Thursday, June 21, 2007

"The Authoritarians"

Glenn Greenwald has discussed it more than once, so I finally sat down to read "The Authoritarians" by social psychologist Robert Altemeyer. As befits the internet age, Dr. Altemeyer's work is available in it's entirety online. And it's a doozy. Utilizing a variety of carefully crafted surveys, Altemeyer has put together a fairly detailed portrait of the "authoritarians", a term that he explains near the beginning of Ch. 1 in his book:

Authoritarian followers usually support the established authorities in their society, such as government officials and traditional religious leaders. Such people have historically been the "proper" authorities in life, the time-honored, entitled, customary leaders, and that means a lot to authoritarians. Psychologically these followers have personalities featuring:

1) a high degree of submission to the legitimate, established authorities in their society;

2) high levels of aggression in the name of their authorities; and

3) high levels of conventionalism

"Conventionalism" is defined later in the chapter as:

...believing that everybody should have to follow the norms and customs that your authorities have decreed.

How and why people are this way, and what this means for our politics, is what he spends the rest of the book explaining. Why are authoritarians so aggressive? Because they're afraid. Why are they so conventional? Because they are largely impervious to reason. Why do they defer to authority? Because they are submissive. Or at least, that's my highly oversimplified summary of his findings.

They are also extroardinarily vulnerable to being conned by people Altemeyer refers to as "social domintors." Unlike authoritarians, social dominators are not fearful, are not submissive and are not highly conventional. They are usually highly confident, aggressive, and have a pretty Hobbesian view of the world wherein they desire to be the eater, and not the eaten.

Of course, people such as myself are inclined to read Altemeyer's work and think "That explains all those nuts over in the Republican Party!" And he gets to that, trying to explain why the political right tends to attract people who are authoritarian, why they are in turn used and abused by social dominators who are drawn to them like bees are to honey, what that means for our politics, and what exactly the rest of us can do about that. But it's important to note, as Altemeyer does, that his studies only examine trends in people as groups. It does not mean that every Republican is simply waiting for a Hitler to stride over and "make things right", nor does it mean that everyone on the left is a freethinking, independent altruist. Authoritarian traits are in everyone, in some more than others, and that to an extent the political right attracts people who share more authoritarian traits. So don't email your least favorite right-wing blogger to tell him he's a scared and weak follower of his betters. That may not be entirely true, and he won't acknowledge it anyway (even if it's entirely true.)

At the same time, neither does he dismiss the threat authoritarians present to our democracy. As his studies and surveys have routinely confirmed, authoritarians are the most likely to repress minorities, give sweeping power to the government, jettison the Bill of Rights, and start wars of aggression against other countries (among other things.) And we've all seen evidence of just that fact in our country over the last six years.

Anyway, I highly recommend you read the entire book for yourself. It's a brisk 240 pages or so (brisk thanks largely to Altemeyer's plain writing style and sense of humor) but it's also very compelling, and very insightful. I could easily write 5000 words here about things I found of interest in his book, and I may yet discuss certain aspects of his book in other posts. But I highly recommend everyone who is concerned about the preservation of democracy in our country, or even just has a passing interest in social psychology, to take a stab at the book themselves. You won't regret it.

1 comment:

adam said...

Sounds good.