Authoritarianism, Threat, and Declining Tolerance and Support for Democracy: Evidence from the Post-Arab Spring Middle East



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Since the outbreak of the Arab Spring in 2011, the Middle East has backslid from a promising march toward democracy back into autocratic rule. The effects of these events on intolerance and support for democracy, however, have yet to be investigated. I offer evidence that threat posed by the Arab Spring has resulted in an increase in intolerance and a decrease in support for democracy. I argue that these population-level changes are driven by the unique interaction between authoritarianism and threat. Authoritarianism—a value continuum that places the need for conformity and order over independence and self-expression—is known in Western samples to interact with both normative and existential threats to increase intolerance. Specifically, those high in authoritarianism become more intolerant when cultural and societal norms are threatened and those low in authoritarianism (libertarians) become more tolerant, as they fear an authoritarian backlash that threatens their value system emphasizing independence and diversity. When personally threatened, high authoritarians are unreactive as their value system is not threatened, but libertarians become less tolerant as their basic security needs are not met, thus threatening their value system that emphasizes independence. These conditional relationships between authoritarianism, threat, and intolerance are the principal components of Authoritarian Dynamic Theory (ADT). In addition to explaining intolerance, I expand this framework to the study of support for democratic and autocratic political institutions in the context of such a threatening environment. As democracies are characterized by political competition and pluralism, I argue that the authoritarian need for order and defense of established, autocratic norms in the region render high authoritarians less supportive of democracy and more supportive of autocratic arrangements. Conversely, libertarians should be more supportive of democracy and less so of autocracy. I expect that these preferences will be subject to the same dynamics of normative and existential threat as intolerance. Using an original measure of authoritarianism, I find evidence that libertarians in the Middle East react as predicted by ADT. Under personal threat, libertarians become more intolerant, more supportive of autocracy, and less supportive of democracy. Under normative threat, libertarians become less intolerant, less supportive of autocracy, and more supportive of democracy. High authoritarians are largely unmoved by threat. Unexpectedly, however, I find that high authoritarians are generally more supportive of democracy and less supportive of autocracy. I find post-hoc suggestive evidence that this is due to authoritarian support for Islamists during their ascension to power at the ballot box in the region. I then present a laboratory experiment conducted in Egypt to link specific Arab Spring threats to authoritarianism, intolerance, and support for political institutions. I find evidence that libertarians are generally more tolerant and supportive of democracy and less so of democracy than high authoritarians, as hypothesized. This suggests that, five years after the forced removal of democratically-elected Islamists, authoritarians no longer had an instrumental interest in supporting democracy and returned to relying on their authoritarian value system for influencing their institutional preferences. The expected changes in support and intolerance conditional upon threat are in the correct direction, though statistically insignificant. The experiment suggests that libertarians are largely responsible for the decreased polarization in intolerance and support for institutions as their attitudes and preferences move closer to those of authoritarians. Ironically, evidence presented in this dissertation suggests that those who are most amenable to tolerance and supporting democracy have the capacity to contribute to the erosion of democratization under sustained, personally threatening conditions. Implications and future directions are discussed.



Democracy, Authoritarianism, Political psychology, Politics, Middle East, Arab Spring