Manny's Reviews > The Authoritarians

The Authoritarians by Bob Altemeyer
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Jun 04, 11

bookshelves: history-and-biography, well-i-think-its-funny, science
Recommended for: People worried by the religious right
Read from May 30 to June 03, 2011

Say what you will about the sweet miracle of unquestioning faith, I consider a capacity for it terrifying and absolutely vile.

- Kurt Vonnegut, Mother Night
In this unassuming little book, Bob Altemeyer, a 60-something Canadian professor of social sciences, presents a straightforward theory explaining how authoritarian leaders arise, and what people compose their power base. He starts with the followers. What kind of person wants to support a leader like Hitler or Stalin? Altemeyer started investigating this question during the Nixon era. He developed a simple questionnaire, which he scores to produce what he calls "the Right Wing Authoritarian scale" (RWA scale). Typical questions are things like the following, where in each case the subject is asked to give a response ranging from -4 (strongly disagree) to +4 (strongly agree):
The only way our country can get through the crisis ahead is to get back to our traditional values, put some tough leaders in power, and silence the troublemakers spreading bad ideas.

Our country needs free thinkers who have the courage to defy traditional ways, even if this upsets many people.

The "old-fashioned ways" and the "old-fashioned values" still show the best way to live.
The questions seem laughably transparent, and I am indeed a little surprised when Altemeyer says that the RWA score has a great deal of predictive value. It correlates well with other ways of testing submission to established authority and also with tendency to xenophobia and bigotry. If you want to compute your own RWA score, you can find an online version here. It takes a few minutes to complete.

Most interestingly, the RWA score correlates very well with fundamentalist religious beliefs. Altemeyer has developed a second scale to measure this, based on a similar type of questionnaire. Typical questions on the Religious Fundamentalism scale look like the following:
The basic cause of evil in this world is Satan, who is still constantly and ferociously fighting against God.

When you get right down to it, there are basically only two kinds of people in the world: the Righteous, who will be rewarded by God, and the rest, who will not.

Whenever science and sacred scripture conflict, science is probably right.
You can find an online version of the Religious Fundamentalism test here.

Altemeyer's rather shocking conclusion is that the core type of person susceptible to unquestioning belief in right-wing authority is the believer in a fundamentalist faith, which in modern North American society overlaps strongly with the religious right.He presents evidence supporting his claim that these people have, on average, substantially impaired abilities to follow logical or fact-based reasoning. I liked his methodology here. Clearly, a refusal to belive in evolution or other scientific theories may be contentious, as are various political beliefs (a surprising number of members of the religious right apparently think that WMDs actually were found in Iraq).

Much more interestingly, Altemeyer shows how hard the religious right find it to reason about the Bible, which logically ought to be their home territory. The experiment I found most convincing had him showing subjects the passages from the four Gospels describing the events of Easter Morning. As is well known, the four accounts differ in many particulars, some of them quite important. Altemeyer asks students what they consider the best explanation for these internal contradictions and inconsistencies. Astonishingly, to me at least, the most common response from people with high Fundamentalist scores was that there were no inconsistencies; even after subjects were given a week to discuss the issue with other members of their community, very few changed their minds. Incidentally, I should mention that Altemeyer is focussing on the American religious right mainly because they are the group he finds easiest to study. He quotes studies carried out by Russian researchers which show very similar belief patterns among old hardline followers of Marxist-Leninism.

Altemeyer then goes on to examine the other side of the question: if religious fundamentalists make up the docile mass who can propel authoritarian leaders into power, what type of person becomes a leader? Here, he uses a third score, which he calls Social Dominance. Typical questions look like these:
It's a mistake to interfere with the "law of the jungle". Some people were meant to dominate others.

It would bother me if I intimidated people, and they worried about what I might do next.

One of the most useful skills a person should develop is how to look someone straight in the eye and lie convincingly.
Although one's first impression is that the personality types associated with high RWA and high Social Dominance are completely dissimilar, Altermeyer was surprised to discover that the intersection of the two groups does contain a small group, whom he calls Double Highs. They are, by definition, people who both believe that the citizens around them are in need of a strong leader, and want to become that leader; they are, moreover, willing to lie and dissemble to whatever extent is needed. There are obvious difficulties associated with collecting data about Double Highs, but Altemeyer has been creative. He describes some nice experiments with multi-player role playing games, where Double Highs do indeed rush to seize power in exactly the way his theory predicts, often using underhand methods.

The overall picture Altemeyer paints is disturbing. My first reaction was that his analysis was surely too simplistic: there had to be more to it than this. On the other hand, he's been doing this work for a long time and published an impressive number of books and scholarly articles. He says that only two people have made a serious attempt to prove him wrong, and that their counterarguments were not convincing. (I will try to check the papers he refers to). On the positive side, he claims many other researchers have adopted his methods. A quick search on Google Scholar shows he's widely cited; this guy is not a crank. If you're at all worried by the American religious right, you might want to download his book and check him out.
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Reading Progress

05/30/2011 page 22
8.43% "Do the RWA test and see how susceptible you are to right-wing authority figures! It's available online here."
05/30/2011 page 52
20.0% "... Clydeen Tomanio of Chickamuauga, Georgia, who was quoted on a CNN.com report dated September 7, 2006 as saying, “There are some people, and I’m one of them, that believe George Bush was placed where he is by the Lord. I don’t care how he governs, I will support him.”"
05/30/2011 page 80
31.0% "He doesn't really agree with Lakoff's "family" model of the difference between conservatives and progressives. How is this possible? Lakoff is an acknowledged authority on the subject!"
06/02/2011 page 110
42.0% "People with high RWA scores tend to be right-wing religious conservatives. They're also unusually stupid, credulous, incapable of following a logical argument and liable to believe what they want to be true rather than what the facts point to. I'm afraid I'm a little skeptical about these findings. But then I'm a low RWA."
06/02/2011 page 165
63.0% "He takes students who score high on the Fundamentalist scale and shows them the accounts of Easter Morning from the Gospels, laid out side by side. Then he asks them to explain the inconsistencies. Most of them say there are no inconsistencies. This book is so much fun!"
06/03/2011 page 205
79.0% "The Social Dominance scale (pretty much what it sounds like) and the interesting group of "Double Highs" - subjects who get high scores on Social Dominance and RWA. He argues that the Republican Party has been taken over by exactly these people. If you're a liberal, this book is like crack cocaine."

Comments (showing 51-72 of 72) (72 new)

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message 51: by Ian (new)

Ian Heidin[+]Fisch Not electing you just means that someone worse gets in.


Whitaker Manny, hey, do you think Scorpio Murtlock would qualify as Left-Wing Authoritarian?


Manny Whitaker wrote: "Manny, hey, do you think Scorpio Murtlock would qualify as Left-Wing Authoritarian?"

Hm, I don't think so, but I'm not completely sure. He says Left-Wing Authoritarians do exist, although they're rare - he quotes the Weathermen as an example. To me, Murtlock (and Satan, who seems to be his role model) are more Double Highs, though on reflection that doesn't quite fit either. I'd love to hear Altemeyer's opinion!


message 54: by Ian (new)

Ian Heidin[+]Fisch Didn't he qualify as Left-Wing, Right-wing, Centre and Fullback for the Wallabies?


message 55: by Paul (new)

Paul "Left-Wing Authoritarians do exist, although they're rare"

The right wing authoritarian press in Britain would have you believe that the "pc brigade", as they term them, are all left wing authoritarians, banning smoking and waging war on car owners so forth. If that is so then left wing authoritarians are quite common.


message 56: by Whitaker (last edited Jun 10, 2011 12:17AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Whitaker Well, he does also say this, "You could have left-wing authoritarian followers as well, who support a revolutionary leader who wants to overthrow the establishment. I knew a few in the 1970s, Marxist university students who constantly spouted their chosen authorities, Lenin or Trotsky or Chairman Mao."

Although I suppose Scorpio wasn't looking to overthrow the establishment, just to built his own little sect. Do you have any idea who he was based on, since Powell seemed to have based most of the characters on some personality or other.

Maybe the Pervian Shining Path guerillas count as LWAs. Aum Shinro too? [Edit: Sorry, that's Aum Shinrikyo]


message 57: by Manny (last edited Jun 10, 2011 12:42AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Manny I see I'm not the only person who's felt that Murtlock is based on Aleister Crowley. Maybe that's a little banal for Powell. On the other hand, pure evil often is embarrassingly banal.


message 58: by Manny (last edited Jun 10, 2011 01:04AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Manny Paul wrote: ""Left-Wing Authoritarians do exist, although they're rare"

The right wing authoritarian press in Britain would have you believe that the "pc brigade", as they term them, are all left wing authoritarians, banning smoking and waging war on car owners so forth. If that is so then left wing authoritarians are quite common. "


To me, the difference is that the left-wing people aren't as unquestioning in their beliefs. They're all too eager to see the other side of the story and sympathize, which is probably a large part of why they're generally so ineffectual. Look how long it took to actually do anything about smoking, despite the fact that the health risks were crystal clear several decades earlier.

Also, now I think about it, there is something odd about pigeonholing this as a left-wing obsession, when you consider that the most dedicated anti-smoking campaigner of all time was Adolf Hitler. Now he got results!


message 59: by Paul (new)

Paul Not really odd - in Britain rightwingers like to pose as libertarians and characterise lefties as joyless puritans & so attack the smoking bans and the driving curtailment, you know, the whole gospel according to Jeremy Clarkson - you can see that false dichotomy all the way back to the grisly debate over Page Three in The Sun. Those same rightwingers may point out jovially that vegetarian anti-smoker Adolf Hitler was head of the National SOCIALIST German Worker's Party! The whole thrust of right-wing Tory Thatcherite economic policy has been laissez-faire, cutting red tape, freeing the entrepreneur (and see where that got us!); and the whole thrust of lefties from way back is to try to get the tiger of rampant capitalism back in a cage.

So - lefties are authoritarian by nature as they want to tell people what is good and what is bad
Righties can luxuriate in saying "we don't want to tell anyone what to do, let the market decide" - meaning "let the rich eat the poor and let the poor eat their own babies, they have too many anyway".


message 60: by Paul (new)

Paul PS - I hope I'm not misunderstanding this debate by the way, I kind of jumped in 9/10ths of the way through...


message 61: by Ian (new)

Ian Heidin[+]Fisch What is the car-owning and driving thing you've mentioned?


message 62: by Paul (new)

Paul This operates in London - here's Wiki :

"The London congestion charge is a fee for motorists travelling within the Congestion Charge Zone (CCZ), a traffic area in London. The charge aims to reduce congestion, and raise investment funds for London's transport system. The zone was introduced in central London on 17 February 2003, and extended into parts of west London on 19 February 2007. Though not the first scheme of its kind in the United Kingdom, it was the largest when introduced, and it remains one of the largest in the world. Several cities around the world have referenced London's congestion charge when considering their own schemes.

A payment of £10 is required each day for each vehicle, which travels within the zone between 07:00 and 18:00 (Monday-Friday only); a penalty of between £60 and £180 is levied for non-payment. On 4 January 2011 several changes were implemented based on the public consultation conducted in 2008, which included the removal of the Western Extension, a charge increase from £8 to £10, and the introduction of an automated payment system"

This is the kind of thing that gets rightwingers' blood boiling - the greeny lefties are trying to impose their authoritarianism on everyone again.


Whitaker Paul wrote: "This is the kind of thing that gets rightwingers' blood boiling - the greeny lefties are trying to impose their authoritarianism on everyone again."

I guess RWAs sit in their BMWs, Audis and Lamborginis stuck in gridlock and chant, "There ain't no jam. There ain't no jam. I'm just sitting here in my car going nowhere because I like it."


Jennifer (aka EM) For those of you interested in the personal transformation stories of high RWAs:

Son of a Preacher Man: My Search For Grace in the Shadows, by Jay Bakker (Jim & Tammy Fae's son)

Crazy for God: How I Grew Up as One of the Elect Helped Found the Religious Right and Lived to Take All or Almost All of It Back, by Frank Schaeffer

Haven't read either yet, but intend to.


message 65: by Ian (new) - rated it 4 stars

Ian Jennifer (aka EM) wrote: "For those of you interested in the personal transformation stories of high RWAs..."

Actually, I have been considering writing such a personal transformation story, as a former high-RWA myself. But I need to let some more time go by to gain persepective and more life experience as one of the left-wing intellectual elite ;) Seriously, though, I'm about to turn 37 and it's only been in the last two years that I've been able to admit to myself just how complete my transformation has become. I do think I need more perspective to organize my thoughts properly if I were really to undertake such a project. Right now, every little detail of my transformation seems utterly important and essential and they all jumble together in my head.


message 66: by Paul (new)

Paul Write it all down !


message 67: by Ian (new)

Ian Heidin[+]Fisch Whitaker wrote: "I guess RWAs sit in their BMWs, Audis and Lamborginis"

I infer you drive a Merc, Whit?


message 68: by Ian (new)

Ian Heidin[+]Fisch Ian wrote: "Right now, every little detail of my transformation seems utterly important and essential and they all jumble together in my head."

Ian F, maybe we your friends could do a Q&A to help structure your thoughts and help you write it all down.


message 69: by Ian (new)

Ian Heidin[+]Fisch Paul wrote: "This is the kind of thing that gets rightwingers' blood boiling - the greeny lefties are trying to impose their authoritarianism on everyone again."

Thanks, I'm really pissed off about this whole climate change fraud.
Back when I was a bare-footed boy, we didn't call it climate change, we called it pollution.
You could understand the science of pollution, it was right there in front of you, chundering from smoke stacks.
But turn it into a possibly-remote abstract, and suddenly climate change sceptics can deny an effect or a causal connection, so we end up with statutory licences to pollute, while we establish the science.
Whether or not pollution causes climate change, we need to reduce pollution for the sake of our lungs and skin and other organs, not to mention other wildlife.
We don't need all this shit in our air and water.


message 70: by Paul (last edited Jun 10, 2011 03:05PM) (new)

Paul Do you remember the old Tom Lehrer song from the 60s -

See the halibuts and the sturgeons
Being wiped out by detergents
Fish gotta swim, and birds gotta fly
- But they don't last long if they try

Pollution, pollution, use the latest toothpaste
Then rinse your mouth with industrial waste



message 71: by Ian (new) - rated it 4 stars

Ian "Whether or not pollution causes climate change, we need to reduce pollution for the sake of our lungs and skin and other organs, not to mention other wildlife. We don't need all this shit in our air and water."

Here, here.


message 72: by Jennifer (aka EM) (last edited Jun 11, 2011 10:05AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Jennifer (aka EM) Manny wrote: "Canadians (Muse?) may well find the section on their country interesting, though I don't understand Canadian politics. Look in particular at the chart on page 215 of the PDF. The corresponding US chart is on page 208."

Just got to it, Manny. Very interesting indeed. I can't get this graphic to post in a size that will allow you to read, so see my notes below.



In green, above NDP: There is no comparison to the New Democratic Party in U.S. politics. They are socialist, in the truest sense - and not socialist in the way most Repubs/Fox News brand Obama; that is just laughable to many Canadians. NDP cluster to the low end of Altemeyer's RWA scale in the same way Republicans (and Canada's conservatives, no matter their party) cluster to the high.

In red, I've plotted the Liberals means on the chart. Liberal party legislators scored very similarly to U.S. Democrats - dispersed but centrist on RWA scores. In Canada we have "Red" Tories (Liberals) and "Blue" Tories, indicating that some lean to the left and some to the right, politically. An interesting terminology that has evolved as a way to describe what Altermeyer calls their "wingspan."

(Altemeyer is very funny about the Libs, saying their positions are whatever will get them elected. Libs have been wiped out in last 2011 federal election. He didn't survey them in 2006 because they were such a huge majority, based out of ON/Quebec; today, there wouldn't be enough left to survey.)

And in blue, to the top right: These people are essentially Republicans. There are more parties in Canada overall, and while they vary slightly in their ideologies and platforms, Reform (since merged with Conservative) = Social Credit = Conservative = Republicans, for comparison purposes.


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