by Sara Robinson
America's founders understood all too well that would-be authoritarians would always be among us; and that holding on to our democracy would involve a constant struggle against their ongoing efforts to control us. That's what Ben Franklin was talking about when he said that we have "a republic -- if you can keep it." And what Tom Jefferson was alluding to when he told us that "the tree of liberty must be watered occasionally with the blood of tyrants and patriots." They knew that democracies are not established once, but re-created continuously as each generation reasserts its freedom against fresh generations of would-be rulers. It's an ongoing conversation about liberty, equality, and power that's re-negotiated – sometimes more peacefully, sometimes less -- every day.
They also knew that our homegrown wannabe kings and dictators have momentum on their side. High-social-dominance (SDO) authoritarian leaders are always among us, always pushing, always scheming, always looking for their next chance. There is no opportunity to take control, legally or illegally, that they won't fail to exploit, as long as the gains promise to outweigh the costs. As Edmund Burke did not say (but usually gets the attribution for anyway): all that's required for them to succeed in this endless quest for power is for the rest of us to do nothing.
Unfortunately, the ease and confidence of living in a prosperous society under a strong Constitution makes kicking back and doing nothing a very easy, attractive option. You can be blithely oblivious to these guys for years -- until the day comes when you've got a fundamentalist school board trying to teach your kids young-earth creationism; or militia guys jackbooting up Main Street at noon and performing blitz redecorating on the local synagogue at midnight; or a born-again president trying to bring on Armageddon for the profit of the oil companies and the acclaim of his Rapture-minded followers. On that day, we're jolted out of our reverie. Where did all these wackadoodles come from? Of course, they came from us -- because we didn't take seriously the threat they pose to the continued existence of our democracy, or our constant obligation to keep an eye out for the authoritarians in our midst, and take steps to prevent them from amassing followers and power in the first place.
In this next extension of the "Cracks In The Wall" series, I'd like to expand on the strategies outlined in Part III, and show how they might be applied in larger spheres – at the community and national level. What works to bring individuals back from right-wing fantasyland may also work to open large tunnels in the Wall, and build bridges over which the softer core of followers can make a safe return to the reality-based world.
An Authoritarian Taxonomy
Our discussion so far has looked at three different classes of authoritarians. I'd like to start with a quick review of these three groups, and the things that motivate them.
First, there are the high-social-dominance leaders, whose primary goal is to amass and expand their social dominance over others. To this end, they are dominating, overtly or covertly opposed to equality, focused on power to the exclusion of other concerns, and usually quite amoral. Rules don't apply to these guys (and they are almost always guys); they'll do whatever they think they can get away with to get what they want. Since it's extremely rare for someone with a high social dominance orientation (SDO) to ever really change, our only option is to isolate them.
Second, there are committed “hard-core” right-wing authoritarian (RWA) followers. These people were usually raised in authoritarian homes, or have spent so many adult years in the system that there's not a lot of hope that they'll ever be capable of operating outside of it. Some of these people do leave, eventually; but these are flukes at best. Generally, it's best not expect that they'll have too much interest in moving to our side of the wall.
Then, there's the third and largest group: “soft-core” RWA followers who probably came to authoritarianism during an episode of major life stress, or were seduced into it with heavy propaganda from friends and right-wing media. This group may form as much as half of the current authoritarian voter pool in America. These people usually weren't always authoritarians; and they're the ones we have the greatest hope of bringing back around to a full embrace of democratic principles.
Effective bridge-building begins with being clear about which of these three groups you're addressing, because the strategies and messages are very different for each.
Leaders: Identify and Isolate
My experience has been that we non-authoritarians -- especially more progressive ones -- tend to discount the central role leaders in authoritarian organizations. Generally (and especially compared to RWAs), we don't pay a lot of heed to authority in our lives. When we do encounter it, we take its measure, reckon its limits, and give it only the required level of credence and respect.
This loose approach to authority can lead us to underestimate the overweening power authoritarian leaders exercise within their organizations. If we're going to be effective, we need to understand their importance, develop radar that picks out these high-SDO personalities quickly and accurately, and understands the subtleties of how they're operating. Books like Dean's are a great basic education.
Get Out Your Shovel -- Once the leaders are identified, they need to be isolated. The best way to do this is to discredit them in the eyes of both the public and their followers. For that, you need dirt.
Fortunately, these guys seem to move more dirt than the Mississippi. The tediously predictable amorality of high-SDO authoritarian leaders means they've got piles of bones buried in their back yards -- many of which can be dug up with surprisingly little effort, especially in these days of electronic public records and global Web access.
Faithful Orcinus readers have seen this in action, as Dave regularly dredges up all kinds of pungent dirt on extremist leaders in various movements. Part of this is that, as an old reporter in the field, he's got a long memory and a tracker's knowledge of the terrain, and thus knows exactly where to pitch his shovel. But another part is that there's so much dirt that you don't always have to be skilled or lucky to find it. They really don't care about which laws get broken, where the money went, or who got hurt by their actions. Their future destruction can usually be found -- quite readily -- in their pasts. If you're even halfway lucky, you may even find a disillusioned and betrayed former follower or two who, for the price of a beer, would love to get a few fascinating stories off their chests. If you're looking for a trail, just follow the line of burned bridges behind them.
Once the leader's history of spousal assault is on the front page, or he's frog-marched into court on fraud charges, the followers evaporate like seawater on a hot day. Note that this applies to right-wing leaders at all levels: it's how scores of communities have put a stop to small racist thug groups; over time, it's also the way the entire Bush Administration is slowly being discredited.
Sandbox 101 -- Another way to isolate high-SDO leaders is to leverage their propensity for schism. If the movement has multiple leaders, look for the tension between them – and leverage it.
The greatest miracle of the Republican rise over the past three decades is the extraordinarily high level of cooperation the movement was able to get from so many high-SDO leaders. Most authoritarian leaders (literally) flunked Sandbox 101 in preschool: they don't like to share, and they only cooperate when the shared goals are compelling. Alliances between them only last as long as all parties are convinced that there's personal power to be gained by staying. As soon as that equation changes, they're instantly out shopping for a better deal.
The conservative takeover succeeded because of the sweeping scale of the goal: national, if not global domination. That's perhaps the only goal high-SDOs would regard as worth putting in a long-term cooperative effort for. Everyone involved understood the stakes -- and knew that they'd only get there if they set aside personal issues and stuck together for as long as it took. But, once the goal is within reach and it's time to discuss divvying up the spoils….ahh, that's when everyone's individual motives shoot back to the foreground -- and the follies really begin.
In most authoritarian groups, whether religious or political, schisms are so frequent as to be almost comic. Jealousy between leaders runs high, egos are prickly, tempers volatile, emotional intelligence not much in evidence. The more followers they get, the less stable alliances become. This internal instability is predictable -- and exploitable, in the hands of a smart opposition. (According to one experienced activist, if you've got good dirt on one leader, make sure it first gets into the hands of his most ambitious co-consipirator – then sit back and watch the fun begin.)
All we need to do is stick together better than they do. For some of us, that's not always easy; but victory belongs to the last team standing. Sometimes, with these guys, it's just a matter of waiting for their own hubris to finish the job for you.
Hard-Core Followers: Meet The New Boss
The inner circle of right-wing authoritarian (RWA) followers backing these leaders won't be impressed by your dirtpile, unless their guilt-evaporation mechanisms are totally on the fritz. If their leader has an incest conviction in his past, yeah, you may get their attention. Otherwise (as we've seen), they're already primed to forgive. It's a mistake to count on their outrage.
Once their leaders have been isolated and discredited, though, the hard-core followers usually just fade away quietly into the woodwork. However, be sure you get their names before they go: the odds are good that you'll see them again, years later, emerging under the banner of another charismatic leader. Longtime Orcinus readers are familiar with the ways in which militia leaders, for example, pop up over and over in different guises, different groups, and different areas of the country. Same old faces, same old story. They can't help themselves; they're just wired this way.
This is the group most likely to commit political violence. As these followers move away from their discredited leaders, it's especially important that strong community voices make it absolutely clear that aggression will not be tolerated -- and will be prosecuted, either in the court of law or the court of public opinion. In particular, they need to be told in no uncertain terms that, in the larger community, there is no such a thing as a righteous or acceptable violent act. We know who they are; we regard them as troublemakers; and they will not enjoy our support or mercy if they continue to create problems within our community.
Soft-Core Followers: Back Toward the Mainstream
Unlike the hard core, the softer core of followers is far more likely to be sensitive to public embarrassment. In fact, being caught in fealty to a real low-life scoundrel can feel a lot like a betrayal to them. Their leader has exposed them to the jeers of their peers, and made them look personally ridiculous. For people who believe in their deepest hearts that they are more moral and righteous than others, the public and humiliating loss of moral authority within the community can lead to a moment of re-direction.
During that shift, many of them will be looking for stronger, more stable authority to lean on. Remember that RWA followers respond to legitimate authority -- and for most of the soft-care, that usually still includes the cops, courts, and clergy. It's critical to have these authorities standing by to provide the rules and structure these followers crave, and who can model constructive behavior.
We see this in small-town fundamentalist churches caught in pastor scandals. When the church disintegrates, some members move to other churches; but there's always a solid percentage that loses faith entirely. On a national scale, Rush Limbaugh and Bill O'Reilly have been losing listeners quarter over quarter since the news broke on their hillbilly heroin convictions and misplaced falafels, respectively. In all these cases, the followers who left were the ones “on the bubble,” with the strongest ties to the reality-based world. These are precisely the people we are most likely to welcome back over the Wall.
Looking at these three types in groups, and applying some of the lessons discussed earlier in the series, points us in some potentially useful directions when it comes to dealing with authoritarians at the local, regional, and national level. We'll look at some of those directions starting in the next part of this series.