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30 September 2007 Blog Home : September 2007 : Permalink

The Authoritarians

Thanks to a comment on a thread at making light I came across a book by a Professor Robert Altemeyer called "The Authoritarians". I found the book interesting and well worth reading, which isn't to say that I accepted everything written as "gospel". In fact I agreed with certain large chunks of it and yet found that other parts made me want to slap the author with a clue by four - repeatedly and with extreme prejudice. The book is about the people who become authoritarian leaders and, even more, about the people who support such leaders and, for various reasons, the leaders/followers studied are typically on the conservative/right end of the political spectrum. The author, Dr Bob, has been studying this phenomenon for quite a while and has mucho results of surveys, tests etc etc to back up what he writes and the results are very very interesting.

I believe this book should be read by everyone including the religious right that the book analyses. I also think that the book would be vastly improved if it didn't rant on about George W and his evil theocons quite so much because a lot of the rant is likely to look, IMO, damn stupid in a few years. However I can say that aside from the rants, and I'm going to attack those specifically in a moment, the book crystalized and explained a lot of the things that have confused me about the American religious right. In other words I can say that certain chunks of this book rang absolutely true with my own experience and I would very much like the opinion of religious right wing bloggers on the book because I'd love to know what the people who match up to Dr Bob's definitions of Right Wing Authoritarians (RWAs) think of how he perceives them.

To start with the book gives the reader a chance to identify how much of an authoritarian he or she is by adding up numbers on a personality test. I scored what I believe is an unusually low number on the test (55) because Dr Bob says that:

The lowest total possible would be 20, and the highest, 180, but real scores are almost never that extreme. Introductory psychology students at my Canadian university average about 75. Their parents average about 90. Both scores are below the mid-point of the scale, which is 100, so most people in these groups are not authoritarian followers in absolute terms. Neither are most Americans, it seems. Mick McWilliams and Jeremy Keil administered the RWA scale to a reasonably representative sample of 1000 Americans in 2005 for the Libertarian Party and discovered an average score of 90.

In other words, and not at all to my surprise since I class myself politically as some combo of libertarian/ capitalist/ anarchist, I am not an authoritarian. Yet, and this is where I begin to have reservations about some of the blanket statements made later on, I found myself finding places where I would actually adopt the seriously authoritarian answer, in fact in some cases you could put me up at the willing stormtrooper end of the scale. For example there is the "posse" question concerning the danger of religious cults:

Suppose the federal government, some time in the future, passed a law outlawing various religious cults. Government officials then stated that the law would only be effective if it were vigorously enforced at the local level and appealed to everyone to aid in the fight against these cults.

Please respond to the following statements according to the following scale:

-4 indicates the statement is extremely untrue of you.
-3 indicates the statement is very untrue of you.
etc. to:
+4 indicates the statement is extremely true of you.

  1. I would tell my friends and neighbors it was a good law.
  2. I would tell the police about any religious cults I knew.
  3. If asked by the police, I would help hunt down and arrest members of religious cults.
  4. I would participate in attacks on religious cult meeting places if organized by the proper authorities.
  5. I would support the use of physical force to make cult members reveal the identity of other cult members.
  6. I would support the execution of religious cult leaders if he government insisted it was necessary to protect the country.
I can think of plausible cases e.g. Hamas/Hezbollah or Wahhabi Islam, or militant enviromentalism (which I class as a religion), or for that matter potentially some militant fundamentalist Christian offshoot, where I'd probably be saying yes in various degrees to these questions. Now this has to be tempered with a large chunk of "it depends on the details" because I wouldn't go along with this just because the government passed the law and I could also imagine cases where I'd be running underground railroads etc etc to protect persecuted believers too but under some circumstances I could be one of the storm-troopers. The issue is that I wouldn't do it because the government said so, I'd do it because I agreed with the government's position. However Dr Bob writes:

I’ll assume, because I know what a fine person you are, that you would respond to each of these statements with a -4 or a -3. Most people do. But not authoritarian followers. They typically answer with -2s and -1s, and sometimes even say, “Yes I would.” If that shocks you, remember that the premise behind “Posse” runs right down Main Street in the authoritarian aggression mind-set. When the authorities say, “Go get ‘em,” the high RWAs saddle up.

In other words Dr Bob may well be in danger of overgeneralizing. Having said that Dr Bob goes on to explain that he asks the same or similar question for groups other than religions and there I suspect I'd quite often fall in the more normal category and I agree that his overall point that authoritarians are likely to go along with something because the "government" says it is a good idea even if they harbour disagreements about the underlying truth.

This, in fact, is where the book is good. Whether you like the name "Right Wing Authoritarian" or you prefer to call them something else (religious sheeple for example) is irrelevant. There is undoubtedly a part of humanity (and it is not, as Dr Bob sometimes seems to hint, purely a North American phenomenon) who like their lives regular and regulated and who don't want things too complicated. For these people religion makes a great framework because it provides them with a simple set of rules for life, a simple way to judge other people and so on. This does not mean, and Dr Bob makes clear he doesn't think it does, that all (fundamentalist) religious people are of this sort. Nor does it mean (and again Dr Bob makes this clear) that said folk are unredeemably bad. They aren't. They are in fact generous with their time and money to causes that they agree with and are precisely the sorts of people who organize the scouts, the sports leagues and all the other things that make places into communities. The issue, and here again I agree with Dr Bob, is when they get caught following the wrong leader.

Unfortunately this is also where I start to disagree with Dr Bob because this is where he becomes far too parochial - for people reading the book this is chapter 5 and beyond. But let us start with the agreement bit. Dr Bob reports that other researchers have identified a separate group of amoral power hungry folk (the Social Dominance Orientation group) and that people who score highly on either Dr Bob's RWA scale or this SDO scale tended to score highly in tests to identify prejudice, discrimination and a host of other relatively unpleasant traits. Interstingly though the SDO and RWA tests have only a weak correlation so that in fact it looks like the tests are identifying two mostly spearate groups of bigots. No matter what Dr Bob says the SDO scale seems to be measuring what I'd call elitism and in many cases these days it looks to me like it correlates highly with politicians of all stripes as well as with groups such as MoveOn.org and other frothing moonbats. However as Dr Bob points out there are some people who score fairly highly on both the SDO scale and the RWA scale and these, Dr Bob claims (and I tend to agree) are the people who become fundamentalist leaders.

These people are scary. They mouth (and even convince themselves to some degree) the same religious dogmas of their RWA followers but unlike their followers they are amoral power hungry scum who think rules apply to the others. These people Dr Bob suggests are the leaders of the "religious right/christian coalition" and have infiltrated the US Republican party and are going to lead it towards a future as the party with an authoritarian jackboot trampling over the liberties of the US constitution etc. etc. Well maybe. But going on my reading of right wing and religious blogs they may try but their hypocrisy will always catch them out and since RWA followers tend to be intolerant of hypocrites once properly exposed they are doomed. Now Dr Bob does state, and I can see evidence for this, that RWA followers tend to be more easy going on the foibles of their leaders than they are on other people but that is a question of degree not an absolute and if enough groups of different political persuasions combine then it looks to me like RWAs will chuck their former leaders out on their ear with little or no chance for rehabilitation. Hence in the USA, unlike Dr Bob's beliefs in Chpater 7, I think the dangers of a takeover by a bunch of religious RWAs and their amoral leaders is remote because there is far too much free speech around.

Outside the USA (and Canada) we have a problem. Because I see nothing in Dr Bob's research that would not also apply to other religious/political groups; for example ones that originate in the third middle-eastern monotheirstic religion - Islam. Ahmadinejad, Arafat, Nasrallah, Bin Laden, to name just a few, seem like classic "double tops" in Dr Bob's nomenclature - i.e. people who score highly on both the RWA and SDO scales. Unlike the Western world their followers are unused to free speech, frequently they are borderline illiterate, and the leaders are not exposed to the sort of scrutiny that catches out the US's "double tops". This ought to be far more scary to a rational mind than worrying about Bushitler but Dr Bob doesn't seem to think so, and that to my mind is where his book falls down.

In fact even ignoring the scummy leaders, fundamentalist Islam as a religion would seem to appeal directly to the RWAs throughout the world which may well explain why Wahhabism has spread quite effectively once it started to get serious Saudi funding. Fundamentalist Islam is far more intolerant of infidels, women, blacks, gays etc. than (almost) any Christian sect today and combines these qualities with breathtaking arrogance that claims that non-believers owe the believer a living and so on. Religion, as Heinlein said somewhere, is a crutch for people not strong enough to stand up to the unknown without help. The fact that some, perhaps many, believers are strong people who do not need the crutch does not, IMO, detract from the basic accuracy of this statement. In the decadent "post religious" society of Western Europe it should not be a surprise that fundamentalist Islam is popular amongst the parts of society that our glorious leaders pretend do not exist - the unassimilated drug dealing immigrants and other rejects from society.

I'll put it simply - if Dr Bob is right in his science - and it looks highly plausible to me, because it reflects a lot of what I have observed about Americans and humanity in general, then Dr Bob's Chapter 7 where he rails on about Bushitler is a classic case of not seeing the wood for the trees. The Religious Right in the USA is not the main threat. As Dr Bob points out RWAs who meet and interact with individuals of the sorts they claim to despise tend to come out of that more tolerant than they used to be. In the USA it is easy for RWAs to knowing interact with a whole spectrum of other sorts of people and hence their tolerance for others will tend to increase which, in turn, means that the religious right is not going to actually implement the jackbooted theocratic tyranny Dr Bob fears. Outside the USA this is far from the case. Indeed Saudi Arabia and Iran are precisely what Dr Bob fears that the US will become and other nations and ghettos in Western Europe are heading that way.

I'll close with a more positive note. Dr Bob says that Iraq was a mistake and quagmire etc. etc. If current trends on casualties and so on continue then this will not be quite as obvious as Dr Bob claims. Indeed if we look at the Anbar Awakening and the surger in general what we are seeing is that the Iraqi people, having experienced both fascist dictatorship (under Saddam) and theorcratic tyranny (under Al Qaeda etc.) are now able to see that the US option of democracy and freedom is better. If this trend continues than Dr Bob's arch "double top" demon will be the person who removes the worst threat of theocracy in the world...