Social scientists have long expressed concerns that a large number of Americans embrace authoritarian modes of thinking that are centered on suppression of dissent, violence, and an infatuation with strong leaders.
New evidence reveals that these authoritarian values are endorsed by a disturbing number of Americans, with the trend being most acute on the American right. A new national poll sponsored by the Marcon Institute for anti-racist studies and social justice suggests that the way in which authoritarian values are manifested with the American public may be shifting. The poll was conducted from February 7-9, and contacted a nationally representative sample of 1,021 Americans.
Whereas authoritarianism was most evident in the rise of QAnon during the late Trump years – with half of Republicans identifying with this movement – support for the movement appears to be waning. Still, alternative metrics reveal a lingering commitment to authoritarian values.
Our poll finds that just 13 percent of Americans identify with QAnon, when the movement is described as claiming that “The Democratic Party, the media, and Hollywood liberals are organizing a Satanic pedophile ring that seeks to abduct children and drink their blood.” Broken down along partisan lines, just 15 percent of Democrats and 18 percent of Republicans express “positive” sentiments about the movement. This finding is reinforced in other recent polling, which find that less than one in ten Americans see QAnon’s values as “believable.”
Authoritarian values continue to manifest themselves through the mainstreaming of distrust for American elections in the wake of the 2020 presidential election. Marcon’s poll finds that 29 percent of Americans, 13 percent of Democrats, and most Republicans – 54 percent – agree more than two years later that “Joe Biden did not legitimately win the 2020 presidential election.” This enduring sentiment draws on former President Donald Trump, fellow Republicans, and rightwing media efforts to undermine public trust in the integrity of the election process, despite no credible evidence of mass voter fraud. Election denialism is a hallmark of authoritarian politics, considering its role in assaulting the integrity of democratic elections. It also cheapens dissent, falsely presenting baseless attacks on the political process as if they are substantive grievances.
QAnon may be rapidly receding from the U.S. political scene, but the foundation for authoritarian values remains in more generalized ways. Drawing on previous polling and research, our poll finds that a large number of Americans hold patriarchal values centered on support for powerful male leaders. Thirty-four percent of Americans agree that “Our country will be great if we honor the ways of our forefathers, do what authorities tell us to do, and get rid of the rotten apples who are ruining everything.” Support for this sentiment breaks down heavily along partisan lines, with 54 percent of Republicans agreeing with this statement, compared to 13 percent of Democrats.
Frighteningly, most Americans endorse a Manichean view of the world that seeks to empower a strong, violent leader. Fifty-three percent agree that “in order to restore moral order in America, we need a strong, determined leader who will crush evil and take us back to our true path.” Again, support is broken down on partisan lines, with 42 percent of Democrats and an overwhelming 73 percent of Republicans agreeing with this statement.
Mass support for an authority promising to crush enemies and suppress (allegedly) undesirable groups is difficult to interpret in a vacuum, independent from politics. This is especially so when leaders like Donald Trump win political office and classify BLM activists and immigrants of color as targets to be suppressed. This is the politics of eliminationism, fueled by demagoguery and authoritarianism.
Our polling finds that broad authoritarian statements significantly overlap with support for specific rightwing beliefs, policies, and leaders. Twenty-eight percent of those supporting a strong leader who will return America to its “true path” also support the anti-democratic notion that Biden did not really win the 2020 election, compared to just 11 percent of individuals who don’t want a strong leader. Sixty-one percent of those who want a strong leader also support former President Trump’s travel ban against Muslim majority countries, compared to 21 percent of those who don’t want a strong leader. Finally, 45 percent of Americans who desire a strong leader say they will vote for Trump in the 2024 election if he wins the Republican primary contest, compared to just 12 percent of those who don’t want a strong leader. These are large differences of 17, 40, and 33 percentage points between authoritarian and non-authoritarian-minded Americans.
Authoritarianism is not new in American politics, as it has been a subject of academic study for decades. Marcon’s polling reveals a specific version of authoritarian politics that became normalized under the Trump presidency, and that has endured after he left office. This authoritarian politics is steadily moving away from QAnon-style extremism. But it remains fixated on undermining confidence in American elections, while indulging in the cult of personality, favoring a would-be strongman who will crush “evil” and suppress dissent in the name of restoring American greatness.
Marcon Institute Poll
11% African American
5% Asian American
2% Native American