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Authoritarianism and Polarization in American Politics


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  • Date Published: October 2009
  • availability: Available
  • format: Paperback
  • isbn: 9780521711241

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About the Authors
  • Although politics at the elite level has been polarized for some time, a scholarly controversy has raged over whether ordinary Americans are polarized. This book argues that they are and that the reason is growing polarization of worldviews - what guides people's view of right and wrong and good and evil. These differences in worldview are rooted in what Marc J. Hetherington and Jonathan D. Weiler describe as authoritarianism. They show that differences of opinion concerning the most provocative issues on the contemporary issue agenda - about race, gay marriage, illegal immigration, and the use of force to resolve security problems - reflect differences in individuals' levels of authoritarianism. Events and strategic political decisions have conspired to make all these considerations more salient. The authors demonstrate that the left and the right have coalesced around these opposing worldviews, which has provided politics with more incandescent hues than before.

    • It explains why Americans feel polarized even if they don't call themselves strong liberals and strong conservatives
    • It explains why certain issues, like the war on terror and gay marriage, have come to play such central roles in political debates
    • Offers an especially powerful explanation for the voting dynamics among white working class voters, a much discussed, but poorly understood, portion of the American electorate
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    • Winner, 2016 Philip E. Converse Book Award, Elections, Public Opinion, and Voting Behavior Section, American Political Science Association

    Reviews & endorsements

    'Hetherington and Weiler's Authoritarianism and Polarization in American Politics breaks new ground in the debate about the nature of polarization in the American public and in so doing reinvigorates the study of authoritarianism. This is an important and compelling work that will be of interest to all students of American politics.' Edward G. Carmines, Indiana University

    'The once-dormant concept of authoritarianism has seen a rebirth in recent years, as scholars have begun to appreciate fully its explanatory power. Nowhere has this power been analyzed more thoughtfully than in Authoritarianism and Polarization in American Politics, where Hetherington and Weiler argue persuasively that the evolving political landscape, whose topography is often shaped by visceral issues such as race, crime, feminism, sexual orientation, immigration, and terrorism, is the inevitable result of the clashing and irreconcilable worldviews of individuals with, and without, authoritarian belief systems, who simply think about the world in fundamentally different, and polarized, ways. Perhaps the most important contribution of this book, however, is the insight that authoritarianism does not explain everything political; conditions sometimes arise that cause people with different worldviews to see the world the same way. After 9/11 a large proportion of Americans supported torture, wiretapping, and pre-emptive war. These were not fringe positions taken only by hard-core authoritarians. Rather, the authors show that reasonable people want to feel safe, too, and will support a strong hand when they feel threatened. This book will be central to our understanding of the roots and ramifications of post-9/11 politics.' Jon Hurwitz, University of Pittsburgh

    'This book tackles two of the most fundamental problems in the study of contemporary American politics - the polarization of the electorate and the role, if any, of ideology in directing the political choices of ordinary citizens. It brings an entirely new light to both by bringing into view the deep psychological roots of political belief and behavior. It is a work of exceptional reach and vision.' Paul Sniderman, Stanford University

    'Where political science has a long tradition of seeing political conflict through the lens of 'issues' debates about public policy, Hetherington and Weiler see the fundamental sorting process as instead a matter of personality. For them the new defining reality of American politics is a choice between authoritarian and non-authoritarian styles of reacting. The widely noted polarization of American politics is from their viewpoint a polarization between people, some of whom hold a worldview where issues are simple, choices black and white, and tradition a reliable guide to action, and others who prefer complexity, nuance, and change. Because these differences of worldview involve cherished symbols, they produce a party politics of deadlock.' James A. Stimson, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

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    Product details

    • Date Published: October 2009
    • format: Paperback
    • isbn: 9780521711241
    • length: 248 pages
    • dimensions: 231 x 152 x 15 mm
    • weight: 0.36kg
    • contains: 13 b/w illus. 30 tables
    • availability: Available
  • Table of Contents

    1. Spanking or time out: a clash of worldviews?
    2. Putting polarization in perspective
    3. Authoritarianism and non-authoritarianism: concepts and measures
    4. Historical account of the roots of worldview evolution
    5. How authoritarianism structures contemporary issues
    6. Threat and authoritarianism: polarization or convergence
    7. Evidence of worldview evolution
    8. Immigration: a reinforcing cleavage that constrains the GOP
    9. What the 2008 democratic nomination struggle reveals about party polarization
    10. A somewhat different take on polarization.

  • Instructors have used or reviewed this title for the following courses

    • Aggression and Prejudice
    • Comparative Democratic Politics
    • Connection and Corruption in American Politics
    • Elections and Voting
    • Faction and Coalition in U.S. Politics
    • Honors US Govt. & Politics
    • Instroduction to American Political Systems
    • Into Am Govt/Politics Honors
    • Intro to American Politics & Government
    • Legal Environment of Telecommunications
    • Media and Crime
    • Nations, Nationalism, and Patriotism
    • Political Participation and Voting Behavior
    • Political Polarization
    • Political Processes and Institutions
    • Political Psychology (online through Friday Center for Continuing Education)
    • Political, Economic, and Social Environments
    • Psychology of Political Thought
    • Public Opinion
    • Public Opinion & Elections
    • Public Opinion and Voting Behavior
    • Seminar in American Political Behavior
    • Seminar: American Government
    • Social Controls of Information
    • The U.S. in a 21st Century World
    • Topics in American Politics: Public Opinion
    • U.S. Politics
    • US since 1865
    • Voting and Electoral Behavior
  • Authors

    Marc J. Hetherington, Vanderbilt University, Tennessee
    Marc J. Hetherington is currently Professor of Political Science at Vanderbilt University. In 2004 he was awarded the Emerging Scholar Award from the Public Opinion, Elections, and Voting Behavior Section of the American Political Science Association for his scholarly contribution within his first ten years in the profession. He is also the author of Why Trust Matters: Declining Political Trust and the Demise of American Liberalism and numerous articles that have appeared in American Political Science Review, the American Journal of Political Science, the Journal of Politics, the British Journal of Political Science, and Public Opinion Quarterly.

    Jonathan D. Weiler, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
    Jonathan D. Weiler is currently Director of Undergraduate Studies and Adjunct Assistant Professor of International and Area Studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. His previous book, Human Rights in Russia: A Darker Side of Reform, was published in 2004. He blogs daily about politics and sports at


    • Winner, 2016 Philip E. Converse Book Award, Elections, Public Opinion, and Voting Behavior Section, American Political Science Association

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