The Authoritarians

A few weeks ago, when I was supposed to be absorbed in study for my Brain, Biology and Evolution final test, I instead found myself riveted to a free (yes, totally free) book called The Authoritarians. It’s by a psychologist called Bob Altemeyer (this is his website, it has a few additional pieces involving Obama’s elections on there as well) and it’s focused on a specific group of people labelled, unsurprisingly, the authoritarians.

It’s a fairly terrifying book, outlining the reasons for the recent rise in political extremism and explaining the seemingly impenetrable viewpoints of modern hardcore conservatives.

OK, what’s this book about? It’s about what’s happened to the American government lately. It’s about the disastrous decisions that government has made. It’s about the corruption that rotted the Congress. It’s about how traditional conservatism has nearly been destroyed by authoritarianism. It’s about how the “Religious Right” teamed up with amoral authoritarian leaders to push its un-democratic agenda onto the country. It’s about the United States standing at the crossroads as the next federal election approaches.

“Well,” you might be thinking, “I don’t believe any of this is true.” Or maybe, you’re thinking, “What else is new? I’ve believed this for years.” Why should a conservative, moderate, or liberal bother with this book? Why should any Republican, Independent, or Democrat click the “Whole Book” link on this page?

Because if you do, you’ll begin an easy-ride journey through some very relevant scientific studies I have done on authoritarian personalities--one that will take you a heck of a lot less time than the decades it took me. Those studies have a direct bearing on all the topics mentioned above. So if you think the first paragraph is a lot of hokum, or full of half-truths, I invite you to look at the research.

And the research is fucking scary. As Altemeyer says:

The second reason I can offer for reading what follows is that it is not chock full of opinions, but experimental evidence. Liberals have stereotypes about conservatives, and conservatives have stereotypes about liberals. Moderates have stereotypes about both. Anyone who has watched, or been a liberal arguing with a conservative (or vice versa) knows that personal opinion and rhetoric can be had a penny a pound. But arguing never seems to get anywhere. Whereas if you set up a fair and square experiment in which people can act nobly, fairly, and with integrity, and you find that most of one group does, and most of another group does not, that’s a fact, not an opinion. And if you keep finding the same thing experiment after experiment, and other people do too, then that’s a body of facts that demands attention. Some people, we have seen to our dismay, don’t care a hoot what scientific investigation reveals; but most people do. If the data were fairly gathered and we let them do the talking, we should be on a higher plane than the current, “Sez you!”

I have met many people, and I’m sure any readers have as well, who steadfastly support versions of events that literally run directly counter to the established evidence.

I find this most common when talking about viewpoints that conservatives hold. For instance, the idea that prison should be as harsh an environment as possible (prison rape; let’s all laugh heartily at what net good that has on society).

This viewpoint, while allowing people to engage in moral indignation (a trait that Professor Altemeyer points out is high in right-wing authoritarians) and a vindictive need for punishment, does absolutely nothing to help society deal with criminal elements. Programs that are focused around learning, growth and responsibility lead to FAR lower rates of recidivism than the brutal programs that most governments around the world run. And yet most authoritarians, while disgusted by crime, want to enact prison models that would (and currently do) lead to higher rates of crimes. They’re literally cutting off their nose to spite their face. But no amounts of facts, studies or moral arguments will do a thing to banish this viewpoint.

Professor Altemeyer outlines the traits specific to right-wing authoritarians:

Authoritarian followers usually support the established authorities in their society, such as government officials and traditional religious leaders. Such people have historically been the “proper” authorities in life, the time-honored, entitled, customary leaders, and that means a lot to most authoritarians. Psychologically these followers have personalities featuring:

1) a high degree of submission to the established, legitimate authorities in their society;
2) high levels of aggression in the name of their authorities; and
3) a high level of conventionalism.

The interesting thing is that, in some cases, these traits aren’t bad at all (they’re not necessarily good either though). The real problems come when the authoritarian follower meets the authoritarian leader:

Because this book is called The Authoritarians, you may have thought it dealt with autocrats and despots, the kind of people who would rule their country, or department, or football team like a dictator. That is one meaning of the word, and yes, we shall talk about such people eventually in this book. But we shall begin with a second kind of authoritarian: someone who, because of his personality, submits by leaps and bows to his authorities. It may seem strange, but this is the authoritarian personality that psychology has studied the most.

We shall probably always have individuals lurking among us who yearn to play tyrant. Some of them will be dumber than two bags of broken hammers, and some will be very bright. Many will start so far down in society that they have little chance of amassing power; others will have easy access to money and influence all their lives. On the national scene some will be frustrated by prosperity, internal tranquility, and international peace--all of which significantly dim the prospects for a demagogue-in-waiting. Others will benefit from historical crises that automatically drop increased power into a leader’s lap. But ultimately, in a democracy, a wannabe tyrant is just a comical figure on a soapbox unless a huge wave of supporters lifts him to high office.

That’s how Adolf Hitler destroyed the Weimar Republic and became the Fuhrer. So we need to understand the people out there doing the wave. Ultimately the problem lay in the followers.

The authoritarian leaders tend to be amoral, ruthless, greedy and (at least the successful ones) are usually quite intelligent/good at manipulating people. The authoritarian followers tend to submit to their authority, almost no matter what the order (Kristallnacht happened, didn’t it?), are willing to use violence to further their causes and they strongly identify with convention, rather than thinking outside of the box.

All in all, it’s a terrifying, enlightening and outstanding book, guiding us through the harrowing depths of modern authoritarians with a jaunty whistle and a tip of the hat.

And while it might make it sound rather futile and useless to fight authoritarianism (after all, how can you fix that which does not allow itself to be corrected?), the book does end on a mildly positive note, reminding us:

So what’s to be done right now?

The social dominators and high RWAs presently marshaling their forces for the next election in your county, state and country, are perfectly entitled to do what they’re doing. They have the right to organize, they have the right to proselytize, they have the right to select and work for candidates they like, they have the right to vote, they have the right to make sure folks who agree with them also vote. Jerry Falwell has already declared, “We absolutely are going to deliver this nation back to God in 2008!”

If the people who are not social dominators and right-wing authoritarians want to have those same rights in the future, they, you, had better do those same things too, now. You do have the right to remain silent, but you’ll do so at everyone’s peril. You can’t sit these elections out and say “Politics is dirty; I’ll not be part of it,” or “Nothing can change the way things are done now.” The social dominators want you to be disgusted with politics, they want you to feel hopeless, they want you out of their way. They want democracy to fail, they want your freedoms stricken, they want equality destroyed as a value, they want to control everything and everybody, they want it all. And they have an army of authoritarian followers marching with the militancy of “that old-time religion” on a crusade that will make it happen, if you let them.

So please, let’s not let them win. Read the book and arm yourselves against those who are immune to reality. More Altemeyer probably to come later; he’s got at least two other great works I’ve heard about, one being Sex and Youth: A Twenty-Four Year Investigation (I swear to god I had the full pdf of that, but I can only find this preview right now) and the other is The Authoritarian Spectre.


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