May 2007


Alert reader Butsuri points out that Bob Altemeyer’s book The Authoritarians is available online. It’s very much worth reading, perhaps even more so than Dean’s book. A few key factoids about authoritarians not covered below:

  • Though highly moralistic, they are incredibly forgiving of their leaders… which is why the Republicans have been taken over by ruthless amoral social dominators. 
  • They do poorly on tests of logic… they don’t seem to grasp errors in an argument, and seem to evaluate a conclusion based on whether they already agree with it. 
  • Without leaders, they’re rather passive. Altemeyers had a group of authoritarians play a simulation of world politics, with and without a sprinkling of social dominators. Without them, the authoritarians sat timidly in their national groups, making no attempt to deal with the problems of the world. With the dominators, the game quickly devolved into a global nuclear war. 
  • There are a couple of effective ways of reducing authoritarians’ more negative traits.
    • Greater experience. Authoritarians tend to dislike gays, for instance… unless they’ve met one. Authoritarians often live in a very provincial environment; they loosen up a fair amount if (say) they go to a large university and mix with other people.
    • Shame. Authoritarians don’t like to stray from the norm. If they learn that their attitudes are extreme, they start to moderate them.

After reading Altemeyer, I’m tending to look for these personality types all over. E.g. in the recent film The Lives of Others, which is about the East German Stasi, the main character, an emotionally frigid observer, is clearly an authoritarian; his bosses are social dominators. (Authoritarians gravitate toward the right wing, but of course in a communist state they identify with the communist authorities.)

For years I’ve wondered about two things: 1. Where did all these conservatives come from? 2. And what the hell is wrong with them?

John Dean answers both questions in Conservatives Without Conscience. Dean is a Goldwater Republican himself, and offers a somewhat critical history of the conservative movement from its ancient origins, circa 1951. (Dean shows that attempts to find earlier antecedents are largely mythologizing.)

As he presents it, conservativism is a fairly reasonable philosophy, all of whose grand values— small government, fiscal responsibility, restrictions on the executive, states’ rights, respect for precedent and for institutions, skepticism about utopian schemes— have been repudiated by the Republican Party to the point of mockery.

How did this happen? Dean illuminates his political history with Robert Altemeyer’s theories of personality. In particular, Altemeyer identifies two types, the Right-Wing Authoritarian (RWAs) and the Social Dominators— and Dean describes how they have taken over conservativism and the Republicans.

These are not ideological positions but social types. Indeed, RWAs can be identified in nursery school: they’re the children who are inhibited, conformist, intolerant of ambiguity; the little girls are in addition neat, shy, and compliant, and the little boys are moralistic and unadventurous, and enjoy telling others what to do.

RWAs are natural followers— though they only follow leaders they approve of, which explains why the right worshipped “Our Leader” Bush while never respecting Clinton. They are highly conventional; they consider themselves very moral; they don’t think very critically; they view the world as a dangerous place where only their leaders can be trusted. And they’re easily moved to aggression against outsiders, if their leaders advocate it.

Social Dominators are not just leaders, but people who seize every opportunity to control other people. They are strongly inegalitarian, value unfeeling toughness, and are frankly immoral.

Leaders, even conservative leaders, don’t have to be Social Dominators. Goldwater wasn’t; Reagan wasn’t. But the Social Dominators have taken over the party: Bush, Cheney, Rove, DeLay, Gingrich, and the rest— ruthless people with no scruples. And the RWAs support them uncritically.

All this should be appalling not only to liberals but to principled conservatives and libertarians. And for that matter anyone who values effective government. As Joshua Marshall points out, these things are connected:

The president’s critics are always accusing him of law-breaking or unconstitutional acts and then also berating the incompetence of his governance. And it’s often treated as, well… he’s power-hungry and incompetent to boot! Imagine that! The point though is that they are directly connected. Authoritarianism and secrecy breed incompetence; the two feed on each other. Governments with authoritarian tendencies point to what is in fact their own incompetence as the rationale for giving them yet more power.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 117 other followers