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 โ€œExposure to Authoritarian Values Leads to Lower Positive Affect, Higher Negative Affect, and Higher Meaning in Life,โ€ seven scholars . . . write:

Right-wing authoritarianism played a significant role in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. In subsequent years, there have been numerous โ€œalt-rightโ€ 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. Itโ€™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 โ€œfeeling sad, worried or enraged.โ€ Definitions of โ€œmeaning in life,โ€ they write,

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

In a separate paper, โ€œThe Existential Function of Right-Wing Authoritarianism,โ€ [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 oneโ€™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 authorsโ€™ view, right-wing authoritarianism,

despite its negative social implications, serves an existential meaning function. This existential function is primarily about facilitating the sense that oneโ€™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: โ€œThe idea is that perceptions of insignificance can drive a process of seeking out groups, endorsing their ideologies and engaging in behaviors consistent with these.โ€

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.ย