By Dr Ryan Perry. Honorary Research Fellow, Centre for Health Policy, School of Population and Global Health, University of Melbourne
French voters face a stark choice for president on May 7: Do they elect pro-globalist, pro-immigration centrist Emmanuel Macron, or do they elect nationalist authoritarian Marine Le Pen?
Research suggests that far-right political conservatism and prejudice have in common a set of motives and beliefs that can be defined broadly as components of authoritarianism.
Authoritarianism as a personality type
During the Second World War, and particularly in its aftermath, social scientists searched for explanations as to how some people could be capable of the atrocities that were committed in Nazi Germany.
Frankfurt School social theorists living in exile in California proposed that fascism was a personality trait (perhaps motivated by the hope that not everyone was capable of genocide, only those possessive of a certain trait), and developed their F-Scale to measure a range of beliefs they thought characterised fascists including deference to strong, strict leaders, conformity to traditional values, and even superstition.
As it turns out, fascism itself isn’t a personality type, but later researchers refined the F-Scale and uncovered a more general cluster of beliefs that were not specific to the context of Nazi Germany. They called this personality type authoritarianism.
Authoritarianism, as it is understood today, describes a cluster of beliefs about how society should be. Specifically, authoritarians tend to believe that the authority of leaders is legitimate and absolute, that social deviants and outsiders should be dealt with harshly, and that established values and traditions should be championed.
Supporters of authoritarian leaders perceive grave threats and react accordingly
These beliefs develop in response to perceptions (accurate or not) that their society or the world is a dangerous, unpredictable place.
Authoritarianism functions as a response to this apparent danger, and can be thought of as a consequent motivation for safety and stability. Presumably, this protection would be provided by strong leaders, harsh oppression of dangerous and deviant groups, and a return to the way things were before these frightening and unfamiliar times. Contemporary threats appear to many as completely bewildering and impossible to overcome, with the global rise of populist movement perhaps reflecting the apparent inability of establishment governments to effectively intervene.
This pattern should be familiar to even a casual observer of contemporary populist right-wing politics; it was evident in the support for Brexit (Britain’s vote to leave the EU) and in the election of Donald Trump to the US presidency.
The policies of Marine Le Pen are also squarely in the authoritarian mould. Her key policies include ending immigration and eradicating Islam in France, harsh punishment for criminals including life-sentences (formerly Le Pen campaigned on reintroducing the death penalty), and an isolationist nationalism that includes exiting the EU.
But why are so many afraid in the first place? After all, appealing to authoritarian motives is only effective when danger and rampant diversity are highly salient.
Seemingly simple ‘solutions’ result in racism
Le Pen has been very successful at leveraging the threat and unpredictability of recent terror attacks in France, as well as the ever-present spectre of migrant masses seeking refuge in parts of the world relatively unaffected by war and climate instability.
Authoritarianism manifests on a sliding scale, so that any given individual is more or less authoritarian relative to other people. This also means that the more extreme the threats, the more people will fall into the authoritarian camp and begin to experience that motivation to protect themselves, and their way of life.
We can assume also that authoritarian fear is blinding, the motivation for security and stability so strong that the immense collateral damage of racist policies is ignored. By evoking racism, far-right political candidates give the appearance of offering not only a scapegoat to blame for these fears, but also simple and therefore comprehensible solutions. Terrorism is unpredictable and indiscriminate, but by blaming and then banning Muslim and immigrant groups, an apparent (though deeply unfair and unrealistic) solution is offered.
Racism is also a conveniently simple cover for threatening economic insecurity, particularly in France which faces high unemployment and national debt. The global finance sector is notoriously complex and opaque, and governments appear to offer no solution to the off-shoring of jobs to cheaper labour markets or to workplace automation.
Le Pen’s nationalism again offers a simple solution, claiming that immigration and EU membership have taken jobs, housing and other resources that rightfully belong to French people. This “France-first” protectionism offers a comprehensible and self-serving solution to those so desperate for one that they are prepared to ignore the greater consequences.
Authoritarians are more likely to choose self-affirming facts
My own research demonstrates that authoritarians are more likely to ignore information that disconfirms their beliefs, and are also more influenced by information that confirms what they believe. This helps to explain why racism and nationalism resonate with authoritarians, and why broader consequences of such policies are ignored.
Authoritarians do not lack compassion as such, but they will doggedly protect their group and their way of life when threatened. Prejudice ensues as the rights and needs of others that stand in the way are dismissed.
Will Le Pen win the run-off election? It probably depends how culturally threatened and unsafe French voters feel in the lead up. In the past, voters on both sides of the spectrum have banded together in the run-off to avoid an extremist candidate, and polling suggests her opponent, Emmanuel Macron, is easily the favourite.
It is difficult however to predict whether the level of threat could grow to encompass enough voters along the authoritarian sliding-scale to tip the balance against this pragmatism.
Banner image: Marine Le Pen, casts her vote for the French elections in a polling station on April 23, 2017 in Henin Beaumont, France. Credit: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images