Globalization-induced economic shocks contribute to greater authoritarianism

June 8, 2021
Research indicates that rising support for authoritarian ideology and political candidates could be partially explained by more complex economic-induced value changes, rather than pure economic self-interest or non-economic values. Above, Trump supporters participate in a rally in Washington, D.C. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

Research indicates that rising support for authoritarian ideology and political candidates could be partially explained by more complex economic-induced value changes, rather than pure economic self-interest or non-economic values. Above, Trump supporters participate in a rally in Washington, D.C. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

Globalization's long-term economic effects can lead to an increase in authoritarianism, new research shows, as majority groups who sense an emerging threat to their historical identity increasingly force minority groups to comply with existing social norms.

Implementing a combination of data depicting local Chinese import penetration over time, data on local economic and demographic conditions, and an original 2017 representative survey in the U.S. of 1,800 people, a new study published April 28 in International Studies Quarterly examined the impact of economic changes from globalization on authoritarian values in American society. According to the researchers, the long-term economic declines associated with competition from globalization negatively affect the social identity of historically dominant groups and can thereby cause an increase in authoritarian values.

"In brief, our core argument is that during periods of sustained economic decline, members of the majority group — white Americans in this context — may place greater priority on conformist behavior by outgroups in order to shore up their falling sense of self-worth due to economic dislocation," said Cameron Ballard-Rosa, co-author of the study and an assistant professor of political science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. 

Authoritarian values, he said, often combine a preference for submission to authorities and "conventional" ways of life, "coupled with a predilection for the use of force, or at least the threat of force, against out-groups." 

"Thus," Ballard-Rosa said, "we argue that these preferences for outgroup conformity — and so-called 'aggression' against nonconformists — may be activated among whites who feel their material superiority eroding."

Standard business-cycle unemployment shocks are typically widespread, temporary and distinctive. The study discovered that increased penetration by Chinese imports, however, resulted in a geographically concentrated, permanent decline in demand for certain types of workers in the domestic labor market, altering anticipated career outcomes and income. 

Interestingly, the larger the relative size of minority groups in the regional population, the greater the observed effect of economic changes from globalization on authoritarian values. The so-called "China shock" appears to have had a disproportionate impact on the economic security and well-being of white laborers in trade-exposed areas, as regions most negatively affected by the shock were those with lower earnings for white workers on average compared to Black workers.

The study shows that individuals living in relatively diverse regions of America see more prevalent authoritarian values if they face more intense economic competition from Chinese imports. A increase of one standard deviation unit in trade shock in diverse regions was associated with approximately 1/3 of a standard deviation increase in authoritarian values, whereas an identical standard deviation increase in trade shock in less diverse areas was associated with about half as much change in authoritarianism.

The study's implications can offer valuable insight not only to American scholars and policymakers, Ballard-Rosa said, but to those concerned by rising authoritarianism, intergroup conflict and political extremism around the world.

"While the particular dynamics of race in the United States are somewhat distinct, I would certainly argue that the broader arc of our story should likely travel to any context that includes a majority group that feels that its economic position has been weakened, as well as a minority group that can be targeted for conformity," he said.

One potential finding that should serve as a warning to societies around the world is the indication that turbulent economic and labor market conditions associated with globalization can lead to rising support for extremist political candidates because of rising authoritarian values. Conditions specific to the economy can interact with societal values as a force shaping political opinions and behavior.  

In the U.S., for example, researchers found that white individuals in more diverse regions that were exposed to greater import penetration were significantly more likely to report voting for Donald Trump. A standard deviation increase in the study's measure of trade shock in diverse regions was associated with an approximately 13 percent increase in the likelihood that residents voted for Trump. This indicates that rising support for extremist or authoritarian ideology and political candidates could be partially explained by more complex economic-induced value changes rather than pure economic self-interest or noneconomic values.

One of the study's primary difficulties, according to Ballard-Rosa, was that while he and his colleagues collected original data to document how white Americans, in more diverse regions in particular, report significantly higher levels of authoritarian values, the study's methodology was unable to prove that this value shift directly stems from a change in respondents' perspectives related to import competition. 

"In other words, we can't prove whether the people we surveyed might have had similarly high levels of authoritarianism, say, long before the 'China shock' of rising imports," Ballard-Rosa said. "That said, in the paper, we do try our best to tease out our account against some alternative explanations that would be consistent with our findings, but at the end of the day we can't show this change because we don't have the requisite data going back in time for the same individuals."

Looking ahead, Ballard-Rosa believes an important avenue for future research would be to investigate the influence of economic changes on political behavior through value changes and how such effects might evolve over time and in relation to economic booms and busts.

"While we focus on a set of commonly studied personality traits that have been identified by a long prior body of work ... one question I'm often asked when presenting this work is whether there are additional or alternative psychological factors that might be at play," Ballard-Rosa said. "For instance, political psychologists have talked a lot about another bundle of traits often referred to as 'social dominance orientation,' which has a number of similarities with the features we discuss in this work. More broadly, I think there's a lot of room for better integrating work in political economy with work in political psychology."

Ballard-Rosa says the paper's broader theoretical framework suggests that local economic shocks resulting from factors other than import competition might have similar consequences to what he and his colleagues observed in diverse areas. 

"Some obvious next steps would be to try and extend this research to also look at the effects of, say, adoption of automation in different workforces — and the resulting dislocations to the labor market that ensue — to see whether this also drives rising authoritarianism."

The paper, "Economic decline, social identity, and authoritarian values in the United States," published April 23 in International Studies Quarterly, was authored by Cameron Ballard-Rosa, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; Amalie Jensen, University of Copenhagen; and Kenneth Scheve, Yale University.

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