How Being a Right-Wing Creep Can Give Meaning to Your Life

Earlier today, I posted a Twitter thread by David Roberts regarding the so-called “War on Christmas”. He provided context with an excerpt from a New York Times article by Thomas Edsall that discusses some relevant research:

In their September 2021 paper “Exposure to Authoritarian Values Leads to Lower Positive Affect, Higher Negative Affect, and Higher Meaning in Life,” seven scholars . . . write:

Right-wing authoritarianism played a significant role in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. In subsequent years, there have been numerous “alt-right” demonstrations in the U.S., including the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville that culminated in a fatal car attack, and the 2021 Capitol Insurrection. In the U.S., between 2016 and 2017 the number of attacks by right-wing organizations quadrupled, . . . constituting 66 percent of all attacks and plots in the U.S. in 2019 and over 90 percent in 2020.

How does authoritarianism relate to immigration? [Jake Womick, one of the co-authors] provided some insight in an email:

Social dominance orientation is a variable that refers to the preference for society to be structured by group-based hierarchies. It’s comprised of two components: group-based dominance and anti-egalitarianism. Group-based dominance refers to the preference for these hierarchies and the use of force/aggression to maintain them. Anti-egalitarianism refers to maintaining these sorts of hierarchies through other means, such as through systems, legislation, etc.

Womick notes that his own study of the 2016 primaries showed that T____ voters were unique compared to supporters of other Republicans in the strength of their

group-based dominance. I think group-based dominance as the distinguishing factor of this group is highly consistent with what happened at the Capitol. These individuals likely felt that the T____ administration was serving to maintain group-based hierarchies in society from which they felt they benefited. They may have perceived the 2020 election outcome as a threat to that structure. As a result, they turned to aggression in an attempt to affect our political structures in service of the maintenance of those group-based hierarchies.

In their paper, Womick and his co-authors ask:

What explains the appeal of authoritarian values? What problem do these values solve for the people who embrace them? The presentation of authoritarian values must have a positive influence on something that is valuable to people.

Their answer is twofold:

Authoritarian messages influence people on two separable levels, the affective level, lowering positive and enhancing negative affect, and the existential level, enhancing meaning in life.

They describe negative affect as “feeling sad, worried or enraged.” Definitions of “meaning in life,” they write,

include at least three components: significance, the feeling that one’s life and contributions matter to society; purpose, having one’s life driven by the pursuit of valued goals; and coherence or comprehensibility, the perception that one’s life makes sense.

In a separate paper, “The Existential Function of Right-Wing Authoritarianism,” [political scientists] provide more detail:

It may seem ironic that authoritarianism, a belief system that entails sacrifice of personal freedom to a strong leader, would influence the experience of meaning in life through its promotion of feelings of personal significance. Yet right-wing authoritarianism does provide a person with a place in the world, as a loyal follower of a strong leader. In addition, compared to purpose and coherence, knowing with great certainty that one’s life has mattered in a lasting way may be challenging. Handing this challenge over to a strong leader and investment in societal conventions might allow a person to gain a sense of symbolic or vicarious significance.

From another vantage point, Womick and his co-authors continue,

perceptions of insignificance may lead individuals to endorse relatively extreme beliefs, such as authoritarianism, and to follow authoritarian leaders as a way to gain a sense that their lives and their contributions matter.

In the authors’ view, right-wing authoritarianism,

despite its negative social implications, serves an existential meaning function. This existential function is primarily about facilitating the sense that one’s life matters. This existential buffering function is primarily about allowing individuals to maintain a sense that they matter during difficult experiences.

In his email, Womick expanded on his work: “The idea is that perceptions of insignificance can drive a process of seeking out groups, endorsing their ideologies and engaging in behaviors consistent with these.”

These ideologies, Womick continued,

should eventually promote a sense of significance (as insignificance is what drove the person to endorse the ideology in the first place). Endorsing right-wing authoritarianism relates to higher meaning in life, and exposing people to authoritarian values causally enhances meaning.