Thursday, August 10, 2006

Cracks In The Wall, Part I: Defining the Authoritarian Personality

by Sara Robinson

We need to stop this. We have gone on too long assuming that our right-wing opponents are, in all times and places, unchangeable and unchanging. Yes, their arguments are confoundingly short on evidence and fact. Yes, their logic loops are closed up so tight as to be frustratingly impervious to reason. Yes, they absolutely do mean to do us -- and our democracy -- grievous harm.

Here's the good news. That Great Wall that separates our little reality-based community from The Fantasyland Next Door is not a monolith. Nor are the inmates of that Otherworld necessarily locked in there for all time and eternity. There's evidence -- from scientists, from experience, from history -- that there are cracks in that wall. They are small and subtle, to be sure (that's why nobody's ever noticed them before): at this point, they are mere hairlines, faint traces that are hard to spot without a good flashlight in the hands of someone who knows where to look. But, as someone who's spent much of her life pacing one side or the other of this wall, I am here to tell you: there are places where it fails. People do cross it, and survive to tell the tale. And, rather than continue to wallow in our frustration, it's high time we mapped those cracks, find effective ways to widen them, and eventually exploit them to help both afflicted individuals and our larger culture break through the insanity.

It will be slow, thoughtful, methodical work. What I'm offering here is just an opening tour of the rockwork, an explanation of where the cracks are and why they formed. At first, actual opportunities to exploit these weaknesses will be small and fleeting. But my hope is, with time and practice, we'll get more observant, and more creative, and more adroit in taking advantage of them when they appear. That's the goal of this series.

This first installment summarizes some pertinent ideas culled from John Dean's new book, Conservatives Without Conscience. These are some of the basic ideas and definitions I'll be using as a springboard in the posts that follow.

Dean wrote this book with the express goal of using his own status as a bestselling author to popularize decades of social science research that should be -- but isn't -- common knowledge among politically-literate Americans. If I had to bet, I'd guess that grousing, joking, analyzing, and commiserating over the confounding nature of the non-reality-based community probably accounts for a quarter of all the words ever produced in Left Blogistan. For several years now, we've been trying to puzzle this riddle out on our own, with limited success. But, happily, it turns out that social psychologists have had the map to the right-wing authoritarian mindset nailed down for years. Dean wants us all to know what they know.

Research into "authoritarian personalities" began in the aftermath of WWII, as scientists tried to figure out how otherwise civilized people succumbed to the charisma of Hitler and Mussolini and allowed themselves to be willingly led into committing notorious atrocities. The inquiry continued through Milgram's famous experiments at Stanford in the early 60s; later, some of it became subsumed in the work of The Fundamentalism Project convened by Martin Marty at the University of Chicago in the 1980s and early 90s. Long story short: there is now over 50 years of good data on these people coming from every corner of the social sciences; but since almost none of this has been common knowledge outside the academy, nobody on the progressive side has really been putting it to use. Dean clearly wrote the book hoping to change all that.

The bulk of Conservatives Without Conscience is based on the research of Dr. Robert Altemeyer of the University of Manitoba, a social psychologist specializing in the psychology of authoritarianism. Altemeyer received the prestigious Association for the Advancement of Science prize for behavioral sciences for this research, and it is widely accepted in academia (though, as you might imagine, not so much among conservatives!). What follows is my brief synopsis of Dean's brief synopsis of some of Altemeyer's findings.

Leaders and Followers
Authoritarians come in two flavors: leaders and followers. The two tiers are driven by very different motivations; and understanding these differences is the first key to understanding how authoritarian social structures work.

Leaders form just a small fraction of the group. Social scientists refer to this group as having a high "social dominance orientation (SDO)" -- a set of traits that can be readily identified with psychological testing. "These are people who seize every opportunity to lead, and who enjoy having power over others," says Dean -- and they have absolutely no qualms about objectifying people and breaking rules to advance their own ambitions. High-SDO personalities tend to emerge very early in life (which suggests at least some genetic predisposition): you probably remember a few from your own sandbox days, and almost certainly have known a few who've made your adult life a living hell as well.

High-SDO people are characterized by four core traits: they are dominating, opposed to equality, committed to expanding their own personal power, and amoral. These are usually accompanied by other unsavory traits, many of which render them patently unsuitable for leadership roles in a democracy:

Typically men
Intimidating and bullying
Faintly hedonistic
Cheat to win
Highly prejudiced (racist, sexist, homophobic)
Tells others what they want to hear
Takes advantage of "suckers"
Specializes in creating false images to sell self
May or may not be religious
Usually politically and economically conservative/Republican

Dean notes: "Although these collations of characteristics…are not attractive portraits, the are nonetheless traits that authoritarians themselves acknowledge." In other words, these guys know what they are, and are often quite unabashedly proud of it.

High-SDO people are drawn to power, and will seek it ruthlessly and relentlessly, regardless of the consequences to others. Many cultures (including ours, up until a few decades ago) have found these people so dangerous that they've evolved counterweights and backstops that conspire to either keep them away from the levers of power, or mitigate the damage they can do (and I'll discuss some of those in the last installment). However, modern America seems to have lost all vestiges of this awareness. Now, we celebrate our most powerful social dominants, pay them obscene salaries, turn them into media stars, and hand over the keys to the empire to them almost gratefully. They have free rein to pursue their ambitions unchecked, with no cultural brakes on their rapacity. They will do whatever they can get away with; and we'll not only let them, but often cheer them on.

We’re now at the point where these sleek Machivellian manipulators are recognized around the world as the face of American business and governmental authority. While the bulk of "Conservatives Without Conscience" goes on to explain the ways in which various members of the Bush administration have demonstrated classic high-SDO behavior, I'd also argue that our willingness to accept high-SDO leadership also accounts for toxic bosses, incompetent business planning, crooked accounting, political graft, and many of the other dysfunctions that afflict American corporate life as well.

And yet, while these leaders are compelling, they will not be the main focus of my discussion of authoritarians. As I said: these personality traits emerge as early as three or four, and people who have them are almost always well beyond the reach of change. They have always been with us, and probably always will be. Since they represent a very small slice of the population, dealing with them effectively will, in practice, largely involve strategies to recognize them, isolate them, and prevent them from aggregating large hordes of followers.

It's those followers that we need to look at -- because they are sometimes capable of change, if you know where the leverage points are. The next two parts of this series will focus exclusively on them; for now, let's look at what Dean and Altemeyer have to say.

While the high-SDO leaders are defined by Dean as dominating, opposed to equality, desirous of personal power, and amoral, right-wing authoritarian followers have a different but very complementary set of motivations. The three core traits that define them are:

1. Submission to authority. "These people accept almost without question the statements and actions of established authorities, and comply with such instructions without further ado" writes Dean. "[They] are intolerant of criticism of their authorities, because they believe the authority is unassailably correct. Rather than feeling vulnerable in the presence of powerful authorities, they feel safer. For example, they are not troubled by government surveillance of citizens because they think only wrongdoers need to be concerned by such intrusions. Still, their submission to authority is not blind or automatic; [they] believe there are proper and improper authorities…and their decision to submit is shaped by whether a particular authority is compatible with their views."

2. Aggressive support of authority. Right-wing followers do not hesitate to inflict physical, psychological, financial, social, or other forms of harm on those they see as threatening the legitimacy of their belief system and their chosen authority figure. This includes anyone they see as being too different from their norm (like gays or racial minorities). It's also what drives their extremely punitive attitude toward discipline and justice. Notes Dean: "Authoritarian aggression is fueled by fear and encouraged by a remarkable self-righteousness, which frees aggressive impulses."

3. Conventionality. Right-wing authoritarian followers prefer to see the world in stark black-and-white. They conform closely with the rules defined for them by their authorities, and do not stray far from their own communities. This extreme, unquestioning conformity makes them insular, fearful, hostile to new information, uncritical of received wisdom, and able to accept vast contradictions without perceiving the inherent hypocrisy.

Conformity also feeds their sense of themselves as more moral and righteous than others -- a perception that's usually buttressed by the use of magical absolution techniques that they use to "evaporate guilt," in Dean's words. Because they confessed, or are saved, or were just following orders, they can commit heinous crimes and still retain a serene conscience and sense that they are "righteous people." On the other hand, when it comes to outsiders, there is no absolution. Their memory for even minor transgressions is nothing short of elephantine (as Bill Clinton knows all too well).

Dean lists other traits of right-wing authoritarian followers, most of which flow directly from the three core traits above:

Both men and women
Highly religious
Moderate to little education
Trust untrustworthy authorities
Prejudiced (particularly against homosexuals, women, and followers of religions other than their own)
Uncritical toward chosen authority
Inconsistent and contradictory
Prone to panic easily
Highly self-righteous
Strict disciplinarian
Severely punitive
Demands loyalty and returns it
Little self-awareness
Usually politically conservative/Republican

Remember this list, because these specific characteristics form the foundation of the discussion that will unfold in the next two posts. It is these traits that we will find the cracks in the wall.

As a final point: Dean's book puts to rest once and for all the right-wing shibboleth of "liberal fundamentalists" and "liberal authoritarians." Altemeyer and his colleagues have found, through decades of research, that authoritarians almost universally skew toward the far reactionary right on the political scale. This very much includes Stalinists and other "left-wing" totalitarians: though these men used socialist rhetoric to create "Communist" political orders, they're classic examples of high-SDO leaders taking control by whatever means they had at hand, and using them to create archetypal far-right authoritarian states. Dean and Altemeyer make it clear that authoritarianism is, by long-accepted definition, overwhelmingly a right-wing personality trait.

Dean is also emphatic that authoritarianism, in all its forms, is completely antithetical to both classical conservatism (he still considers himself a Goldwater conservative), and to the founding ideals of America. We must be clear: when right-wingers threaten liberals, they are directly threatening the seminal political impulse that created our nation. An operative democracy depends on having a populace that is open to new ideas, able to think for itself, confident in its abilities, willing to take risks, and capable of mutual trust. America was founded as the world's first radically liberal state. History has shown us that the nation's best moments, past and future, are created by people with a strong liberal orientation.

Authoritarians aren't merely constitutionally incapable of this kind of cultural and political openness; they are actively hostile to it, and seek to stamp it out wherever they find it. Everything in their souls drives them to dismantle the democratic impulse, and bring people under the heel of hierarchical authority -- which is why history has also shown us that the nation's worst moments, past and future, are created by people with a strong right-wing authoritarian orientation.

In my next post, I'll move away from Dean's book, and into a deeper look at the psychology of right-wing followers. We'll take a brief look at some of the reasons people are drawn into right-wing authoritarian belief systems -- and a longer look at the events that cause some of these same followers to eventually choose to abandon those systems.

It's in those reasons that we'll begin to find the cracks of daylight. See you Saturday.

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