One book, no movies: The Authoritarians

Between unpacking and TYG’s surgery, I didn’t get a lot of reading or done the past week (go figure). So I’ll discuss one I read a few weeks back that I saved to discuss separately, because it’s that interesting.
Robert Altemeyer’s THE AUTHORITARIANS is a study of what he calls “right-wing authoritarian followers.” Right-wing not in the sense that they’re conservative but that they support established authority (as opposed to left-wing authoritarians who favor revolutionary leaders). Authoritarian in that they trust, blindly, established authority and believe it should have great power to deal with all threats, foreign and domestic. And followers in that these aren’t the people who seize power, but the people who want someone else to seize it and tell everyone what to do.
Altemeyer says in the book that while it’s easy to imagine why someone would want to rule as a dictator, he was curious what characteristic led people to support that kind of power without participating (yes, the post-9/11 era of Republican extremism was on his mind). What he found was that right-wing authoritarians—who can be anyone from conservative Christians to Communists in the USSR (loyal Soviet citizens show the same authoritarian attitudes as the hard right in the USA). What they have in common is not politics as much as:
•Intense support for anyone they consider a legitimate leader. Said support includes a belief that you don’t question leaders, argue with them or expect them to obey the same standards as everyone else.
•Willingness to use violence. Though not at all inclined to be lone vigilantes, they have no problems dealing with troublemakers as long as the government or the community is with them. They even like the idea.
•General intolerance for nonconformity or dissent. Anyone who doesn’t shut up and obey the leaders deserves punishment.
•Fear. For the typical authoritarian follower, society is on the brink of collapse. and anyone who questions the way things have always been done or crosses the traditional moral boundaries is bringing on armageddon.
Altemeyer is very clear this is not some unique state of mind, more like a magnification of traits in most of us. In the authoritarian case, they’re exacerbated by growing up in an authoritarian family where parents always know best, and not being exposed to anything outside your comfort zone (meeting people of different faiths, races or sexualities tends to lower authoritarian rankings). While religion doesn’t lead to authoritarianism per se, it can make the traits that much more intense since now the authority dissenters are challenging is God’s.
The appropriateness of the leader is also very significant. Clinton, for example, was despised by millions on the right: He was anti-war, moderately liberal, gave us Don’t Ask Don’t Tell (up until that point, homosexuality had been a dischargeable offense, whether you told or not) and had a wife who saw herself as an equal partner in matters political, all of which went against The Way Things Should Be. So the rabid authoritarians on the Repub fringe couldn’t stomach him, whereas they lined up to support Bush and Cheney, who evaded the draft just like Clinton but said all the right political things (like how they supported the war they didn’t fight in). Authoritarians have a high ability to maintain double standards and ignore bad logic if they like the conclusions (though again, this is an intensified version of something that shows up in non-authoritarians too).
I do find Altemeyer’s use of right-wing/left-wing a little clumsy (though I’m not sure what would work better) and I do wish he’d gone into more detail on left-wing revolutionary authoritarians. What would the personality differences be between one of the Patriot militiamen who opposes Obama and Clinton before him and say, a Red Brigade or Weather Underground member? Or is there one?
You can find Altemeyer’s book available for free download from his website, along with updates on the 2008 election and the Tea Party. They’re all worth reading.


Filed under Politics, Reading

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