Why do we tolerate authoritarian leaders?


If faced with a difficult situation or a crisis, we would like leaders to take into account our viewpoints and interests. So why do people seem to be drawn to the authoritarian type of leadership?



We’re in an era of authoritarian leaders: strongmen such as Erdoğan, Bolsonaro, Trump, and Orbán. These leaders rule by appealing to a narrow base of faithful supporters, alienating everyone around them who does not agree with them, and by presenting the world in terms of a zero-sum game.

If other nations do well, it means we’re losing. If the opposition is unhappy, it must mean we’re winning. Even the soft-and polite-spoken Theresa May has revealed herself to display all the hallmarks of an authoritarian leader, by surrounding herself by a narrow base of “yes” men and women, setting out a series of red lines without seeking a broader consensus from the electorate or even from elected Members of Parliament, wanting to negotiate in secret, calling a snap election in the hope of making a power grab, and by attempting to bypass parliament for key decisions such as the triggering of Article 50.

All this is well-known, but I am wondering why people seem to be drawn to this type of leadership. Even now, with an economically harmful government shutdown, the Trump voter base continues to be supportive. As the UK is edging to the Brexit cliff edge on 29 March 2019, May still enjoys higher levels of support as prime minister than potential alternative candidates, including from her own Conservative Party and the opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn. How could this be?

I’m puzzled at the lure of authoritarian leaders, especially given that we seem to hold leaders closer to us to much different standards. Consider, if you are in paid employment, your job and your boss. I work as senior lecturer in a UK university, and my most direct superior is our programme lead. He outlines the broad vision of the philosophy programme, such as student recruitment, the intellectual life of our faculty, resource allocation from higher up, the structure of our programme, maintaining our high levels of student satisfaction, and much more. We like him because he is transparent in decision making, often delegates decisions to us, and seeks broader consensus for important decisions. In sum, our programme lead is liked because he has these democratic instincts, even if we may not always agree with his decisions we know he is accountable and reasonable.

I have heard of people not so fortunate whose bosses and line managers are tyrants, who make decisions in secrecy, or advantage one faction over another. These people are never liked. Indeed, if a leadership figure proves to be too authoritarian, then the rank-and-file will often seek to replace that person. As Christopher Boehm details in his excellent Hierarchy in the Forest, human forager societies differ from primate societies such as chimpanzees and gorillas in their egalitarianism (there is a good summary of the book here).

Boehm explains that both in humans and chimpanzees, there is a tendency of individuals to want to seek out power and prestige, exemplified in the alpha male in chimps and the silver back in gorillas. But humans also resent being dominated. As a result, forager societies have social mechanisms and norms to resist self-aggrandizers and authoritarians coming to power. For example, among Kalahari hunter-gatherers there is a tendency to be self-deprecating if one is a talented hunter because bragging is seen as distasteful. Weaker, less dominant individuals thus hold leaders to account and make sure to cut them down to size should they have any dreams of becoming absolute rulers.

Boehm also argues that our evolved psychology bears the marks of these egalitarian structures — we resist domination, we like leaders who are humble and who delegate, leaders who serve the people they are responsible for. Such leaders are exemplified in Greanleaf’s classic servant leadership model. Servant leaders are leaders who delegate responsibility, are transparent in decision making, and whose work emphasizes the wellbeing and flourishing of the people under leadership, rather than the success of the company or political structure that servant leaders are responsible for (a servant leader would not seek to “Make America great again”, but would seek to pursue policies that would make Americans happier, better-off, and flourish).

I am thus wondering at the discrepancy between the kind of leadership we want in everyday life, and the leadership that seems to be doing well in politics today.

Consider the system of MPs in the UK. The UK system has MPs that are voted through a first-past-the-post system and who serve particular geographic areas, for instance, my MP is Layla Moran for West Oxford and Abingdon. While there are numerous problems with first-past-the-post the advantage of this system is that even though I do not enjoy parliamentary voting rights, as I am not a UK or Commonwealth citizen, I am politically represented as a constituent by Layla in parliament.

I am extremely fortunate with my MP. She answers my letters with personalized responses, takes direct action upon several of them, and I have had occasion to meet her several times in person and to talk to her about my concerns about Brexit, schools, and various other issues. When I compare notes with other UK citizens living in other constituencies they will often say “You are so lucky to have an MP who listens!” as someone said recently, “My MP only answers my letters with boilerplate, pre-set responses, if he answers at all”. And some people get such hostile replies from their MPs with frankly insulting responses that I am feeling ashamed on behalf of these MPs that they would insult their constituents in this way.

So even in this larger-scale level of MPs it seems to me we have a desire to be led, to the extent that leadership is unavoidable, by servant leaders who listen to us, rather than by authoritarians who want dominate and subdue us. One potential attraction of authoritarian leaders might be that we want “things done”, and that as we feel uncertain, we want a leader who is on our team. This might explain how people like Trump can continue to have support, if their support base feels under siege and wants a strong figure to advocate on their behalf.

But it is unclear whether Trump advocates on behalf of his support base, giving his damaging (non-evidence based) policies. Maybe the support for authoritarian leaders is purely instrumental as people seek to get a short-term gain, for example, getting Brexit done and dusted (if only it were that simple), building a wall, appointing justices that might be able to overturn Roe vs Wade. Yet even here, the approach is not productive. If faced with a difficult situation or a crisis (not self-engineered, as is here often the case), we would like leaders to take into account our viewpoints and interests. Indeed, James Bohman appeals to studies that show that diversity trumps ability to argue that democracy is more effective than rule by elites, because democracy incorporates the interests and perspectives of many people.

Would you rather be ruled by a my-way-or-the-highway authoritarian who might, for all you know, install disastrous and counterproductive policies, and who alienates potential allies rather than build potential alliances? Or would it be better to have a leader who listens to you, even and especially in difficult situations? Features of human psychology as outlined by Boehm and in leadership studies suggest the latter. Thus, the enduring attraction of authoritarian leaders remains puzzling to me.🔷



Further reads:



Liked this story?
Found it useful?
Heres what you can do next:


Support our magazine!

Support our writers!

Share this story on social media.



(This piece was originally published on Medium. | The author writes in a personal capacity.)


(Cover: Photo mix of some authoritarian leaders in 2019.)


Author image
Philosopher & Associate professor. Educator. Apparently still a bargaining chip for the UK government.

About us | Our Writers | Disclaimer | Terms & Conditions | Privacy Policy | Submissions | Code of Conduct


No part of this publication may be reproduced or used without the express permission of the publisher.