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Authority and 'Authoritarianism'

The greatest need of the current moment is to recover the sources of genuine authority.

France: Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859), politician, historian, philosopher. Oil on canvas, Theodore Chasseriau, 1850
(Photo by: Pictures From History/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

It is increasingly common both in the United States and in the Western world generally to denounce political opponents as “authoritarians.” On the left, a cottage industry has sprung up dedicated to “exposing” supposedly growing authoritarian movements on the right, in the wake of the electoral success of Donald Trump, of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, of Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, of the Brexit campaign, and of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.

On the right, too, concerns about growing authoritarianism from the left are seen with increasing regularity, denouncing draconian Covid restrictions, limitations on speech and association posed by political correctness, alleged (or actual) attempts to ban everything from gas stoves to combustion engines, and—more ominously—the shifting of the “war on terror” rhetoric to domestic political opponents.


The idea that authoritarianism, whether of the left or right variety, poses a serious threat to American life has substantial purchase among those who comment on politics. The documented rise in the use of the word “authoritarian” and “authoritarianism” in the past few years suggests its increased attractiveness.

To be sure, some of these trends are genuinely concerning and bear watching. But the fact that, for many in the chattering class, “authoritarian” is the reflexive go-to descriptor for these trends is itself part of the problem. Intended or not, the underlying assumption of this reflex is that any claim to or exercise of authority is, at best, presumptively suspect, if not de facto illegitimate. At an even deeper level, it presumes that anything that claims to be authoritative by its nature—truth, tradition, culture—is at best suspect, and at worst dangerous.

While the impulse to dethrone authority in favor of “reason” goes back to the so-called Enlightenment in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the word “authoritarian” was popularized in the mid-twentieth century by the 1950 book The Authoritarian Personality. Authored by a group of researchers led by Theodore Adorno—one of the leading figures in the Frankfurt School—the book sought to show, using the methods of social science and psychology, that certain personality types are more prone to authoritarianism and more likely to support authoritarian leaders. Personalities were ranked on what is labeled the “F-scale” (purporting to show fascistic tendency), defined such that conventionally conservative attitudes were suggested to be proto-fascistic and therefore potentially dangerous.

The ostensible purpose for this and other Frankfurt School projects was to expose traditional sources of authority to critique, in order to bring about new “autonomous” persons, capable of applying rationality without the prejudice of tradition and authority. This is the method known as “critical theory,” most familiar today in our current debates over race.

But the implication that conventionally conservative Americans were somehow little more than fascists-in-waiting proved too much to resist for many. The term “authoritarian” entered the political lexicon as a weapon, honed to attack and marginalize as un-American (and potentially dangerous), those who affirmed that traditional sources of authority—family, church, law, nation—should be upheld as presumptively legitimate rather than subjected to the critical methods espoused by the Frankfurt School theorists.


While these methods were intended to attack politically conservative or right-leaning authorities and personalities, the logic inherent in them soon led to a wholesale attack on authorities of all kinds. This had the unintended effect of undermining even the authority of the learned and culturally sophisticated Frankfurt School theorists themselves: In 1969, a group of Adorno’s students turned the tables on him and staged a protest during his lecture, demanding that he perform “self-criticism” and humiliating him in his classroom. Adorno expressed perplexity at these and other actions—including violence—done in the name of his ideas. “I established a theoretical model of thought," he said. "How could I have suspected that people would want to implement it with Molotov cocktails?"

But was it really so unpredictable? What could have been expected of a theoretical model in which all traditional sources of authority are subjected to stringent critique, and that sought to undermine the moral standing of those inclined toward deferring to those sources of authority by associating them with Nazism?

Humans need authority. Beyond its function of serving as a heuristic, helping to make sense of the complexities of reality (as Tocqueville pointed out, no one is actually capable of investigating all matters and coming to his own conclusions on everything), it also channels disparate wills and intentions of individuals into projects that aim at the common good.

Traditional sources of authority serve to soften social relations, moderating raw power and mitigating violence. As Robert Nisbet points out in his seminal essay “The Twilight of Authority”, “Throughout human history, when the traditional authorities have been in dissolution, or have seemed to be, it is power—in the sense of naked coercion—that has sprung up.” Far from the autonomous, rational man envisioned by those who sought to critique and deconstruct traditional authorities, history shows that human beings without authority become embittered, alienated, and violent. To counteract this alienation and to maintain order, they must be subjected to open coercion.

This is because, as Tocqueville observes, “A principle of authority must then always occur, under all circumstances, in some part or other of the moral and intellectual world. Its place is variable, but a place it necessarily has.” Authority is never removed entirely—what changes is who wields it and how. Traditional authorities command assent out of a sense of love and duty, while those that arise out of the breakdown of authority command assent through coercion and force.

In a sense, every society is “authoritarian,” because every society requires institutions in order to exist. And institutions, in turn, require authority in order to serve their function. As Tocqueville reminds us, authority does not cease to exist when traditional authorities are undermined—its locus is merely shifted to new authorities. And, as Nisbet suggests, its methods become more overt, relying much more on raw power and coercion.

In the Abolition of Man, C.S. Lewis observes that attempts to “see through” reality, taken far enough, are the same as being blind:

You cannot go on 'seeing through' things for ever. The whole point of seeing through something is to see something through it. ... If you see through everything, then everything is transparent. But a wholly transparent world is an invisible world. To 'see through' all things is the same as not to see.

Legitimate authority prevents alienation because it opens the mind to something beyond itself. It makes our probing of reality fruitful because it is that which we cannot see beyond without undermining our ability to see at all. The existence of truth, tradition, and culture all require an authoritative foundation from which they can build. The primary task of conservatism in any era is the preservation of authority such that truth, tradition, and culture can flourish in an environment of peace and harmony.

In light of this, I propose that conservatives recover the traditional language of tyranny to describe abuses of power, rather than defaulting to the term “authoritarian.” Whereas “authoritarian” suggests that the exercise of authority is inherently suspect, “tyranny” offers an important distinction between legitimate authority wielded for the sake of the common good and power wielded for the private benefit of the rulers.

At a time marked by disintegration and declining trust in institutions, the greatest need of the moment is to recover the sources of genuine authority, which means restoring institutions. Assuming the language of those who presume the illegitimacy of authority only furthers the problem of dissolution. This, in turn, makes political liberty all but impossible. As Robert Nisbet concludes in “The Twilight of Authority”:

With every fresh assault on the traditional authorities of the social order, the day of what [Jacob] Burckhardt called the ‘terrible simplifiers,’ the new men of power drawn precisely from technology in the service of armed force, comes nearer. The impulse to liberty can survive everything but the destruction of its contexts; and these are contexts of authority—a legitimate authority that is inseparable from institutions.


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