What is an “Authoritarian?”
Well, if you were an authoritarian, you probably wouldn’t even ask that question. For you, an “authoritarian” is whatever I tell you it is: authoritarians are people who accept beliefs based on simple assertion from an authority figure. In this case, since this is my blog, I say that’s what an authoritarian is, so there you go, let’s move on, we’ve got other things to talk about.
Authoritarians prefer not to argue, especially not about definitions, because definitions are notoriously tricky.[stderr] Besides, if you don’t actually define things you have a great deal of wiggle-room: “FREEDOM!” We are all in favor of freedom, and it’s good. So let’s go get some.
If I were being serious about being an authoritarian, and I had tried to sell you on the idea that we all want FREEDOM without saying what it is, I’ve just pulled one of the most basic political scams on you, ever. I could turn around and repeal your medical insurance and tell you, “see?! There’s your FREEDOM!” because I got away with asserting something without doing the dirty work of backfilling my position – without explaining my words.
Another form of authoritarianism is divine fiat. The authoritarian simply says “deus vull’t” and there you go, that’s enough justification. I see a bunch of possibilities as to what’s going on, and I believe they are all present to some degree:
- Intellectual laziness: the authoritarian follower doesn’t want to have to think, so they just accept truths
- Nature: perhaps there are some people who are predisposed by the way their minds are constructed to be accepting of other people’s truths
- Critical period: perhaps children are more accepting of other peoples’ truths because that’s part of how we learn; we accept truths from authorities for a period in our lives because accepting truths is learning
- Delivery of truths: perhaps some people are better at being convincing, and convey their ideas of the truth more effectively and energetically
It seems superficial and easy to dismiss people who accept authority as being intellectually lazy yet I certainly am guilty of assuming that one of the mechanisms behind religion’s success is intellectual laziness – coupled with religion’s active attempt to produce educationally stunted believers. Perhaps the best observation on inculcating authoritarianism is Francis Xavier: “Give me the child until he is 7, and I will give you the man.”
If you aren’t familiar with Robert Altemeyer’s book, “The Authoritarians” you should be. It’s fascinating, though I am on the fence as to the degree to which he is right about certain things. For one thing, Altemeyer engages in a kind of circular definition that I am uncomfortable with. What is an authoritarian follower? Well, we know that a certain collection of attitudes and behaviors goes together, so we rank and score them and call someone an “authoritarian follower” if they score high. How do we know that those are the attitudes and behaviors of authoritarianism? Based on the questionnaire. It seems to me that there are lots of clusters of attitudes and behaviors that can be arranged and questioned in this manner: skepticism, religiousity, food preferences, etc. And such collections of attitudes and behaviors can come with predictive power – if you answer 100 questions about food in a manner that indicates that you don’t like to eat meat, I can eventually claim to have produced a “veganism index” and it will do a good enough job of predicting your attitude about pulled pork sandwiches.
Altemeyer’s book is available for free on the web [alt] though there appear to be some inconveniently timed changes in his hosting arrangement. It’s also available on various caches Every time I look at the book, I have washes of mixed feelings. The skeptical part of me groans “Ah! Social Science! Political commentary masquerading as experiment!” Other parts of me go, “This is really interesting!” One thing I want to do is avoid the Event Horizon of Irony and not simply accept a book about authoritarians based on the authority of Robert Altemeyer.
Perhaps if you’re interested, you’ll take the Altemeyer survey first and then proceed. It is here.
What is Authoritarianism?
Authoritarianism is something authoritarian followers and authoritarian leaders cook up between themselves. It happens when the followers submit too much to the leaders, trust them too much, and give them too much leeway to do whatever they want–which often is something undemocratic, tyrannical and brutal. In my day, authoritarian fascist and authoritarian communist dictatorships posed the biggest threats to democracies, and eventually lost to them in wars both hot and cold. But authoritarianism itself has not disappeared, and I’m going to present the case in this book that the greatest threat to American democracy today arises from a militant authoritarianism that has become a cancer upon the nation.
We know an awful lot about authoritarian followers. In one way or another, hundreds of social scientists have studied them since World War II. We have a pretty good idea of who they are, where they come from, and what makes them tick. By comparison, we know little about authoritarian leaders because we only recently started studying them. That may seem strange, but how hard is it to figure out why someone would like to have massive amounts of power? The psychological mystery has always been, why would someone prefer a dictatorship to freedom? So social scientists have focused on the followers, who are seen as the main, underlying problem.
Some of that makes sense, some of it does not. Some of it matches my reality but some of it does not. For one thing, my brain immediately locks its brakes heading toward “the greatest threat to American democracy” and skids into the ditch. American democracy? And I find myself rejecting the idea that “authoritarian communist dictatorships” were even a thing – the fact that some dictatorship called itself the “socialist worker’s paradise of whatever” doesn’t mean they were communist – it just means they were liars. Like the people who talk about American democracy. There is a great deal of use of emotionally loaded language here (and in the survey!) but I guess that’s the point: when you are studying people’s attitudes toward political manipulation, how do you avoid political manipulation?
I have read this book maybe a half dozen times and this time, I am very skeptical about it. Yet, I still say Altemeyer is worth reading because there are really fascinating nuggets:
High RWAs tend to feel more endangered in a potentially threatening situation than most people do, and often respond aggressively. In 1987 my colleague Gerry Sande and I had five-man teams of male introductory psychology students role-play NATO in an “international simulation” involving (they thought) another team of students playing as the Warsaw Pact. Some of the NATO teams were composed entirely of low RWA students, and other NATO teams were stocked entirely with highs. (We experimenters secretly played the Warsaw Pact.) The simulation began with a couple of ambiguous moves by the Warsaw Pact, such as holding military exercises earlier than anticipated, and withdrawing divisions to rear areas (possibly for rest, or –as Dr. Strangelove might argue–possibly for redeployment for an attack).
The NATO teams could respond with nonthreatening or threatening moves of varying magnitudes. But if they made threats, the Warsaw pact responded with twice as much threat in return, and the NATO team would reap what it had sown as an escalation of aggressive moves would likely result.
The low RWA teams did not interpret the ambiguous moves at the beginning of the game as serious threats and thus seldom made threatening moves. The high RWAs on the other hand usually reacted to the opening Warsaw Pact moves aggressively, and sowed a whirlwind. Over the course of the simulation, the high RWA teams made ten times as much threat as the low teams did, and usually brought the world to the brink of nuclear war.
On this re-reading, my alarm bells keep ringing. The experimenters played the Warsaw Pact? Did they always play it the same way? Wouldn’t it have been better to have a computer consistently playing the same move-tree?
Right-wing authoritarians are prejudiced compared to other people. That does not mean they think that Jews can’t be trusted at all, that all Black people are naturally violent, or that every Japanese is cruel. High RWAs may, as a group, even disagree with these blatantly racist statements. However they don’t disagree very much, while most people strongly or very strongly disagree. So authoritarian followers are relatively prejudiced, which means it would presumably take less persuasion or social pressure to get them to discriminate than it would most people.
See what I mean? People who express attitudes that are typical of other attitudes, tend to hold those other attitudes. If I had enough questions about your meat-eating preference (Question #1: “I feel bad when I think of the creature I am eating”) constructed over years, my survey would probably correlate highly with vegetarianism. The question is: what would my survey allow me to learn about vegetarians?
Since followers do virtually all of the assaulting and killing in authoritarian systems–the leaders see to this most carefully–we are dealing with very serious matters here. Anyone who follows orders can become a murderer for an authoritarian regime. But authoritarian followers find it easier to bully, harass, punish, maim, torture, “eliminate,” “liquidate,” and “exterminate” their victims than most people do. We saw in chapter 1 that high RWAs are more likely to inflict strong electric shocks in a fake learning experiment in which they choose the punishment level, are more likely to sentence common criminals to long jail sentences, are more likely to be prejudiced, are more willing to join “posses” organized by authorities to hunt down and persecute almost any group you can think of, are more mean-spirited, and are more likely to blame victims of misfortune for the calamities that befall them. So while on the surface high RWAs can be pleasant, sociable, and friendly, they seemingly have a lot of hostility boiling away inside them that their authorities can easily unleash. Indeed, this authoritarian aggression is one of the three defining elements of right-wing authoritarianism. What causes it?
A Psychoanalytic Explanation
Several theories have tried to explain authoritarian aggression, and the Freudian one has long been the best known. I was quite seduced by its ingenuity and drama when I first heard of it. Let’s see if it can seduce you.
Supposedly the future authoritarian follower was severely punished as a child by his cold, distant parents for any signs of independence or rebellion. So such urges were repressed. Instead through a reaction-formation the child became obedient, loyal, even adoring of his parents. But deep down inside he hated them. However the Freudian “deep down inside” doesn’t have a shredder or burn-basket, so ultimately the repressed hostility has to come out some way. Thus the authoritarian follower projected his hostility onto safe targets, such as groups whom the parents disliked or people who couldn’t fight back, and decided they were out to get him. That projection provided the rationalization for attacking them and, voila, you have authoritarian aggression–thanks to just about all the ego defense mechanisms in Freud’s book.
In fairness to Altemeyer, he realizes that the Freudian interpretation he presents (which is actually fairly generous) is BS:
One gets nowhere with a theory that can “predict” whatever happened, after it happens. Having an answer for everything may make one a great used car salesman, but it rings the death knell for a theory in science. In science, the best explanations are nailed-down-testable.
He then continues:
Bandura’s Social Learning Theory of Aggression
A more testable explanation of aggression in general has been provided by Albert Bandura of Stanford University. Bandura says that aggression occurs after two switches are thrown. First some bad feeling like anger or envy stirs up hostility. But that by itself won’t lead to aggression. An angry individual who wants to attack someone may anticipate getting punched in return, or ending up in jail. Or he may have moral restraints against hurting others. So the second stage involves overcoming these restraints, setting aside these inhibitions, letting the aggression erupt and flow.
Sometimes it’s all rather predictable: authoritarians’ parents taught fear of homosexuals, radicals, atheists and pornographers. But they also warned their children, more than most parents did, about kidnappers, reckless drivers, bullies and drunks–bad guys who would seem to threaten everyone’s children. So authoritarian followers, when growing up, probably lived in a scarier world than most kids do, with a lot more boogeymen hiding in dark places, and they’re still scared as adults. For them, gay marriage is not just unthinkable on religious grounds, and unnerving because it means making the “abnormal” acceptable. It’s yet one more sign that perversion is corrupting society from the inside-out, leading to total chaos. Many things, from stem cell research to right-to-die legislation, say to them, “This is the last straw; soon we’ll be plunged into the abyss.” So probably did, in earlier times, women’s suffrage, the civil rights movement, sex education and Sunday shopping.
The thing that’s so interesting about this stuff is that it rings true, to a certain degree. But then, so do horoscopes. Altemeyer throws out the idea that maybe authoritarianism is inherited, or maybe it’s learned, or maybe it’s some combination of the two. <snark>That neatly covers all the possibilities, doesn’t it?</snark> As Altemeyer says:
One gets nowhere with a theory that can “predict” whatever happened, after it happens. Having an answer for everything may make one a great used car salesman, but it rings the death knell for a theory in science.
This stuff is all cracking good fun, but what happens when it sinks into the popular culture and is taken seriously? I have a friend who lost a high-paying job at a tech company because their Myers-Briggs Type Index showed that they were a “personality type” that does not play well with others. What happens if some company were to use the authoritarian attitudes questionnaire to decide who is management material and who is not? Is it relevant to mention now that my friend who lost the job because of MBTI is an outspoken and threateningly talented young woman?
I will say for the record that I have no definition to offer for “authoritarian” – I am using it as a label of convenience for discussion only. Do not take internally, void where prohibited, some settling may have occurred in shipping and crushing.
“Delivery of truths: ” In his book Aristoi,[wikipedia] Walter Jon Williams presents a fictional future in which researchers have figured out the deep gestural and postural languages of the body. They can be extra-convincing, subliminally, by adopting the postures of confidence, or command, or whatever. I find this idea simultaneously appealing and appalling: it’s hard not to watch authoritarians in action and not see common touches: big hats, arrogant postures, body dimension-defining military wear, a certain tilt of the head, pumping hands in the air, flared nostrils, etc. If we accept the idea that there may be threat displays in other animals, what if there are subliminal components of threat displays used subconsciously by authoritarians to cow their subjects?
Circular logic and pulled pork sandwiches: In my comment here, I allude to this problem. It affects the usefulness of language, for me, because words become just collections of words, unless there is some kind of detection test that can be applied in the absence of the label. If someone had a blood-test for authoritarianism, I’d be more inclined to accept that authoritarianism is not just a game of labels.
Freud: Altemeyer wrote The Authoritarians in 2006; the stink of Freud still lingers in the social sciences.
Perhaps if you’re interested: I score 15%.
MBTI friend: I suggested that she begin legal action, but instead she went to another start-up where she quickly became a multimillionaire off stock options. Laughter is the best revenge. She’s still outspoken and threateningly talented and the company she departed from is still floundering and mismanaged.
I think a lot of why social science work like Altemeyer’s has traction is because he tells us what we already believe (confirmation bias) but he does it in a way that makes us feel smart and perceptive. On his site he also has some wonderfully dismissive labelling of the Tea Party [alt](guess what: there are a lot of authoritarian followers in the Tea Party) and tosses out some chewy nuggets like:
These attitudes come right out of the catechism of the other authoritarian personality that research has discovered, the social dominators. Their defining characteristic is opposition to equality. They believe instead in dominance, both personal (if they can pull it off) and in their group dominating other groups. They endorse using intimidation, threats, and power to enrich themselves at the expense of others. This is the natural order of things, they believe. “It is a mistake to interfere with the “law of the jungle,” they argue. Some people were meant to dominate others.” “Its a dog eat dog world in which the superior people get to the top.” Such people may want government to stick to running fire departments so they can rise/stay above others unimpeded. Research shows that social dominators are power – hungry, mean, amoral, and even more prejudiced than the authoritarian followers described earlier. They want unfairness throughout society. Barack Obama, and the ludicrous perception that he is going to lead African-Americans in “taking over America” would be their worst nightmare. So the hypothesis that the Tea Party movement has more than its fair share of social dominators may have merit.