Radicals on the Rise
By John Dean
By John Dean
What in the world has become of conservatives and Republicans? I have been asking this question for a number of years now - not as a partisan but rather as someone who once pledged allegiance to this tribe and still considers himself a Goldwater conservative on many issues. These days self-described conservatives are right-wing radicals and Republicans are theocratic. Why? And what makes them so arrogant, aggressive and self-righteous? What good is served by dividing the nation into polarized camps? Are we really safer from terrorism after having provoked almost the entire world to hate America? What has become of Congress's constitutional and institutional role of oversight, checking and balancing? Why do rank-and-file Republicans and longtime traditional conservatives tolerate the recent shift in the tenor of conservatism and the Republican Party?
Had I been schooled in the social sciences, I might have found my answers more quickly. I was unaware that social scientists have for many years been studying behaviors related to my questions. In the aftermath of World War II, half a century of research on authoritarianism commenced. Initially these studies analyzed why the people of Germany and Italy had tolerated the likes of Hitler and Mussolini, hoping to determine whether such authoritarian leadership could find footing within the United States. The short answer was yes.
Early in the process, scientists discovered the distinctive personality type attracted to such authoritarian leaders, and they published their findings in a 1950 book, The Authoritarian Personality. This research garnered considerable attention in its day, but because authoritarian rule in the United States had never loomed as a serious threat, with time less attention was paid to it. Yet the work continued. Watergate revived interest in this research because of the remarkable tolerance Americans displayed for Richard Nixon's conspicuous abuses of presidential power. In 1981 Bob Altemeyer, a psychologist at the University of Manitoba and a leader in the field, published the first in a series of book-length reports on his work, Right-Wing Authoritarianism, which was followed by Enemies of Freedom: Understanding Right-Wing Authoritarianism, in 1988, and The Authoritarian Specter, in 1996. Here, I thought, I would find hard answers to my questions.
Better yet, Altemeyer was willing to tutor me. He has focused on personalities he labels right-wing authoritarians, to distinguish them from the virtually nonexistent left-wing authoritarians. Right-wing authoritarians follow established authorities too easily and too long. They don't question authorities with whom they agree, and they are aggressive in support of those authorities. How aggressive? Being only slightly facetious to make his point, Altemeyer told me, "Many of them would attack France, Massachusetts or the moon if the president said it was necessary for freedom."
As I plowed through the findings about right-wing authoritarians, I began to catalog their personality traits. If the portrait that emerges appears less than flattering, remember that to these authoritarians the traits are quite attractive. Indeed they identify these traits in themselves. These men and women are typically conventional in their ways and highly religious with moderate to little education; their prejudices (particularly against homosexuals, women and religions other than their own) are often conspicuous; they are mean-spirited, narrow-minded and intolerant; they are uncritical in their thinking regarding their chosen authority and therefore often hold inconsistent and contradictory positions; they are prone to panic, highly se1f-righteous, moralistic and punitive; they throw the book at others when punishing; and they have little self-awareness. These people probably have no qualms when the president says we must torture our enemies, conduct warrantless surveillance of Americans and engage in preemptive war. And they believe him when he says he is not creating new generations of terrorists that may haunt America for a century or more.
Still, followers are not as troubling as authoritarian leaders. Recent studies of socalled social-domination-oriented authoritarian leaders have added greatly to the understanding of authoritarian personalities. The profile traits of these leaders are again ones they readily acknowledge: They typically are dominating men who constantly seek personal power for themselves; they have an amoral view of the world; they intimidate and bully as a matter of course; they are faintly hedonistic and generally vengeful, pitiless, exploitive, manipulative and dishonest; they are highly prejudiced (racist, sexist, homophobic), mean-spirited, militant and nationalistic; they tell others what they want to hear; they will take advantage of suckers, and they often create false images of themselves to achieve their goals.
When AItemeyer identified these socially dominating authoritarians, his extensive testing for both leaders and followers soon revealed a heretofore unknown personality: men who tested high as both right-wing followers and social-dominating leaders. Altemeyer reports these personalities fortunately are rare, for they are ruthless and, in his words, scary. Because they test high on both surveys, he has labeled them double highs. Adolph Hitler was a prototypical double high, although certainly not every double high will have all the Fuhrer’s negative traits.
Employing typologies is risky, but having become familiar with the behaviors that constitute high-testing right-wing authoritarian followers, high-testing socially dominating authoritarian leaders and double highs, I now find it impossible to resist categorizing political personalities - and doing so has been nothing less than an epiphany. A few examples: Karl Rove appears to me a high right-wing follower; while Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and former Senate majority leader Bill Frist are socially dominating authoritarians. Dick Cheney is clearly a double high.
Altemeyer's types answer many of my questions about the direction of conservatism and the Republican Party and about why the changes I've found so disturbing are tolerated. Authoritarians are conservatives without ~ they want to take America to a place the great majority of thinking Americans - including Goldwater conservatives - do not want to go. Let's not follow.