Political rhetoric can be laughably entertaining, especially so when each side accuses the other of the exact same charge. I’m not talking about boiler plate accusations of hypocrisy, corruption, or dishonesty, all of which can be fairly and honestly applied in a variety of instances. I am talking about deeper and more existential characterizations. In this instance, the dreaded and unwanted label of authoritarianism.
Obviously, it is difficult to see how the term could be applied accurately to both sides, in the same manner, and still be an honest characterization. The term itself carries critical definitional capacity, given that it describes a key element of a political disposition. So how can two opposing political ideologies both be described as authoritarian?
Conservatives have a simple argument against the left: every policy you favor exerts additional control over my life, thus making you an authoritarian. You want to take more of my money and spend it. You want more regulations, and therefore less freedom. You want more censorship of speech. You want to control what kind of gun I buy — if you even let me buy one at all. You think every problem has a government solution, and sometimes that the government is the only solution. You prefer mandates over incentives, and have a tendency to change the rules of the race if you don’t like the winner. Recently, Democrat Representatives Anna Eshoo and Jerry McNerney from the powerful Energy and Commerce Committee all but threatened telecom companies like AT&T and Comcast simply for carrying conservative news networks they don’t like. Given such behavior, aren’t leftists the real authoritarians?
Seems pretty straightforward. And yet, the left constantly accuses the right of not only being authoritarians, but also fascists, Nazis, tyrants, religious zealots, and any other name that describes the most extreme kind of authoritarianism. This accusation of right-wing authoritarianism has become routine, a standard tool of vilification as opposed to a serious characterization. In the infamous Harper’s Letter on Justice and Open Debate, in which a group of liberal thought leaders banded together to decry the left’s increasing hostility toward liberal values like free speech — a bold, laudable goal that ultimately fell short — they couldn’t help but also slip in the clarification, “while we have come to expect this on the radical right”.
It was not clear what kind of right-wing “censoriousness” or “intolerance” they were referring to. More likely it was simply rhetorical fodder for their left-wing audience, meant as a bona fides of sorts.
To make their case, progressives might point to research by NYU moral psychologist Dr. Jonathan Haidt which indicates that conservatives place increased moral value on a sense of “authority”. Additionally, the commonly referenced literature on “right wing authoritarianism” by psychologist Bob Altemeyer describes a “willingness to submit to authorities they perceive as established and legitimate, who adhere to societal conventions and norms, and who are hostile and punitive in their attitudes towards people who do not adhere to them.”
Even if this is true, does that make conservatives the type of “political authoritarians” that could be described as “fascist” or “Nazis?” Of course not. Haidt’s definition is moral in the religious sense, including legitimate social hierarchies and authorities. Altemeyer’s definition is similarly referencing established traditions and norms. And regarding “hostile and punitive attitudes,” does that sound more like the modern left or the modern right?
All dispositions can be taken to dangerous extremes, but these professional descriptions of “right wing authoritarianism” are rather harmless, and purposefully so. Furthermore, additional research demonstrates that when the relevant survey questions for these measures are adapted to liberal preferences, liberals are found to be equally as authoritarian.
There is nothing wrong with believing in moral authority and structure. For conservatives, there is a clear sense of right and wrong, and that clarity stems from generational wisdom. We don’t believe that moral standards can be changed on a whim because they are derived from longstanding traditions, often based in the Judeo-Christian framework. Authority in this sense means a respect for the legitimate rule of law, created through a careful democratic process, and the neutral and universal enforcement of that law. For the conservative concerned with process and principle, the notion that laws might be applied selectively on an individualistic basis is outrageous and unjust. But to the modern liberal educated in critical race theory, it is preferable and even necessary. The conservative sees infinite pitfalls in such a world without standards, and therefore prefers neutrally applied authority. The leftist wants authority too, but not a neutral one.
Where does this leave us? Maybe both sides can actually accuse each other of some form of authoritarianism, albeit with competing definitions. The right is properly accusing the left of political authoritarianism, characterized by their top-down government-knows-best response when problem solving. The left is accusing conservatives of moral authoritarianism. Both sides accuse each other of cultural authoritarianism, as the left claims conservatives try to impose religious traditions, and the right charges the left with suppression of free speech and attacking our common understanding of American history.
The question, then, is when does it become dangerous? When it comes to the left’s authoritarianism, I would argue that it already has. It is one thing for conservatives to make forceful cultural arguments to respect the flag, stand up for the anthem, and go to church. It is quite another when those preferences manifest into government mandates, as the left prefers. There is a big difference between the conservative preference for negative preventive action — you cannot get an abortion because it harms a human life — and the leftist preference for positive coercive action — you must hire based on racial quotas because of social justice. Your average leftist fails to see the difference, but indeed the difference is large.
This division stems from a fundamentally different view of why government exists in the first place. Conservatives believe it exists to prevent individuals from infringing on the rights of others. The left believes it exists primarily to mold society toward progressive ends. As Democrat Representative Barney Frank said, “government is…what we choose to do together.” Such words seem harmless at first, but they are indicative of the leftist disposition towards increased authority. If government is what we do together, then it stands to reason that government has to have the authority to force everyone to do it together. Censorship, mandates, excessive taxation, a disdain for checks and balances and local government — these are the governing tools of the left.
Sounds a bit authoritarian to me.
Representative Dan Crenshaw is a former Navy SEAL who serves Texas’ Second Congressional District in Congress and sits on the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
The views expressed in this piece are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of The Daily Wire.