Who Justifies Which Systems? Authoritarianism, Class, and Status Legitimacy Across Contexts

By Rongbo Jin (University of Arizona) and Frank J. Gonzalez (University of Arizona)

In the 1999 hit movie, The Matrix, the character named Morpheus at one point describes the allure of the computer program called “the matrix,” which humans have been loaded into so that they experience a virtual fantasy reality while they are passively exploited by machines for their energy in the real world: “You have to understand that most of these people are not ready to be unplugged. And many of them are so inert, so hopelessly dependent on the system that they will fight to protect it.”

The sentiment expressed by Morpheus is not without parallels in academic studies of the social world. Marx famously described the phenomenon of “false consciousness,” or beliefs spread by elites to lead people to go against their self-interest to uphold the unfair system. The renowned social historian, Howard Zinn, maintains that “rebellion is only an occasional reaction to suffering in human history; we have infinitely more instances of forbearance to exploitation, and submission to authority, than we have examples of revolt” (2002, 16).

A good deal of work in political psychology examines when people are likely to justify “the system,” even when it oppresses them. The Status Legitimacy Hypothesis (SLH; Jost et al. 2003a), derived from System Justification Theory (SJT; Jost & Banaji 1994), argues those most subjugated by the system may often be the most motivated to defend it, but evidence supporting the SLH is highly mixed (e.g., Brandt 2013). In our study, we analyze data from three large, multi-year representative data sets of U.S. adults — the General Social Survey (GSS; 1986–2018), the American National Election Study (ANES; 1992–2020), and the World Value Survey (WVS; 1981–2016) — to identify contextual and individual-level moderators of when and among whom the SLH is supported. We are not the first to examine moderators of the SLH. However, we are particularly interested in the role of the personality trait, authoritarianism. Authoritarianism is a highly stable, substantially heritable personality trait (e.g., Ludeke & Krueger 2013), which has been linked to conservatism and resistant to change generally (Jost et al. 2003b), and should lead certain individuals to be more inclined to submit to authorities and adhere to social conventions generally.

We find that authoritarianism matters, although the way in which it matters depends on what people are “justifying.” When it comes to evaluations of government as well as (although less consistently) attitudes toward policies aimed at reducing wealth inequality, the SLH is most supported among high authoritarians. The lower class are not always the most likely to “justify” the government and wealth inequality (in several instances, the upper class are actually the most likely to justify these systems, which goes against the SLH), but when they do, it is most likely among members of the lower class high in authoritarianism. In other words, when it comes to people’s attitudes toward government and wealth inequality, the authoritarianism is key to determining how far the lower class (relative to the upper class) will go to legitimize the system that works against them.

However, when it comes to beliefs in meritocracy — the idea that the economic system provides people with ample opportunities for economic self-improvement — authoritarianism is associated with less support for the SLH. That is, authoritarianism leads lower class individuals to reject myths about meritocracy but leads upper class individuals to endorse them.

Why would authoritarianism work differently for beliefs in meritocracy than for the other variables? For the most part, this will simply require further research. For now, though, we speculate that this reflects the difference between beliefs about how the world works and ideals for how it should work. Those in the lower class recognize the lack of merit in the meritocracy myth — they have lived it and seen its failings. Rules are needed to survive in the unfair system, and so authoritarians are particularly keen on recognizing the unfairness. However, they are motivated to support and legitimize this unfair system’s existence and so still support the government and policies that protect the wealthy. As for the upper class, authoritarians are more likely to legitimize the core mythology of capitalism but are relatively more okay with tinkering with specific policies regarding how wealth is distributed. Again, this complexity in our findings remains mostly speculative, and we plan to engage in further research to explore all of this.

These findings suggest broadly that not only are some people just wired more toward upholding “the system,” but some people are wired to double down on the system particularly when it subjugates them. The dissonance that yields “status legitimacy” motivations among the lower class is heighted among authoritarians, which makes sense if authoritarians are inclined to place high value on authority and existing hierarchy. This seems to be the case when it comes to legitimizing the government as well as acceptance of wealth inequality. However, our findings for beliefs in meritocracy deviate from this trend and are poignant. When it comes to beliefs in meritocracy, authoritarians in the lower class were the most likely to reject the idea that opportunity exists for the average person to get ahead, whereas authoritarianism in the upper class bolstered subscription to this belief.

Decades ago, Robert Dahl, a foremost political scientist, raised a great question: “In a political system where all the resources are unequally distributed, who actually governs?” (1961, 1). After more than half century, Larry Bartels offered an answer to this question. He argues that in this New Gilded Age, those on the top of social class have considerable clout while those at the bottom can exert very little influence on the legislative behavior of the officials (2008; see also, Hacker & Pierson 2014). In a highly unequal society, the rich undoubtedly have greater influence on the social and economic system. However, are they always the most likely to defend it? When is the lower class most likely to rise against it? We hope that our research adds to the growing collection of studies attempting to shed light on these questions. Even with the limited knowledge we have now, it seems the answers are quite complex and depend on a host of individual-level and contextual factors.

About the Authors

Rongbo Jin is a PhD student in the School of Government and Public Policy (SGPP) at the University of Arizona.

Frank J. Gonzalez is an Assistant Professor in the School of Government and Public Policy (SGPP) at the University of Arizona.

About the ISPP & its Blog

The International Society of Political Psychology is an interdisciplinary organization representing all fields of inquiry concerned with exploring the relationships between political and psychological processes. If you are interested in contributing an article or have any questions about the blog, please email them or visit the ISPP Blog’s webpage.


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