Maybe It’s More Than Just a “Weird Trait”

In January 2016—deep in the election season for the 2016 presidential election—Politico ran a story with the title “The One Weird Trait That Predicts Whether You’re a Trump Supporter.”  Readers learned that the title referred to the trait of “authoritarianism”, which is a tendency to prefer authority figures who are strong, dominant, and controlling.  The article notes that this trait was assessed via four questions focused on child-rearing that were included in a political survey. Specifically, respondents were asked whether they think it is more important to have a child who is respectful vs. independent, obedient vs. self-reliant, well-behaved vs. considerate, and well-mannered vs. curious.  It turns out that if you believe that children should be respectful, obedient, well-behaved and well-mannered, you are an authoritarian. And when studied along with a host of other traits like race, gender, income, geographic location, etc, the authors found that authoritarianism was the one trait that proved to have statistically significant correlation with being a Trump voter.

The article notes that these four child-rearing questions were included on a survey with more typical questions asked in political surveys, including demographics, horse-race themed questions about the candidates (this was early in the primary season, when there were still many candidates in the race), and policy questions.  Given the title of the article, it’s clear that the authors were surprised by this finding and viewed it as a bizarre and unexpected discovery. There is a worldview implicit in their framing of the article: When it comes to presidential politics, parenting styles shouldn’t really matter. Policy stances, income, geography, demographics—these are factors that we usually use to explore and explain politics.  This finding about authoritarian child-rearing preferences is, well, weird.  

Perhaps it’s time rethink the worldview that leads to this attitude.

In my book Race and Social Change: A Quest, A Sudy, A Call to Action, I offer an analysis of matters of race and social change grounded deeply in the science of complex systems.  I note that living systems are organized according the logic of fractals, with similar patterns appearing across multiple scales of analysis, from the microcosm of the family to the macrocosm of global geopolitics.  I also note that that in human systems, the pattern that we see across all of these scales is that of the development away from simple hierarchy towards relational networks that are much more equal, interconnected, and interdependent.  It’s an underlying process that explains phenomena as diverse as transformations in women’s rights, movements towards racial equality, the rise of “flat” organizations, and global interconnectedness.

In the book, I also note that this process of development towards greater interconnectedness does not always progress in a smooth and unbroken trend; as with all processes of development, it often takes two steps forward followed by several steps back. Development progresses in jarring fits and starts. It’s a perspective that explains the movement towards greater equality for historically marginalized groups like women and people of color…and also the backlash against that movement.  It’s a perspective, grounded in science, that illuminates dynamics that we see all around us right now in important ways. (For a more complete review of these ideas, see the introduction and chapters 3 and 4 of my book).

From this perspective, the finding that authoritarian attitudes were the only trait that proved to have a statistically significant correlation with being a Trump voter is not at all weird; it is actually the factor that most directly and explicitly focuses on the essence of dynamics currently unfolding at all scales around the world right now.  Authoritarian parents have a clear and strong preference to operate within a simple hierarchy; they prefer dominant, controlling parents and obedient children in the microcosm of the family. It should come as no surprise that they prefer to call forth and co-create a similar authority arrangement at the macrocosmic scale of the nation. Similarly, egalitarian parents who prefer more independence, curiosity, and self-reliance in their children within the microcosm of the family seek to call forth and co-create similarly egalitarian, empowered dynamics at the macrocosmic scale of the nation.

Demographics, gender, specific policy positions, socio-economic status and other similar factors surely have exert some influence on people’s beliefs and actions,  but from this view they are relatively shallow, surface-level issues somewhat removed from the essence of what matters most in understanding recent events. “What kind of authority structure do I prefer to live in—and therefore co-create in the world around me?” is the unstated question at the center of both social change and the intense resistance to that change.  

It’s not a “weird trait”; it’s the heart of the matter, and we need to move beyond the worldview that fails to discern the centrality of this matter to dynamics of change unfolding at all levels of analysis from the micro to the macro.  If we are going to respond effectively to the challenges of this moment, we need to awaken to this higher consciousness regarding the nature of the change process in which we find ourselves immersed.