Unfortunately, few people properly understand conservatives. In fact, many erroneously conflate them with authoritarians. And that is a very dangerous mistake.
To understand the passage I can’t get off my mind––it’s coming soon, I promise––we must first be precise about what makes conservatives in the United States different from authoritarians. Rather than quibble with this taxonomy, understand that it is how Stenner labels two types, and that what follows applies only to those who fit her definitions.
Her conservatives are characterized by two attributes:
- aversion to government intervention
- aversion to change and a desire to protect the status quo
Think of George Will.
In contrast, her authoritarians are, as already noted, highly averse to difference and diversity. They value sameness, unity, and those who force those qualities on others.
Think of Richard Spencer.
Now, folks with those two sets of beliefs or predispositions would cooperate in some circumstances with disastrous results. During the Civil Rights Era, for example, Southern authoritarians were highly averse to difference and diversity, and supported leaders who would marshal violence to enforce their preferences against black people. And they found functional allies in movement conservatives like Barry Goldwater (because he was highly averse to intervention by the federal government) and William F. Buckley (because he was highly averse to rapid social change).
But these divergent undergirding beliefs often put authoritarians and conservatives at odds with one another, too. Difference-hating authoritarians have been stymied in their desire for harsher enforcement of immigration laws in part because conservatives have an ideological affinity for free markets where the state doesn’t interfere with workers or employers. And those averse to change are pitted against authoritarians if the status quo is a liberal order, like the one that George W. Bush defended in his remarks about Muslims after 9/11, rather than a Jim Crow apartheid state.
“Authoritarianism and political conservatism appear to be largely distinct predispositions,” Stenner writes. “What is politically significant about this fact is that the relationship between authoritarianism and political conservatism is bound to be highly contingent: swinging to a positive, to an insignificant, even to a negative association, depending upon changing social conditions.” And that brings us to today. It brings us to Trump’s rise, and to that passage that unnerves me:
It is no secret that liberal democracy is most secure when individual freedom and diversity are pursued in a relatively orderly fashion, in a well-established institutional framework, under responsible leadership, within the bounds set by entrenched and consensually accepted "rules of the game."
Such "stable diversity" should be acceptable to conservatives but abhorrent to authoritarians (perhaps a diversity that is entrenched and unchallenged is actually the worst kind of all). On the other hand, the prospect of some wholesale overthrow of the system in pursuit of greater unity should be appealing, even exciting, to authoritarians, but appalling to conservatives. Liberal democracy would seem least secure when conservatives cannot be persuaded that freedom and diversity are authoritatively supported and institutionally constrained, and when authoritarians can be persuaded that greater sameness and oneness––the "one right way" for the "one true people"––lie just at the other end of the "shining path."
Isn’t that what happened during the 2016 election?