A while back I asked reader Linda Grilli Calhoun, who had informed me about this book, to furnish me with a brief review for this site. Well, the goat-raising business is onerous, so it took a while, but here it is, with thanks to Linda from Professor Ceiling Cat.
The book is The Authoritarians, and is, as you’ll see, about the pathology of extreme conservativism. One of the reviews on Amazon describes it as “a must-read book for liberals, moderates, and conservatives alike who are troubled by the extremism and corruption of modern neoconservatives.” Although the book came out in 2007, it’s more timely than ever given the confluence of right-wing Christianity and politics in America, as well as the noisy irruptions of the Tea Party.
The Authoritarians, by Bob Altemeyer – A Review
by Linda Grilli Calhoun
Many of us who frequent this website have had the experience of encountering fundamentalist/evangelical/conservative people who, during what initially appears to be a basically civilized conversation, suddenly display jaw-dropping illogic, or unprovoked hostility, or paranoia, or sometimes all three. They start in on what I have come to think of as The Rant, straight out of Limbaugh or one of his imitators.
The people who show this behavior often seem pretty normal until suddenly, they don’t. As a retired shrink, I’m always interested in where this stuff comes from, especially given the abruptness with which it often appears, usually (but not always) as a complete non sequitur to the flow of conversation.
So, when I happened upon a link to Bob Altemeyer’s book The Authoritarians, I followed it. I was not disappointed, and neither will you be.
Bob Altemeyer believes, based on his research, that the political right wing in its current incarnation poses a danger to our democracy. He describes himself as a moderate (much to the consternation of his more liberal associates), but states that the makeup of that group as it stands right now does not provide a balance to more liberal views; rather, the right wing is a dogmatic threat which potentially limits our basic freedoms. He wrote this book as a warning.
Altemeyer is a retired professor of psychology who taught for his entire career at the University of Manitoba. He spent his research life studying the authoritarian personality, published many articles in journals as well as a couple of books aimed at fellow psychologists. Because of his research, he was contacted by John Dean, who used Altemeyer’s findings extensively in his own book [JAC: yes, the White House Dean, who wrote Conservatives Without Conscience]. Dean encouraged Altemeyer to publish a lay version of his work, and The Authoritarians is the result.
For his research, Altemeyer developed and refined personality inventories to measure the traits he wanted to study. Although this book doesn’t go into the specifics of that development, statistics wonks can find links to all of the underlying procedures on his website or in his other writings. He does give a brief summary of his procedures in the chapter endnotes of The Authoritarians. I’m not as much of a statistics wonk as Altemeyer, but I was interested enough to follow several of his links, and the cleanliness of his research is impressive, to say the least.
The inventories focus on what he terms “Right Wing Authoritarianism” and “Social Dominance”. He uses “right” initially as “correct”, rather than “politically right wing”, but it becomes obvious during his studies that the politically right-wing subjects see themselves, to a highly dogmatic level, as correct in their beliefs, even when evidence stands in contradiction.
Altemeyer describes the personality traits of high RWAs as submissiveness, fear, self-righteousness, hostility, lack of critical thinking, compartmentalized thinking, double standards, and feeling most empowered when in groups. He describes the lack of logic in their thinking; when they like the conclusion, how that conclusion was arrived at is irrelevant. When they like the behaver, the behavior is acceptable; when they dislike the behaver, the behavior is not.
He then goes on to describe high Social Dominators. These people want power, and they don’t much care how they get it. “The end justifies the means” is their guiding principle.
And then, the double whammy: these two groups fit together beautifully, which, in Altemeyer’s opinion, is how we have arrived at our current political state of affairs. High SDs have co-opted high RWAs, and the vast majority of moderates have gone about our lives until these groups are threatening to take over, even though they don’t represent anywhere close to a majority.
Throughout the book, Altemeyer is careful to point out that these descriptions do not fit the groups one hundred percent, that there are outlier datapoints, and exceptions to every conclusion. But his levels of predictive validity are high, and his descriptions are not opinions but demonstrable facts. His work has been replicated by other researchers, and he cites them in the book. (He is also secure enough to cite his critics, but their criticism is pretty lame.)
The end of the book contains strategies for combating the craziness that the right wing is currently promulgating. If I have one criticism of the book, it is that I wish this section had been more extensive. But if you want a great description of exactly what we’re up against, this is definitely it.
The Authoritarians, by Bob Altemeyer, is available as a free downloadable PDF at this site.
It is also available as an audio CD from Amazon.com.