It’s been awhile since I posted anything about the relationship between conservatism and authoritarianism, probably because I was so pleased by the election of President Obama. But I have said before, and I’ll say it again, just because President Obama was elected doesn’t mean that the supporters of John McCain and Sarah Palin are going to suddenly see the errors of their ways and become tolerant and rational members of society. Not at all. After all, President Obama’s winning margin was only 3%. If the economy had not imploded, there is a distinct possibility that we could be governed by President McCain and Vice President Palin, instead of President Obama and Vice President Biden. All the more reason to take the subject of this post most seriously. This is a long post, so I’d recommend not trying to skim it.

A friend recently sent me the link to this video on YouTube. I found it most fascinating to watch. I’m very much in the camp of those who believe that the decision to carry a baby to term or not is an intensely personal decision that should not be interfered with by those who claim to know better than the woman making the decision. Watch this video and see if you aren’t taken by surprise by the responses of the protesters:

The people interviewed in this video demonstrate the classic traits of the authoritarian personality. There is quite a bit of information available about this personality trait and Bob Altemeyer is recognized as an authority on the subject. The link in my sidebar entitled Robert Altemeyer provides the on-line text of his book, The Authoritarians.

In a series of posts in 2006, Paul Rosenberg wrote about this personality type. I am posting part 3 here and encourage the reader to go to Paul’s blog and read the other parts of the series. In addition, Sara Robinson has written an excellent series of posts on the subject over on David Neiwert’s blog, Orcinus. Sara’s posts are in the left sidebar and start with the series entitled “Cracks in the Wall” and continue with the series entitled “Tunnels and Bridges.” In her first post, Sara references Doug Muder’s essay “Red Family, Blue Family“, which is a fascinating explication of the idea of the opposing concepts of the Inherited Obligation Family and the Negotiated Commitment Family. If you want to start to understand how the Bush administration got away with its crimes, these sources will get you started. Here is Paul Rosenberg’s entry on Right Wing Authoritarianism:

Rightwing Authoritarianism and Conservative Identity Politics

by Paul Rosenberg, Wed Mar 01, 2006 at 10:44:06 AM EST

Rightwing authoritarianism (RWA) is one of two attitudinal constructs (along with social dominance orientation–SDO) that combine to account for a majority of group prejudice, which in turn is a major aspect of group identity politics. Both also correlate significantly with political conservatism. RWA is defined as the convergence of three attitudinal clusters:

* Authoritarian submission: A high degree of sub-
mission to the authorities who are perceived to be established and
legitimate in the society in which one lives.

* Authoritarian aggression: A general aggressiveness,
directed against various persons, that is perceived to be sanctioned by
established authorities.

* Conventionalism: A high degree of adherence to the
social conventions that are perceived to be endorsed by society and its
established authorities.

As might be guessed, RWA is associated with a high degree of hostility toward outgroups, a key characteristic that correlates with findings discussed in the previous post in this series, indicating that hard core conservatism correlates with a strong resistance to power-sharing with various outgroups–blacks, Jews, Catholics, unions and women.

The construct was developed empirically by Canadian researcher Robert Altemeyer, who started by examining the more elaborate, Freudian-based construct presented in The Authoritarian Personality, which contained nine factors. The three factors Altemeyer identified were among the original nine factors, but he refined the questions defining the traits over time, developing a scale over time with stronger inter-item correlation. His findings are based primarily on research using questionnaires administered to his students, and secondarily to parents, but they have been administered to others as well, including members of a large number of American state legislatures. His uses standard correlation analysis, as well as comparisons and analysis focusing on those who score in the upper 25%, termed “High RWAs” or simply “Highs.”

Altemeyer explains that “right-wing'” means a “psychological sense of submitting to perceived authorities in one’s life,” and is not identified with a specific political ideology. In the Soviet Union, “right-wing” meant a sense of submitting to communist authorities, and Altemeyer presented research showing this was so. This is what his RWA (right-wing authoritarianism) scale measured. It is obviously related to the perpetuation of hierarchy, and the use of force to impose “order.”

Altemeyer’s third book, The Authoritarian Specter reports and discusses Altemeyer’s extensive findings in considerable detail. He makes it quite clear that RWA explains statistical group tendencies, not individual behavior, and that environmental factors–such as being in a frightening emergency situation, like the United States just after 9-11–are far more powerful than attitude in predicting behavior.

Thus, he’s in no way trying to prejudge, stereotype and dismiss those who may be more conservative, or to praise those who are more liberal. Altemeyer himself scores about average on the RWA scale.

A Quick And Dirty Guide To RWA

Nonetheless, the group portrait of RWA is distinctly disturbing, as can be seen from the list of tendencies that Altemeyer compiled and listed at the end of The Authoritarian Specter as a sort of compressed summary. I’ve listed most of them in the tables that follow here, which provide some thematic coherence for them. The first is the one that goes most directly to the issue at hand–conservative identity politics, which is built around the “good us”/”demonized them” dynamic.

Table 1: Hostility & Fear Toward Outgroups

RWA’s are more likely to:

* Weaken constitutional guarantees of liberty, such as the Bill of Rights.

* Punish severely “common” criminals in a role-playing situation.

* Admit they get personal pleasure from punishing such people.

* But go easy on authorities who commit crimes and people who attack

* Be prejudiced against many racial, ethnic, nationalistic, and linguistic

* Be hostile toward homosexuals.

* Support “gay-bashing.”

* Be hostile toward feminists.

* Volunteer to help the government persecute almost anyone.

* Be mean-spirited toward those who have made mistakes and suffered.

* Be fearful of a dangerous world.

These items show broad and robust evidence of hostility toward designated outgroups. There’s also evidence of contempt and inability and unwillingness to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. Systematically misunderstanding others is second nature with this sort of outlook, and is clearly related to the dynamics of an identity politics defined in opposition to groups of demonized others. The actual interior experience of others is something that such a mindset simply cannot dare to seriously consider. It is simply presumed to be “evil.”

On the flip side are the tendencies toward their group identity cohesion.

Table 2: Not-So-Healthy Ingroup Cohesion

RWA’s are more likely to:

* Strongly believe in group cohesiveness and “loyalty.”

* Insist on traditional sex roles.

* Use religion to erase guilt over their acts and to maintain their self-

* Be “fundamentalists” and the most prejudiced members of whatever
religion they belong to.

* Accept unfair and illegal abuses of power by government authorities.

* Trust leaders (such as Richard Nixon) who are untrustworthy.

The items in this table can be fairly be summarized as manifestations of tribalism: group cohesiveness and “loyalty” are core values, religion serves the purpose of tribal unity and self-justification, sex roles keep people in their place, and leaders are to be trusted and obeyed, no matter what. Tribalism and cultism are clearly closely related, as will be discussed more fully in a future post. This is a strong indication that the cultism surrounding Bush is indeed consistent with conservatism, rather than a departure from it, as Greenwald assumed in his post that sparked this series in the first place. Here I am showing that it is consistent with attitudinal underpinnings. But those attitudes clearly translate into overt ideology and policies positions as well.

Related to the fragile and unsupportable cartoon picture of the world shown in Table 1 (and less directly in Table 2) is a wide range of flawed reasoning as well.

Table 3: Faulty reasoning

RWA’s are more likely to:

* Make many incorrect inferences from evidence.

* Hold contradictory ideas leading them to “speak out of both
sides of their mouths.”

* Uncritically accept that many problems are “our most serious problem.”

* Uncritically accept insufficient evidence that supports their beliefs.

* Uncritically trust people who tell them what they want to hear.

* Use many double standards in their thinking and judgements.

One logical flaw which reflects both the misunderstanding of others and themselves, is the RWA’s elevated tendency to commit what’s called the “Fundamental Attribution Error” (FAE): over-explaining others’ actions in terms of personalities and under-explaining them in terms of situational factors. This what lies behind uncritically trusting people who tell them what they want to hear–they believe what the person is saying is a true expression of how they feel, and ignore the contextual evidence that they are simply pandering. This also helps to explain why they trust unscrupulous leaders, such as Nixon and Bush.

As for self-knowledge, although RWAs have a number of character flaws consistent with group identity politics generally and religious fundamentalism [already mentioned] specifically–see Table 4–they’re remarkably blind to their own failings–see Table 5.

Table 4: Profound Character Flaws

RWA’s are more likely to:

* Be dogmatic.

* Be zealots.

* Be hypocrites.

* Be bullies when they have power over others.

* Help cause and inflame intergroup conflict.

* Seek dominance over others by being competitive and destructive in
situations requiring cooperation.

Table 5: Blindness To Own Failings

RWA’s are more likely to:

* Believe they have no personal failings.

* Avoid learning about their personal failings.

* Be highly self-righteous.

* Use religion to erase guilt over their acts and to maintain their self-

The cumulative picture summarized in these five tables is clearly that of people who have a multifacted set of tendencies that work together to foster a conformist group identity that is maintained in part by demonizing others and expresses itself in a propensity or at least a tolerance for violence.

Last, we turn to the more specifically political tendencies, some of which have been mentioned before, but are included here for the sake of completeness.

Table 6: RWA’s Political Tendencies

RWA’s are more likely to:

* Weaken constitutional guarantees of liberty, such as the Bill of Rights.

* Accept unfair and illegal abuses of power by government authorities.

* Trust leaders (such as Richard Nixon) who are untrustworthy.

* Sometimes join left-wing movements, where their hostility distinguishes them.

* But much more typically endorse right-wing political parties.

* Be conservative/Reform party (Canada) or Republican Party (United
States) lawmakers who:

1. Have a conservative economic philosophy

2. Believe in social dominance

3. Are ethnocentric

4. Are highly nationalistic

5. Oppose abortion

6. Support capital punishment

7. Oppose gun-control legislation

8. Say they value freedom but actually want to undermine the Bill of

9. Do not value equality very highly and oppose measures to increase it

10. Are not likely to rise in the Democratic party, but do so among

Three Broad Findings To Consider

I want to conclude this analysis by stressing three broad findings in addition to what’s gone before.

First, concerning RWA and fear: Among the most significant of Altemeyer’s findings–both implicit and explicit in what we’ve seen above–was the fearful nature of the RWA worldview, “High RWAs stand about ten steps closer to the panic button than the rest of the population,” he concluded, “They see the world as a more dangerous place than most others do, with civilization on the verge of collapse and the world of Mad Max looming just beyond.” This fearfulness is a good explanation for many of the tendencies listed above.

Second, concerning RWA and religion: The authoritarian relationship to religion is particularly troubling, as several different sorts of flaws tend to work together to blind authoritarians from seeing what they are doing. Perhaps most striking is the greater likelihood to compartmentalize their thinking, and not notice contradictions between compartmentalized beliefs. In a 1985 experiment, students were asked what they thought about two passages from the Gospels: “Do not judge, that you may not be judged. For with what judgment you judge, you shall be judged.” (Matthew 7:1), and “Let he who is without sin among you be the first to cast a stone at her.” (John 8:2-11).

Altemeyer reports:

“Twenty Christian Highs said we should take the teachings literally. Twenty-seven other Christian Highs said we should judge and punish others, but none of them explained how they reconciled this view with Jesus’ teachings. Apparently, they ‘believed’ both (contradictory) things. But the kicker came when I looked at various measures of authoritarian aggression I had gathered from these students. No matter what they said they believed, both these groups of Highs were quick with the stones on the Attitudes toward Homosexuals Scale, the ethnocentrism Scale, and Posse-Homosexuals (Enemies of Freedom, pp. 222-224).”

Such compartmentalization also reflects problems with self-knowledge, already noted. Of course, it’s relatively easy for one religious group to see such flaws in another group. The really hard thing is to see it in yourself or in your group. It’s much, much easier for fundmentalists in different religions to inflame their followers against each other–and to put pressure on their more moderate co-religionists to join them. Naturally, this feeds into a number of different tendencies listed above.

Third, concerning RWA and politics: Altemeyer found that RWA becomes increasingly significant the more involved one is politically. Surprisingly, Altemeyer found that RWA only correlated modestly with party identification in Canada and America. It was always higher with the more conservative party (a 3-way comparison in most Canadian cases), but the differences were relatively modest. However, when he looked at how people perceived their elected representatives, the degrees of difference increased significantly. Then, when he looked at the representatives themselves, he discovered that they differed even more than their constituents thought they did.

In addition to Canada, he examined a large number of state legislatures in the United States. While a there were a few Democrats who scored very high on the RWA scale, the Republican Party as a whole scored dramatically higher on the scale, and showed far less variation than the Democrats did. Republicans in state government in every part of the country scored much closer to one another than did Democrats. In addition, the spectrum of American politics was higher on the RWA scale than the Canadian spectrum. That’s not to say there was no overlap, but the difference was striking, nonetheless.

These findings strongly suggest that RWA reflects something very fundamental about American politics, which cannot simply be overcome by wishing it away. It must be faced head-on and dealt with at a very fundamental level. Conservatives and the GOP are more unified, because they see the world more similarly–albeit not more accurately. It seems only logical to assume that this both reflects and reinforces the basic fact that their foundation is a form of identity politics, an expression of a shared identity, as opposed to the Democratic Party, which is openly and avowedly a coalition.

What About Leftwing Authoritarianism?

Altemeyer went looking for it. He didn’t find it. He didn’t find anyone who scored over 50% on the LWA scale he developed, which was a direct reflection of the RWA scale. In contrast, he found numerous people scoring close to 100% on the RWA scale. He concluded that LWAs are “as rare as hen’s teeth.” He did, of course, find authoritarianism among people on the left in the Soviet Union, as noted above. But this was due to their social conformity to the existing authorities in their society. And that’s what RWA is.

What’s Next: SDO

The next installment in this series concerns another attitudinal construct, known as social dominance orientation (SDO). As we shall see, it is even more directly associated with group identity.

============== ===

The underlying material in this diary comes from Robert Altemeyer’s third and most comprehensive book, The Authoritarian Specter.


Authoritarianism — 3 Comments

  1. Thanks for explaining this all so well, Jeff. It is certainly a complex subject, but you did a good job of summarizing it. Enlightening, but chilling. It gives us a lot of insight into why Bush was able to push through his agenda (and why people like Rush Limbaugh are so successful), but how can we use this knowledge to prevent it in the future?

  2. I studied social psychology some in school…I was always fascinated with how “we” operate…how the course of history is changed by it. For all time…and in so many ways. Some are well known like pre-WW2 Germany…others are not documented at all. The innate human emotion of fear is so easily morphed into something ugly.

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