methodology

How We Conducted Our International Study on Right-Wing Authoritarianism

Following the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, Morning Consult was interested in better understanding the nature of right-wing authoritarianism (RWA). More specifically, how are people who hold strong RWA beliefs different from those who don’t? Do people with strong RWA beliefs have different perceptions of major events such as the insurrection, the coronavirus pandemic and the 2020 presidential election than those who do not hold these RWA beliefs? To examine this, 1,001 adults were surveyed in the United States. This sample was weighted to approximate a target sample of adults based on gender, educational attainment, age, race and region. Results from the full survey have a margin of error of +/- 3 percentage points.

Morning Consult was further interested in understanding how the prevalence of RWA in the United States compared to its counterparts. To examine this, 1,000 adults were surveyed in each of the following countries: the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, Italy, Spain, Germany and France. These samples were weighted to approximate a target sample of adults based on gender, educational attainment, age and region. Results from these full surveys have a margin of error of +/- 3 percentage points.

Data was collected from April 26 to May 2, 2021.

A Monmouth University Poll that was released in January examined RWA in relation to the 2020 presidential election. A number of measures used in the present research were adapted from this poll. 

Right, left and middle ideology. Ideology was measured using an 8-point Likert scale that ranged from 1 (Left) to 7 (Right), where 8 indicated no opinion. People were grouped into a “left” ideology if they selected 1-3, a “middle” ideology if they selected 4, and a “right” ideology if they selected 5-7. See Appendix A for the measure.

RWA index. Right-wing authoritarianism (RWA) was measured using the RWA scale that was utilized in Monmouth’s research, and developed by Bob Altemeyer (e.g., see Altemeyer, 2006; Dean & Altemeyer, 2020). The 20 items were measured on a 9-point Likert scale ranging from 1 (Very Strongly Disagree) to 9 (Very Strongly Agree). High scores indicated high RWA beliefs. Example items include: “Our country will be destroyed someday if we do not smash the perversions eating away at our moral fiber and traditional beliefs” and “What our country really needs is a strong, determined leader who will crush evil, and take us back to our true path.” Responses on the 20-item scale were summed to create each respondent’s RWA score. This resulted in a scale which ranged from 20, the lowest possible RWA score, to 180, the highest possible RWA score. (This summing approach follows suit with previous RWA research that has used this scale, and since we are bringing this study to new markets, we aimed to change as little as possible about the methodology in order to be comparable to the existing body of work.) Items where high scores indicated low RWA beliefs — for example, “Our country needs free thinkers who have the courage to defy traditional ways, even if this upsets many people” — were reverse-coded before being added to the index so that 1 always represented the “least RWA” belief and 9 always represented the “most RWA” belief. See Appendix B for the full version of the scale used in the present research. Reverse-coded items are denoted with an asterisk. 

Computing High and Low RWA. While the raw RWA scores are useful when comparing the distribution of RWA beliefs in a particular market, we created discrete categorizations of the RWA index to allow us to distinguish those who hold high vs. low RWA beliefs. There are several methods by which to create a “low RWA” category and a “high RWA” category, but we chose to leverage the global mean and variance of the RWA index across all markets to create the ranges that define “high” or “low” RWA. We simply took the RWA index global mean (i.e., of all 8 countries we surveyed in; = 86.6) and added one standard deviation (𝜎 = 23.6) to get the lower bound of “high RWA” and subtracted one standard deviation to get the upper bound of “low RWA” for all countries. This resulted in the following ranges that will be used throughout the remainder of the report: Low RWA = 20 – 63; High RWA = 111 – 180.

The choice to utilize the global mean and standard deviation is rooted in the goal of this study: to compare the rate and nature of right wing authoritarianism across countries. A true apples-to -apples comparison in the number of high and low RWA respondents requires that all respondents are judged by the same conditions, rather than creating country-specific definitions of high and low RWA, which would mask some underlying differences across countries. This results in the following proportions of respondents from each country that fall into the high or low categories.

Table 1. Percentage of respondents categorized as High or Low RWA, by country

Low RWA High RWA
US 13.40% 25.60%
UK 13.60% 10.40%
Germany 17.40% 6.70%
France 10.20% 10.70%
Spain 17.90% 10.90%
Italy 17.90% 9.20%
Australia 17.10% 12.90%
Canada 21.30% 13.40%

 

As this is the first study of its kind to export the measures tested in this research to countries outside of North America, where they were created, it is important to understand their usability and reliability in international contexts. Therefore, we calculated Cronbach’s Alpha scores, a standard test of reliability used on indexes created from a series of Likert scale questions, for each country’s RWA index. Cronbach’s Alpha measures the internal consistency across items that make up an index or measure. The possible range of Cronbach’s Alpha scores is 0 – 1, with a score of one indicating the most reliable index and a score of zero indicating the least reliable index. In the table below, it is clear that the US, UK, Australia, and Canada are most similar and most reliable (all with scores right at 0.9). Germany, Italy and Spain’s Cronbach’s Alphas are a bit lower, but still adequate, at 0.82-0.85, and France has the lowest score at 0.75. Therefore the RWA index, while sufficiently reliable in all countries in this study based on this statistic, is the least reliable in France.

Table 2. Cronbach Alpha scores, by country

Cronbach Alpha
US 0.8962
UK 0.8814
Germany 0.8184
France 0.7472
Spain 0.8396
Italy 0.8426
Australia 0.8922
Canada 0.9040

 

Digging into these differences a bit further, it becomes clear that there are a few particular questions that are driving this difference in reliability in France. Specifically, in looking at the correlations among all of the questions in the RWA index in each country separately, three questions in France stood out as having an average correlation among all other items in the index of close to zero. These questions pertained to religion and God in relation to morality (see items 3, 13, and 15 in Appendix B for question text).  Comparatively, in the United States, United Kingdom, Australia and Canada, these questions all correlate with others at roughly the same level as all other questions, suggesting that these questions are driving the lower reliability of the index in France. This follows suit with research on this subject, where religion and ideology are often seen as separated in France in part because of its long tradition of assertive secularism.

Key takeaways

RWA breakdown. As can be seen in the figure below, those who scored high in RWA tended to be right-leaning, with nearly two-thirds (62%) of those who are high in RWA identifying as being on the right side of the political spectrum. Just 4% of those who are high in RWA identified as being on the left side of the political spectrum.

Those who scored low in RWA, on the other hand, tended to be left-leaning, with 7 in 10 identifying as being on the left side of the political spectrum. Just 4% of those who are low in RWA identified as being on the right side of the political spectrum.

These findings suggest that those who are high in RWA tend to hold conservative values.

RWA and perceptions of Jan. 6. Survey respondents were asked if they felt the U.S. Capitol rioters on Jan. 6, 2021, were protecting or undermining the U.S. government (see Appendix C for full measure). As can be seen in the figure below, over a quarter (26%) of U.S. adults who scored high in RWA believed the rioters were protecting the U.S. government, compared to just 3% of those who scored low in RWA who said the same. Notably, almost another quarter (22%) of those who scored high in RWA said they did not know how to label the rioters, compared to just 4% of those who scored low in RWA who said the same. The large majority of those who scored low in RWA (93%) felt the rioters were undermining the government. These findings suggest that those who hold strong RWA beliefs are more likely to make positive attributions about the Jan. 6 insurrection than those who do not hold strong RWA beliefs.

Right-leaning adults reported similar views as those who are high in RWA, whereas left-leaning adults reported similar views as those who are low in RWA.

RWA and 2020 presidential election beliefs. Survey respondents were asked if they thought Joe Biden won the election due to widespread voter fraud (see Appendix D, item 1 for full measure). More than half (55%) of individuals who scored high in RWA agreed that voter fraud explained Joe Biden’s win, whereas just 7% of those who scored low in RWA said the same. Nearly 9 in 10 individuals who scored low in RWA disagreed that Joe Biden won due to voter fraud, indicating that claims of the election being stolen are uniquely typical of those with high RWA beliefs. 

Survey respondents were also asked if they thought Donald Trump should have refused to leave office following his loss to Joe Biden (see Appendix E for full measure). While majorities of high and low RWA individuals disagreed with this, still nearly a quarter of high RWA individuals agreed that Trump should have refused to leave office, compared to 3% of those who scored low in RWA who said the same. In other words, those who were high in RWA were more than seven times more likely than those low in RWA to agree that Trump should have refused to leave office.

RWA and COVID-19 perceptions. Survey respondents were asked if they felt masks and vaccines were necessary to stop the spread of COVID-19 (see Appendix D, items 2 and 3 for full measure). The majority of high and low RWA individuals agreed that both were necessary, but while this was true (for both masks and vaccines) for around 9 in 10 individuals who are low in RWA, it was true for around 7 in 10 individuals who are high in RWA. These findings suggest that individuals high in RWA are less likely to believe in these COVID-19 prevention measures than low-RWA individuals.

International RWA comparison. As mentioned previously, in addition to understanding how people who hold strong RWA beliefs are different from those who don’t, we also wanted to understand how the prevalence of RWA in the United States compares to its counterparts. The figure below shows how the United States leads the pack compared to the other countries tested, particularly when looking at right-leaning individuals in the country. In other words, even when looking at only the individuals who identify as being on the right politically, U.S. individuals on the right hold stronger RWA beliefs than those who identify as being on the right in Canada, Australia, the United Kingdom, Germany, Spain, Italy, and France do. Additionally, this figure highlights the polarization in the American political landscape compared to its peers. The difference between the left and the right in the United States is nearly 40 points, while the average in all other countries surveyed is closer to 20.

Summary. The findings discussed above suggest that individuals high in RWA authoritarianism tend to be right-leaning, and, compared to those low in RWA, are: more likely to make positive attributions about the Jan. 6 insurrection; more likely to endorse claims that Joe Biden won the election due to widespread voter fraud and agree that Trump should have refused to leave office; and less likely to believe in masks and vaccines as COVID-19 prevention measures. 

Additionally, right-leaning individuals score higher in RWA in the United States than they do in other countries such as the United Kingdom, Canada and Australia.

Appendix A

demPolIdeo In political matters people talk of “the left” and “the right”. How would you place your views on this scale?

1- Left
2
3
4 – In the Middle
5
6
7 – Right
Don’t Know / No Opinion

 

Appendix B

MCWA25 Please indicate the extent to which you agree or disagree with each of the following statements. [MATRIX RANDOMIZE ALL] 

  1. Our country desperately needs a mighty leader who will do what has to be done to destroy the radical new ways and sinfulness that are ruining us. 
  2. Gays and lesbians are just as healthy and moral as anybody else.*
  3. It is always better to trust the judgment of the proper authorities in government and religion than to listen to the noisy rabble-rousers in our society who are trying to create doubt in people’s minds
  4. Atheists and others who have rebelled against the established religions are no doubt every bit as good and virtuous as those who attend church regularly.* 
  5. The only way our country can get through the crisis ahead is to get back to our traditional values, put some tough leaders in power, and silence the troublemakers spreading bad ideas.
  6. There is absolutely nothing wrong with nudist camps.* 
  7. Our country needs free thinkers who have the courage to defy traditional ways, even if this upsets many people.*
  8. Our country will be destroyed someday if we do not smash the perversions eating away at our moral fiber and traditional beliefs. 
  9. Everyone should have their own lifestyle, religious beliefs, and sexual preferences, even if it makes them different from everyone else.*
  10. The “old-fashioned ways” and the “old-fashioned values” still show the best way to live.
  11. You have to admire those who challenged the law and the majority’s view by protesting for women’s abortion rights, for animal rights, or to abolish school prayer.*
  12. What our country really needs is a strong, determined leader who will crush evil, and take us back to our true path. 
  13. Some of the best people in our country are those who are challenging our government, criticizing religion, and ignoring the “normal way things are supposed to be done.”* 
  14. God’s laws about abortion, pornography and marriage must be strictly followed before it is too late, and those who break them must be strongly punished.
  15. There are many radical, immoral people in our country today, who are trying to ruin it for their own godless purposes, whom the authorities should put out of action. 
  16. A “woman’s place” should be wherever she wants to be. The days when women are submissive to their husbands and social conventions belong strictly in the past.*
  17. Our country will be great if we honor the ways of our forefathers, do what the authorities tell us to do, and get rid of the “rotten apples” who are ruining everything. 
  18. There is no “ONE right way” to live life; everybody has to create their own way.* 
  19. Homosexuals and feminists should be praised for being brave enough to defy “traditional family values.”* 
  20. This country would work a lot better if certain groups of troublemakers would just shut up and accept their group’s traditional place in society. 

 

  1. Very strongly disagree
  2. Strongly disagree
  3. Moderately disagree
  4. Slightly disagree
  5. Neither disagree nor agree
  6. Slightly agree
  7. Moderately agree
  8. Strongly agree
  9. Very strongly agree

 

Appendix C

MCWA12 Do you feel that the U.S. Capitol rioters on January 6, 2021 were… [ROTATE 1:2]

  1. Protecting the U.S. government 
  2. Undermining the U.S. government 
  3. Don’t know/no opinion [ANCHOR]

 

Appendix D

MCWA23 Please indicate the extent to which you agree or disagree with each of the following statements. [MATRIX RANDOMIZE ALL; ROTATE ANSWER OPTIONS] 

  1. Joe Biden won the 2020 U.S. presidential election due to widespread fraud.
  2. Masks are necessary to stop the spread of COVID-19.
  3. Vaccines are necessary to stop the spread of COVID-19.

 

  1. Strongly agree
  2. Somewhat agree
  3. Somewhat disagree
  4. Strongly disagree
  5. Don’t know/no opinion [ANCHOR]

 

Appendix E

MCWA16 To what extent do you agree or disagree with the following?

Donald Trump should have refused to leave office in spite of the 2020 U.S. Presidential election being called for Joe Biden. [ROTATE]

  1. Very strongly disagree 
  2. Strongly disagree
  3. Moderately disagree
  4. Slightly disagree
  5. Neither disagree nor agree
  6. Slightly agree
  7. Moderately agree
  8. Strongly agree
  9. Very strongly agree

 

About the authors

Dr. Rachel Venaglia is a Manager of Strategic Services for global data intelligence company Morning Consult. Dr. Venaglia develops, oversees, and analyzes Research Intelligence surveys for the company’s newsroom and for media collaborations with POLITICO, Adweek, and more. At Morning Consult, she leverages her psychology background to understand public opinion, and specializes in political, economic, and brands polling. 

In addition to her work at Morning Consult, she is an Adjunct Instructor for the Industrial/Organizational Psychology Master’s Program at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. She has published in a number of journals, including Review of General Psychology, Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, and Journal of Social and Personal Relationships.

She earned her bachelor’s degree in Psychology from Lafayette College, as well as both her master’s degree and her Ph.D. in Social Psychology from the University of Maryland, College Park.  

Dr. Laura Maxwell is a Managing Director of Data Science for global data intelligence company Morning Consult. Dr. Maxwell processes and analyzes Research Intelligence data for the company, and contributes to the expansion of the international fielding capabilities of Morning Consult. Her expertise includes manipulating and managing datasets, conducting advanced statistical analysis for academic and policy audiences, and creating interactive data visualizations and dashboards for public use. 

Prior to Morning Consult, Dr. Maxwell served as an Associate Researcher at the Varieties of Democracy Institute (V-Dem) in Gothenburg, Sweden, where she collaborated to maintain a global dataset of over 400 features of democracy. While at V-Dem, she also contributed to a research agenda on the dynamic development of institutions during democratization, collaborating with the USAID Center of Excellence on Democracy, Human Rights and Governance to produce detailed country reports. 

She earned her bachelor’s degree in Political Science from Illinois Wesleyan University as well as both her master’s degree in Political Science (Quantitative) and her PhD in Political Science (Quantitative) from Emory University.

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