[Readings] The Authoritarians: a known issue for democracy

As per the suggestion of Giovanni, I decided to start a series of short blog posts on books I read. Nothing fancy, just keeping track of interesting material and sharing the references.

Bob Altemeyer, 2006, The Authoritarians. Published online here.

Bob Altemeyer is an academic psychologist, now retired. He dedicated all his life as a researcher to one single issue: authoritarianism. Most of his work is empirical: it consisted in designing and executing laboratory experiments, and in parsing their results. The Authoritarians recaps his intellectual journey in a way accessible (and enjoyable), to non-specialists like myself.

Altemeyer’s research really took off in 1981 when he came up with a psychological test that reliably measures what he calls Right-Wing Authoritarianism (RWA). RWA is a cocktail of three personality traits: authoritarian submission, authoritarian aggression, and conventionalism. Most of Altemeyer’s research consists of administering a test to a random group of subjects, and then checking their behaviour in the test against their score on the RWA scale. It turns out that people who score high on the RWA scale tend to do things like still endorse Nixon after Watergate (submission), recommend harsher-than-average punishments for just about any offense (“from spitting on the sidewalk to rape” – aggression), be anti-gay or anti-minority or anti-anything that does not resemble their canon (conventionalism). They also tend to hang out with people very similar to them, and have a strong tendence to dogmatism – it is practically impossible to get them to change their mind by rational argument.

Now, all of this would be just a nice bit of fairly inconsequential academic work if it were not for one Kevin Phillips, a young political analyst in the Nixon administration. In 1969 he published a report in which he foresaw a “New Republican Party coalition”. This would include far greater numbers of Protestant and Catholic conservatives”. Until that moment American Christians had stayed out of politics. But then it was fast forward to Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority in the 1980s. That led to Pat Robertson’s Christian Coalition in the 1990s. And that led to George W. Bush’s nomination for the presidency, which he obtained after the infamous Supreme Court ruling in 2000.

According to Altemeyer, many high-RWA Americans cluster around various Christian denominations. They work hard and yearn for mighty leaders who uphold conventional values. They are the perfect foot soldiers for would-be strongmen. The latter, therefore, pick the religious right as the best environment for their career to take off. The result of this dynamic is today’s Republican Party: a cocktail of highly organised authoritarian followers and ruthless, power-hungry leaders. Altemeyer thinks it is a threat for democracy. So does Phillips: in 2005 he sounded the alarm on a Republican party gone feral in a book called American Theocracy.

I recommend this book for three reasons. One is the “perfect storm” on democracy that happens when (1) high-RWA people meet (2) dominant individuals (3) over the unifying language of the Christian Evangelical movement (4) in the context of America’s political bipolarism. If complexity scientists wrote history, this is what they would look like, full of nonlinearities and emergent effects.

The second reason why I like this book is this. As Altemeyer himself admits, the danger posed by authoritarians in North America to their democracy does not happen through a failure of democracy, but through its success. High-RWA people assembled in their churches have a right to vote, and to proselytise. They work very hard for the values they believe in; they are highly organised and well funded. They are doing what every citizen should do. And yet, look at the results of these efforts: corruption, war, pervasive surveillance, racial discrimination. When you read the documentation for software, sometimes you find a “known issue”. This is shorthand for a bug that the programmers are aware of, but was judged too hard or too expensive to fix. The existence of authoritarian followers is a known issue for democracy. We know it’s there. It potentially calls into question everything,  all the way to “one (wo)man one vote”. But we can’t fix it without breaking the whole democratic architecture.

My third reason for recommending this book is that it contains a simple formulation of the  Great Discovery of social psychology, and an argument for it:

Experiment after experiment demonstrates that we are powerfully affected by the social circumstances encasing us. And very few of us realize how much. So if we are tempted by all the earlier findings in this book to think that right-wing authoritarians and social dominators are the guys in the black hats while we fight on the side of the angels, we are not only falling into the ethnocentric trap, we are not only buttering ourselves up one side and down the other with self-righteousness, we are probably deluding ourselves as well. Milgram has shown us how hard it is to say no to malevolent authority, how easy it is to follow the crowd, and how very difficult it is to resist when the crowd is doing the biding of malevolent authority.

Amen to that.

Photo credit: Beverly on flickr.com

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