Viking or Victim: the rise of "authoritarianism" in business and politics

The rise of "authoritarianism" is transforming our economic, business and political landscape.  Academic research has been laboring its growth in enterprises and politics for more than decade.  Part political science and part psychology, researchers like Hetherington and Weiler, Stanley Feldman, Karen Stenner, Johnathan Haidt and Elizabeth Suhay looked at a subset of people who hold latent authoritarian tendencies, which can be activated or triggered by the perception of physical and economic threats or destabilizing social change.

Authoritarians prioritize social order and hierarchies, in an attempt to bring a chaotic world under control.  Challenges to that order - diversity, an influx of outsiders, breakdown of the old order, experienced as threatening, upend the status quo and underlying security.  In a time of social change and when faced with physical threats, economic uncertainty or threats to the status quo, the call by authoritarians is for policies, procedures, and strategies that offer protection, often forcefully, against the things they perceive as threats.

In business, if you were trying to design a CEO that would appeal to authoritarian shareholders, the results would look a lot like Ed Zander of Motorola, Bob Nardelli of Home Depot, Chuck Prince of Citigroup, Gerry Levin of Time Warner and Dick Fuld of Lehman Brothers, to name a few.  In politics, the result would look a lot like Donald Trump.

One way to understand how authoritarianism works is to consider it as a personality profile, not just a business or political preference.  Feldman developed a widely accepted measurement by asking four simple questions:

1. Please tell me which one you think is more important for a child to have: independence or respect for elders?
2. Please tell me which one you think is more important for a child to have: obedience or self-reliance?
3. Please tell me which one you think is more important for a child to have: to be considerate or to be well-behaved?
4. Please tell me which one you think is more important for a child to have: curiosity or good manners?

Since 1992 and Feldman's work, political scientists who study authoritarianism have accumulated a wealth of data on who exhibits these tendencies and how they align on everything from demographic profiles to policy preferences to the rise of shareholder values and the "split" in the GOP.

Since the 1960's the Republican Party has reinvented itself as the party of law, order and traditional values, a position that naturally appeals to order and tradition-focused authoritarians.  In Stenner's book The Authoritarian Dynamic, he argues that many authoritarian might be latent - that they might not support authoritarian leaders or policies until their authoritarianism is activated.  This activation could be from feeling threatened by social changes such as evolving social norms or increasing diversity, or any modification they believe will profoundly alter the social order they want to protect.  In other words, when they feel sufficiently scared, they start to behave, politically and in business, like authoritarians.

Now, if social change, physical threats and, or business extremes like mergers/acquisitions, downsizing, restructuring, etc. coincide, it could awaken a potentially enormous population of citizens and, or corporate raiders and stakeholders, who would demand a strongman/woman leader and extreme policies, in their view, to meet the rising threats.

Beyond the alarming prescient, the concern about this dynamic is not the candidate or the CEO this profile offers, but the fervor of support among the citizen population and, or business community it engenders.

Pushing authoritarianism even further and to extremes is the threat of social change, such as the erosion of traditional gender roles or evolving standards in how to discuss sexual orientation.  It could come in the form of rising diversity, demographic changes from immigration or changes in the color of faces on television and film.  In short, any change - political or economic, that can disrupt social hierarchies.

These changes take away the status quo as they know it - familiar, orderly and secure - and replace it with something that feels scary because it is different and destabilizing and because it upends everyone's place in society.  Authoritarian shareholders and citizens, in response, will seek a strong leader to promises to suppress the scary changes, if necessary by force, or by whatever economic means possible to preserve the status quo and the expectations thereof.

The "action side" of authoritarianism or the willingness to use economic resources available to only a few or government power to eliminate threats, will not go away regardless of whether Donald Trump wins or loses the election or a new CEO takes over the reins of a underperforming corporation.  

In their rhetoric and style, both the punitive CEO and politically incorrect, Donald Trump both reduce everything to black and white extremes, good and evil, strong versus weak, greatest versus worst or the Viking versus the victim.  Their simple, direct promises are that they, and they alone, can solve problems that other politicians and former CEO's are too weak to mange.  Most tellingly are their willingness to flout conventions of civilized discourse when threats to the group, country or corporation are present.  The authoritarian style of leadership is simple, powerful and punitive, and it has potentially profound implications for America.

In politics, a party like the GOP might try to match the rhetoric of the leading candidate, and its "chosen" candidates may grudgingly embrace some the harsher policies of that candidate, the problem will be with the make-up of the party in the future.  In 2010, the GOP swept the House by delivering Tea Party candidates that challenged moderates and centrists.  This awkward coalition left the GOP caucus divided and ushered in renegade authoritarians (Ted Cruz), who actively opposed the establishment's centrist goals and uninterested in its economic platforms.  Gone, for example, from the political discourse is almost any talk of inheritance tax or tax cuts for people making over $250K per year.  In its place are rhetorical headlines accusing Mexicans as rapists or gleeful speech of massacring Muslims with pig-blood-tainted bullets.

The authoritarian base will drag the party further to the right on social issues and will simultaneously erode support for traditionally conservative economic policies.  Norms around gender, sexuality, race, and immigration that continue to chip away at the country's institutional discrimination will force the GOP to perform well in congressional and local elections, but these divisions will leave the party barely functioning and unable to win the White House.  By promising to stand firm against the tide of social change and be the party of force and power rather than the party of negotiation and compromise, authoritarians will tear the GOP apart.

In business, authoritarians who have battled for higher stockholder value over truly innovative products, programs and services may also find themselves winning locally and in regional markets where their sheer force, power, advantage and size thwarts competition, but unable to "win" in global arenas.  They may discover, like the GOP, that their Viking strategies have worked too well and may threaten to tear them apart.