The Authoritarian Predisposition and American Public Support for Social Security

AuthorDavid Macdonald
Published date01 September 2022
Date01 September 2022
Subject MatterArticles
Political Research Quarterly
© 2021 University of Utah
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/10659129211035187
Authoritarianism, an individual-level predisposition
that Stenner (2005, 17) defines as “a normative world-
view about the social value of obedience and confor-
mity” has wide-ranging consequences for American
mass politics (Hetherington and Weiler 2009; 2018).
Authoritarianism is strongly and broadly associated
with political intolerance and cultural conservatism,
that is, animus toward ethnic, religious, and sexual
minorities, and opposition to parties, candidates, poli-
cies that seek to advance the rights and power of such
groups (e.g., Barker and Tinnick 2006; Cizmar et al.
2014; Feldman and Stenner 1997; MacWilliams 2016b;
Velez and Lavine 2017). While we know a good deal
about the relationship between authoritarianism and
attitudes toward social/cultural issues, we know less
about the relationship between authoritarianism and
attitudes toward economic issues. Unlike socio-cul-
tural issues, for example, those involving race, immi-
gration, crime, abortion, and/or gay rights, all of which
center around threats/changes to the existing social
order, it is less obvious as to why we should expect a
relationship between authoritarianism and economic
issue attitudes.
On one hand, a positive relationship could result
from a need for certainty (Stenner 2005) and a desire to
mitigate the negative societal consequences associated
with underfunded social services, that is, unemployment,
poverty, and crime (e.g., Arikan and Sekercioglu 2019;
Malka, Lelkes, and Soto 2019; Rueda and Stegmueller
2016). On the other hand, a negative relationship could
result because economic conservatism is typically associ-
ated with the political right, a group that has a natural
appeal to people who score high in authoritarianism
(Hetherington and Weiler 2009). Authoritarians may also
oppose economic redistribution and social spending
because it is perceived to disproportionately benefit non-
conforming populations, for example, racial minorities
and/or non-English-speaking immigrants (e.g., Garand,
Xu and Davis 2017; Gilens 1999; Haselswerdt 2020;
Kinder and Sanders 1996; Winter 2006). Finally, a null
35187PRQXXX10.1177/10659129211035187Political Research QuarterlyMacdonald
1Florida State University, Tallahassee, USA
Corresponding Author:
David Macdonald, Florida State University, 600 W College Ave.,
Tallahassee, FL 32306, USA.
The Authoritarian Predisposition
and American Public Support
for Social Security
David Macdonald1
Authoritarianism, an individual-level predisposition that favors security, conformity, and certainty, has been
powerfully linked with cultural conservatism and support for “strongman” politicians but weakly and inconsistently
linked with public opinion toward economic issues. In examining this latter relationship, past work has tended to
pose a dichotomous question, is authoritarianism associated with economic liberalism/conservatism or not? Here,
I diverge from this approach and argue that authoritarianism is associated with support for one specific program—
Social Security. I argue that the unique framing of this program, which emphasizes rule-following, certainty, and
deservingness, should resonate with authoritarian-minded individuals. I test this with survey data, primarily from
the American National Election Studies (ANES). Overall, I find a positive and substantively significant relationship
between authoritarianism and support for Social Security but not for other types of domestic social welfare spending.
These findings help us better understand the correlates of mass support for Social Security as well as the policy
consequences of authoritarianism. These findings also suggest that Social Security will likely remain popular in an
increasingly authoritarian Republican Party.
Authoritarianism, Social Security, Public Opinion, United States
2022, Vol. 75(3) 918–929

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