Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Radicals on the Rise
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.

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