the poor and vulnerable have a chance to thrive, telling the whole truth about our past and present history, etc.

Liberal voters prioritize values like building up the middle class, addressing the dangers of corporate monopoly and worker exploitation, being a good global neighbor and respecting human rights, strengthening security through international alliances and institutions, promoting democracy globally through aid and education, valuing good government — big enough to do what is needed in “the fierce urgency of now.”

Conservative voters prioritize values like protecting individual freedoms, protecting property and privacy, protecting free and fair markets, strengthening security through a strong military, promoting entrepreneurship and self-sufficiency, respecting time-tested institutions, and addressing the dangers of debt.

Traditionalist voters prioritize values like honoring hard physical labor and personal moral responsibility, strengthening and supporting family life with a special concern for children, mothers, and the elderly, standing strong for traditional moral qualities like marital fidelity, honesty, and neighborliness, defending democracy and the checks and balances provided by the constitution to resist tyranny, and celebrating the value of sincere faith and dedicated faith communities that seek the common good.

The Republican Party used to be the party of Conservative and Traditionalist voters. But over recent years, under the influence of Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, and their allies, many of our neighbors have been rendered so afraid and resentful that they have become vulnerable to the almost hypnotic manipulations of authoritarian leaders. Gradually, they have become fully-converted authoritarian followers.

As a result, their Conservative and Traditionalist values have been pushed aside, and the Republican Party has been completely taken over by Authoritarian voters with authoritarian values, forcing actual Conservatives and Traditionalists to renounce or differentiate from their party identity.

Most authoritarian values voters don’t realize what has happened to them. They still think they are good Conservatives and Traditionalists. But they are not and have no idea that their support for Donald Trump and Mike Pence has made them unwitting authoritarian followers and therefore unintentional accomplices in the larger work of what Robert Mueller called “Iron Triangles,” global networks of organized crime, corrupt government officials, and corporations (including banks and real estate developers who launder money).

Fully activated authoritarian leaders and followers are willing to lie, to cheat, to suppress votes, to violate the law, to employ violence, and to refuse to concede to verified election results. If that seems like an extreme statement, consider what we’ve seen from Donald Trump and Mike Pence, or ponder this recent tweet from Utah Senator Mike Lee: “Democracy isn’t the objective; liberty, peace, and prospefity (sic) are. We want the human condition to flourish. Rank democracy can thwart that.”

I am committed to constitutional democracy and see it as the best available path to liberty, peace, and prosperity. There are many roads to this commitment; mine is rooted in my faith, and in my theology as a Christian. Based on this commitment, I have joined with multifaith leaders from many traditions to urge people to vote. All of our values — progressive, liberal, conservative, and traditionalist — are at stake.

The authoritarians are not coming; they are here and in power, and they won’t give it up without all of us integrating our best values and voting for a better future.

(For more on how authoritarians gain control and how to break free from that control, you may be interested in my podcast, Learning How to See and my short e-book, Why Don’t They Get It?)