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Clashing worldviews a key to understanding voter polarization, VU professor says

The recent vote in Congress on health care reform – with only one Republican lawmaker voting yes – provides more evidence of the growing polarization between the parties and the fundamentally different understandings of right and wrong that continue to pull the two major political parties further apart, according to Vanderbilt University political scientist Marc Hetherington.

Hetherington and Jonathan Weiler, a political scientist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, are the co-authors of Authoritarianism and Polarization in American Politics. The two professors contend that the political realignment of the past several decades – with more liberals voting for Democrats and more conservatives choosing GOP candidates – is deeply rooted in the split between those who possess a high level of authoritarianism in their outlook on life and those who do not.

“Authoritarians tend to see the world in concrete, black-and-white terms and have a stronger than average need for a sense of order,” Hetherington said. “Those who score lower regarding this cluster of attitudes are more comfortable with viewing the world in ambiguous shades of gray. They are often more tolerant of differing opinions.”

How parents raise their children is one way to determine people’s level of authoritarianism in their world outlook. Those who favor strict discipline and emphasize obedience are the authoritarians, while parents who encourage curiosity and self-reliance in their children tend to be strong non-authoritarians. “If partisans can’t even agree on a fundamental issue like the best way to raise kids, you can imagine how tough it might be to reach compromises on some of the important political issues on the agenda,” Hetherington noted.

The researchers demonstrate that voters’ views on many hot-button political issues, including gay rights, immigration, the tradeoffs between security and civil liberties, and support for the war in Iraq, are sharply molded by the level of authoritarianism in their core beliefs. Authoritarians tend to fall into the conservatives’ camp and those who are less authoritarian often agree with liberals, but few people are completely in one group or another, Hetherington said.

For example, while President George W. Bush’s approach to national security was consistent with a more authoritarian approach, his position on immigration reform fell more in line with those who have a lower amount of authoritarianism.

The professors’ book provides insight into Barack Obama’s presidential victory in 2008. They note that, judging by the actions of people who attended Sarah Palin’s political rallies, she did indeed bring voters who score high in authoritarianism to the Republican ticket. Obama, on the other hand, made a stronger than usual showing for a Democratic candidate among highly educated and wealthy voters, groups that tend to score low in authoritarian beliefs.

Authoritarianism and Polarization in American Politics has been published by Cambridge University Press. More information can be found at

Media Contact: Ann Marie Deer Owens, (615) 322-NEWS