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Keywords:

  • Authoritarianism;
  • societal threat;
  • prejudice;
  • punitiveness

There has been a long history of work on authoritarianism that has looked at the role of societal threat. Much of the empirical research in this tradition has relied on aggregate data to examine the relationship between societal threat and authoritarian attitudes and behaviors. Our analysis uses individual-level data and a range of perceived threat measures to better understand the dynamics of authoritarianism and threat. We also move beyond the hypothesis of a direct relationship between threat and authoritarianism, and hypothesize instead that the relationship involves interaction effects: societal threat activates authoritarian predispositions. As predicted, our analysis finds no evidence of a direct effect of societal threat but significant evidence of an interaction between authoritarian predispositions and perceived threat. We consider the implications of these results for our understanding of authoritarianism.