Authoritarian Conservatives: An Analysis

Decades ago scientists wanted to know why the people of Germany and Italy were tolerating, even if they were not supporting, Hitler and Mussolini. And thus the study of authoritarianism began. They also wanted to know if blind allegiance could develop in the United States. After more than a half century of study the answers are in.

For several decades Bob Altmeyer, an American scholar at the University of Manitoba, has been a tireless and dedicated researcher. According to the Oxford Handbook of Political Psychology, Altmeyer’s work “powerfully predicts a wide rang of political, social, ideological and intergroup phenomena.” Altmeyer’s work is largely directed at other psychologists and social scientists. He has undertaken hundreds of experiments and his work is reliable and valid according to Paul Nesbitt-Larking reporting in Political Psychology in 2004. His work goes the distance in understanding conservatism.

In an article titled “What Happens When Authoritarians Inherit the Earth? A simulation,” Altmeyer explains that, “When I started out, and ever since, I was not looking for political conservatives. I was looking for people who overtly submit to the established authorities in their lives, who could be of any political/economic/religious stripe.” His work identified “right-wing authoritarians” but he was not using the term “right-wing” in the political sense. Rather he used the designation in a psychological sense.

But as he continued his work he reports that “it turns out that in North America persons who score highly on my measure of authoritarianism test tend to favor right-wing political parties and have ‘conservative’ economic philosophies and religious sentiments.” He goes on to say that this empirical finding has been repeatedly duplicated in his continuing studies and has been replicated in studies by others.

The extensive research on the behavior and personality characteristics of right-wing authoritarians and conservatives concludes that they are people who do not see themselves as they actually are and have little facility for self-analysis.

The research demonstrates that conservatives delight in hurling invectives against their enemies and often prove to have the thinnest of skins if the same is done to them. Many conservatives are unaware of their illogical, contradictory and hypocritical thinking. And if they are forced to address it, either rationalize it away, fail to care, or go on the attack against those who reveal their human weaknesses.

John W. Dean, after studying the works of Altmeyer and others, reports in his book Conservatives Without Conscience that because such thinking is the reality of contemporary conservatism, anyone who operates from a logical mind, or has an inclination for reasoned judgment, is problematic for them.

The work of New York University of professor John T. Jost and his collaborators reveals that those who are or become political conservatives have various psychological attributes such as fear, intolerance of ambiguity, need for certainty or structure in life, overreaction to threats, and a disposition to dominate others.

This data was collected from conservatives, through various testing techniques, who agreed to explain their beliefs and have their psychological dynamics studied. According to the work of Jost and his colleagues, these characteristics typically cannot be ascribed to liberals.

Altmeyer’s studies of authoritarian behavior reveal that the behavior is frequently malicious and mean-spirited and that it is often not expressed for some political purpose but engaged in for the pure pleasure of it. He found that for most right-wingers it was difficult to talk about any subject about which they felt strongly without attacking others. He goes on to reveal that it is their remarkable self-righteousness that keeps them living in an “attack mode.” They are convinced that they are right and are bursting with indignations and a desire to slap down their enemies.

And who are their enemies? Research indicates that these conservatives are defined by what they oppose. And what they oppose is anything and everything that they perceive to be liberal. “Liberal” includes not only Democrats or those who identify themselves as liberal but anyone with whom they disagree. For decades the enemy of communism united them. They require the power of negative thinking and common enemies to unite them.

“Probably about 20 to 25 percent of the adult American population is so right-wing authoritarian, so scared, so self-righteous, so ill-informed, and so dogmatic that nothing you can say or do will change their minds,” said Altmeyer, adding that “they would march America into a dictatorship and probably feel that things had improved as a result.”

Professor Robert O. Paxton observed in his “Anatomy of Fascism” that a “fascism of the future…need not resemble classical fascism perfectly in its outward signs and symbols.” Because of these right-wing authoritarians, authoritarian followers, and social and religious dominators, a new American fascism may have already arrived

This article first appeared July 17, 2008 on Longmont.

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