This study utilised a nationally representative sample to investigate the cultural divide on the political left and right. We found evidence of an ideological divide on both sides, with generational changes in social media and parenting styles contributing to an increase in authoritarian social attitudes. Traditional liberal attitudes were shown to be distinct from authoritarian political correctness, and traditional conservatism was shown to be distinct from the white identitarian attitudes of the alt-right. Adherents to classical political attitudes were distinguished from their authoritarian counterparts by differences in personality traits, upbringing, social media use and moral perspectives. This study provides evidence of a cultural divide, and reports that extreme political attitudes represent a significant minority of attitudes in the United States.
In recent years, US politics has been defined by polarization. Voters are more politically divided and partisan antipathy is deeper now than at any time in the last twenty years. As the major parties in the US separate, ideological fragmentation can be seen on both sides of the aisle, with political correctness (PC) on the regressive left and white identitarian attitudes on the alt-right. Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt have hypothesized that these movements reflect generational changes in parenting styles, resilience and social media use. However, no academic research has directly assessed these claims. To fill this gap, Peter O’Connor and I investigated the psychological predictors of these extreme political attitudes.
A quota-based sample of 512 American participants was studied. The subjects were representative of the demography of the United States in terms of age, ethnicity, gender, employment status and education level. Participants responded to questionnaires that measure personality traits, black-and-white moral thinking, resilience, perceptions of the parenting they received as children and social media use. Three sets of political attitudes were also assessed: political correctness-liberalism, political correctness-authoritarianism and white identitarianism.
Liberal and authoritarian political correctness are the two main variants of political correctness. Liberal proponents of political correctness are primarily concerned with individual welfare and represent the classically liberal effort to promote socially disadvantaged groups. To identify this group, we asked participants to assess statements like “Retail stores should avoid using the word ‘Christmas’ in their November and December advertising campaigns.”
Authoritarian proponents of political correctness focus on purity and safety and endorse the efforts of cancel culture to censor emotionally upsetting content. To assess authoritarian political correctness, we asked participants to rate their levels of agreement with statements such as “when a charge of sexual assault is brought forth, the alleged perpetrator should have to prove his or her innocence.” While both liberal and authoritarian proponents of political correctness protest the use of non-inclusive speech, authoritarians show a greater tendency toward violent, immediate and autocratic methods.
White identitarianism represent the racialist attitudes typical of the apparently (see below) far-right subculture known as the alt-right. To assess these attitudes, participants were asked to respond to statements like “race is the foundation of identity” and “whites are being forgotten and replaced by minorities in this country.”
What We Found: The Prevalence of the Extremes
Unsurprisingly, the largest portion (30.9%) of Americans identified as politically moderate, and were either indifferent to, disagreed or strongly disagreed with the extreme left and right. However, a significant minority identified with the extremes. On the left, 8.2% of participants held extreme PCL attitudes, whereas 6.1% held extreme PCA attitudes. On the right, 14.1% of white participants agreed or strongly agreed with the attitudes typical of the alt-right.
The Predictors of Extremism: The Effect of Social Media
The typical narrative explaining the increase in political polarization centers on the rise of social media. When online, people are more likely to engage with people who hold similar views to them and disengage from those who hold different opinions. This creates echo chambers that serve to reinforce one’s certainty in one’s attitudes, while allowing one to disregard the moral claims of others. We found that the effect of social media was different for the extreme left and right. While social media predicted both liberal and authoritarian political correctness, it did not predict white identitarian attitudes. This makes sense, as previous research has found a disproportionate amount of leftist content and number of liberal users on sites such as Facebook (most participants reported Facebook as their primary social media site). However, as this study did not look into the ways in which different social media sites affect the development of extreme political attitudes, we cannot speak to the effect of individual online platforms (Facebook vs. Twitter vs. Reddit, etc).
Over-Protective Parenting and Low Resilience
As Lukianoff and Haidt have argued, the increase in political correctness could be, in part, attributed to generational changes in child rearing. More parents are acting on behalf of their children in difficult situations and are demanding an emotionally safe environment in school (e.g. one that includes the awarding of participation trophies). This means that younger generations are growing up in a more emotionally accommodating world than their parents did. Children are being taught that an external body is watching out for their welfare and is able to remove any obstacle that is too overwhelming. Without the opportunity to explore the world independently, children do not develop the resilience necessary to deal with problems on their own. According to Lukianoff and Haidt, these children grow into young adults who are less capable of dealing with adversity and are more likely to rely on an external authority to resolve their problems.
In accordance with this hypothesis, the study found evidence that generational changes in parenting styles have contributed to extreme left attitudes. Younger participants reported having more overprotective parents and lower levels of resilience, and both these factors were shown to contribute to authoritarian political correctness. That is, the people who are calling for the shutdown of events that host speakers with whom they disagree are more likely to have been coddled and over-protected as children and are now less able to bounce back after facing hardship. It is important to note that these factors did not predict liberal political correctness, which shows a clear distinction in the emotionality of people from these two subgroups.
Moral absolutism is the tendency to see the world in a black-and-white way: to believe that people are either good or bad. When listening to the advocates of PC, we noticed a clear tendency to see the world in this morally dichotomous way: with good people who are promoting equal outcomes across groups and bad people who are in positions of power. We also noticed this moral dichotomy in the alt-right, as white identitarianism advocates tended to define morality not on the basis of equity, but on the basis of group identity.
In support of this hypothesis, both political correctness and white identitarianism were predicted by black-and-white moral thinking. While these ideologies are generally considered to be on opposite ends of the political spectrum, surprisingly, we found a positive relationship between authoritarian political correctness and white identitarianism. As both these groups have been involved in extremely violent protests, this suggests that a common trait may unite them in their public demonstrations. For instance, when people adopt a black-and-white mentality, they become less willing to question their views and become more extreme. When advocating for a political cause, this good-or-bad moral lens tends to frame people with different opinions as morally decrepit. This encourages the adoption of an us versus them worldview, which provides the moral license to directly oppose different viewpoints with force.
Big Five Personality Traits
To look into personality, the study measured the big five traits: (intellectual) openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and neuroticism (OCEAN). Personality traits reliably predict traditional political attitudes: liberals are high in openness and low in conscientiousness and the reverse is true of conservatives. However, it is also possible to look at the sub-traits or aspects of the big five, which let us know how these traits predict attitudes in finer detail.
Political correctness was largely explained by the trait agreeableness: the aspect compassion predicted both liberal and authoritarian political correctness and the aspect politeness negatively predicted authoritarian political correctness. Liberal political correctness was also predicted by the trait intellectual openness. That is, all advocates of political correctness are compassionate, but progressive liberals are interested in new ideas and different perspectives, while advocates of cancel culture are less polite.
By contrast, white identitarian attitudes are largely explained by low scores on traits like agreeableness and intellectual openness. Previous research has shown that extreme right-wing attitudes are predicted by the trait conscientiousness. As conscientiousness had a non-significant effect in the current study, this means that white identitarian attitudes do not neatly align with the right-wing. This makes sense, as figureheads of the alt-right often argue that their constituents are the representatives of a new, dispossessed, nationalist movement distinct from traditional conservatism.
Alt-right proponents display the opposite personality traits from liberal political correctness proponents (who are high in agreeableness and intellectual openness). Liberal political correctness represents the liberal effort to increase inclusivity for socially disadvantaged groups. By contrast, the alt-right argues for racial exclusivity and believes in a progressive conspiracy against whites. Taken together, these findings undercut the assumptions of most political commentators reporting on the alt-right. Since conservative attitudes are defined by the trait conscientiousness, it appears that the alt-right is not a typical right-wing movement. By contrast with liberal political correctness, the white identitarianism of the alt-right appears to be more appropriately conceptualized as extreme opposition to progressivism.
Why Does This Matter?
The first thing that we should take away from this study is that these movements are real. While previous political commentary has largely relied on anecdotes, this study provides scientific basis for the argument that movements promoting cancel culture and white identitarianism have taken hold of political discourse. This means that—despite leftist claims that the PC police are a product of the conservative imagination—cancel culture is a real influence on today’s politics. Also, despite the right’s claim that alarm at growing racialism in the US is the result of paranoia, white identitarians (although seemingly quiet) do represent a small part of the American political scene.
Second, this study supports the hypothesis of Lukianoff and Haidt that generational changes have contributed to the movement towards the far-left. According to their book The Coddling of the American Mind, increased adult intervention protects children in the short-term but has long-term developmental consequences. Overprotective parenting creates individuals who have not developed the resilience to deal with the problems that we all face in life. As these children grow into young adults of voting age, they seek the same emotionally accommodating interventions that they received from their parents, in the form of the government. In contemporary politics, we can see this in adherence to cancel culture.
Finally, as the Overton window has moved further and further to the left, a significant number of Americans feel frustrated and ignored. While this has simply increased political anxiety for the average voter, some have responded by subscribing to ideologies that represent the absolute antithesis of progressive ideals. Accordingly, the alt-right is not indicative of the traditional far-right authoritarian personality but of extreme opposition to progressive liberalism. In failing to curtail the fringe of their own party, the left are ironically increasing American sympathies towards anti-progressive, nationalist ideals. Although moderates can reach the majority of voters through reason and debate, as traditional liberals continue to embrace the far left, they insist on a minority of the electorate moving as far away from the left as possible.
We are increasingly voting for representatives not on the basis of what they stand for, but what they stand against. Donald Trump was not elected for his conservative principles but out of opposition to the woke left, who have spent years slandering conservatives as sexist, racist bigots. While this does get the point across, there is a danger in reactionary politics. The current study showed, that although white identitarians are opposed to the far-left, it would be ill-advised to make common cause with them since, as the Charlottesville rally has shown, the alt-right does permit real racism. Therefore, just as it is a mistake to throw liberalism out because of the excesses of cancel culture, it is also a mistake to flirt with white identitarianism in protest against cancel culture.