Pew Research Center on Monday released a major international survey on attitudes toward governance, particularly representative democracy, and one of the questions asked participants to evaluate this statement: “A system in which a strong leader can make decisions without interference from parliament or the courts would be a good way to govern our country.”
The strong leader option — along with military rule and rule by experts (technocracy) — was among three alternatives to representative or direct democracy the poll considered. Rule by experts was the only one of the three to receive majority or near-majority backing in high-income countries like the United States, and the unfettered strong leader plan usually got around 20 percent support.
Except among Republicans. When the U.S. results were broken down by major party affiliation, Pew found that just 17 percent of Democrats and 20 percent of independents liked the strong leader plan. But fully one third of Republicans said yes, we should have a strong president who can make decisions unconstrained by Congress or the courts.
Why are Republicans about twice as likely as Democrats to favor autocracy?
Well, some of the difference can no doubt be attributed to present political circumstances. The GOP controls the White House and both houses of Congress, and whenever they take power, Republicans like clockwork learn to love big government. In fact, both our major parties get the warm fuzzies when they think about an active, growing federal government with themselves in charge — so it’s probably safe to speculate that were this same poll taken with an all-blue Washington, we’d see some different results.
But I don’t think political tribalism is the only thing going on here. Pew asked the same question of people in other countries, and it consistently found those on the right side of the political spectrum are more comfortable with an authoritarian government of this type than those on the left.
That can’t purely be a function of identification with or animosity toward whatever party is in power. It’s indicative of a deeper affinity with authoritarianism.
This is in many ways unsurprising. After all, polling has shown the single greatest predictor of support for President Trump is authoritarianism, and Trump-style populism is the hot new thing in right-of-center politics well beyond the United States. (In many places, of course, it predates Trump himself.)
Still, predictability makes this trend no less troubling. It’s confusing, too, insofar as — here in the U.S., anyway — the party most comfortable with authoritarianism is also the party that markets itself as the defender of small, limited, accountable government. Those commitments do not and cannot mesh.
Strongman government is never the route to liberty and justice, and it will not deliver on its promises of peace and safety, either. Republicans ought to know better.