5 December 2007: Rightwing Authoritarianism

Rightwing authoritarians are threat to the republic

When one thinks of an authoritarian personality, the first inclination is to think of the autocratic leader type. As University of Manitoba researcher and professor of political science Bob Altemeyer posits though, there is a second type: the follower who invariably submits to the will of his/her leader. He labels it a Rightwing Authoritarian, as opposed to a Leftwing Authoritarian that has withered, near to the point of extinction it seems.

Altemeyer explains that the RWA personality is a psychological construct and not a political one, although there is a high correlation between the two. He notes, “A right-wing authoritarian follower is someone who readily submits to the established authorities in society, attacks others in their name, and is highly conventional. It’s an aspect of his personality, not a description of his politics, like being characteristically bashful or happy or grumpy or dopey.” Thus, a member of Chairman Mao’s Red Guard in the 1970s China would be a RWA despite his politics being decidedly “left.”

Law-breaking offers a window into the mindsets of RWA types. While being strongly “law and order” and advocating the death penalty when it comes to the average criminal, Altemeyer says, “They appear to think that authorities are above the law, and can decide which laws apply to them and which do not—just as parents can when one is young.”

The RWA might subscribe, thus, to Nixon’s assertion that “if the President does it, it must be legal.” That explains President Bush and Vice-President Cheney being excused for lying us into war and for outing a CIA covert agent, despite former Press Secretary Scott McClellan’s admission that he “unknowingly passed along false information” from five of the “highest ranking officials in the administration” including the “President himself.” A response from a RWA to that information might be, “So, what’s your point?”

In Conservatives Without Conscience, John Dean addresses the controversy of using typologies, but notes that Fred I. Greenstein of Princeton University says that Altemeyer’s methodology gives “empirical evidence…of an important political-psychological regularity—the existence in some individuals of an inner makeup that disposes them to defer to authority figures.”

Dean provides an exhaustive list of RWA (follower) and Social Dominator (leader) attributes that includes proclivity to domination, bullying, zealotry, mean-spiritedness, and intolerance. He offers 14 fundamental differences between conservatives without conscience and conservatives with a conscience in the tradition of his mentor Sen. Barry Goldwater. In addition to the negative traits aspect, Dean says RWA types, for example, allow “order and safety to always trump freedom” and justify “government secrecy and lack of transparency.”

Anonymous emailers and bloggers fit the RWA type when they attack in the name of the authority. They are political guerrilla war combatants who use “hit and run” tactics in an attempt to intimidate. Not being critical thinkers however, their Achilles heal is they are unable to respond beyond their handy talking points in a tête-à-tête. As a result, they usually strike out when dispassionately confronted with facts and logic.

How we approach problems and deal with people aligns with our operating system. If one is by nature a problem solver, then he/she looks at scenarios such as the potential for Iran to develop a nuclear weapon through a logical and thoughtful lens. If, on the other hand, one’s operating system is irrationally premised on the fear that others are out to get him/her so better do unto them first, it follows a pre-emptive strike would be his/her first tactic rather than a last resort.

Following is a listing of some thoughts on differences between non-RWA types and high RWA types:
• The only thing to fear is fear itself. / State of perpetual fear.
• Know thyself. / Know thy place.
• Conflict resolution / Never-ending war
• We the people / Privileged economic elite
• Transparency in government / Secretive machinations and spying
• Equal partnership / Father knows best.
• Individualism in context of community / It’s all about me.
• General welfare / Corporate welfare
• Liberty / Security and control
• Earth is our home. / Earth is a source of in-exhaustive wealth.

Most of us recognize the need for appropriate authority. Bedlam would ensue, for example, if we chose to ignore a traffic cop’s signal to stop. It’s the kowtowing to the leader’s every directive and the justifying and excusing of his/her abuses that separates RWA types from the rest of us. As such, the problem with many modern-day so-called “conservatives” is not so much the positions they hold but where on the scale their authoritarian psychological makeup rests. Therein rests the danger to the American Republic.

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