Autocrats and Authoritarianism: New Research Explores Why People Elect Leaders Who Restrict Freedom

Newswise — TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Research conducted in part by a University of Alabama professor seeks to answer the question, “Why do free people willingly choose autocratic leaders who will restrict their liberty?” The research also looks to provide a clearer definition of the abilities, values and personality traits that describe those leaders.

Dr. Peter Harms, an associate professor of management in UA’s Culverhouse College of Business, who is lead author of the study, explained why this research matters now.

“Judging from Google search traffic and news coverage, there is an extraordinary amount of public interest in authoritarianism and autocratic regimes relative to searches for other forms of leadership,” Harms said.  “However, research into the topic has largely dried up, providing an opportunity for a fresh look into what makes an autocrat an autocrat and why people might choose to follow them.”

The research has benefits for those seeking an understanding of the motivations behind autocratic regimes, with a prime example being North Korea’s Kim Jong-un. Learning what makes an autocrat tick can provide deep insights that could benefit international relations.

The research, which published in The Leadership Quarterly journal in February, also offers implications beyond the aforementioned extreme example. It mentions a recent Economist headline that read “investors don’t always like democracy” because an authoritarian government reduces the instabilities inherent with multi-party democracies, making it easier for investors to make money.

“In the political world of today, we want to get a clearer sense of the personality traits of autocratic leaders," said Harms. “Also, we’re looking to understand why people embrace autocratic leaders. We can look around the world and see many free people choosing populists and individuals with totalitarian impulses. The question is, clearly, why?”

Contrary to what one may assume, the research suggests that deterring authoritarian tendencies from the outset may not be the best policy.

“Vilifying authoritarians is unlikely to effect change and may reinforce feelings of oppression and alienation,” Harms said. “It may be better to focus energies on improving social, psychological and economic resources of individuals so that they don’t turn toward authoritarian leaders in the first place.”

To assess the dynamics of authoritarianism, both from a leader- and follower-standpoint, Harms and his team built personality profiles of those groupings to pinpoint the individual characteristics that would trend toward autocratic tendencies. In the team’s survey of the research landscape, they see an opportunity space to create models that could be used to further research authoritarian leadership.

Co-authors on “Autocratic leaders and authoritarian followers revisited: A review and agenda for the future” include Dustin Wood, a research fellow, and Karen Landay, a second-year student, in the Culverhouse College of Business at The University of Alabama; Major Paul B. Lester of the U.S. Army; and Gretchen Vogelgesang Lester of San Jose State University. 

Journal Link: The Leadership Quarterly, Feb.-2018