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Understanding the Contemporary Republican Party: Authoritarians Have Taken Control
Part One in a Three-Part Series


Wednesday, Sep. 05, 2007

This is the first in a three- part series of columns in which FindLaw columnist John Dean discusses his most recent book, Conservatives Without Conscience. - Ed.

Last year, I published Conservatives Without Conscience, but it struck me as a bit too self-promoting to use this space to talk about the book. The core of the book examines a half-century of empirical studies that had never been explained for the general reader. Not being a social scientist, I was thrilled when the book became a bestseller and countless political and social psychologists wrote to thank me for translating their work for the general reader.

At this point, I feel that this material is simply too crucial to understanding current politics and government for me to continue to ignore it in my columns for FindLaw. In addition, I want to refer to these findings throughout my commentary on the 2008 presidential and congressional elections, so it is time to set forth a few basics from this work.

Conservatives Without Conscience ("CWC") sought to understand the modern conservative movement, and in particular it's hard turn to the right during the past two-and-a-half decades. Conservatives have taken control of the Republican Party, and, in turn, the GOP has taken control of the government (all three branches, until 2006).

Who are these people? Of course, we know their names: Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, Newt Gingrich, Tom DeLay, Bill Frist, Dick Cheney and George W. Bush - to mention a few of the obvious. More importantly, what drives them? And, why do their compliant followers seem to never question or criticism them? Here, I am thinking of people like Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and Ann Coulter - to mention a few more of the conspicuous.

In this column, and those that follow, I hope to explain the rather remarkably information I have uncovered. It explained what for me what I had previously thought inexplicable. And based on my mail, it seems to have done the same for a lot of CWC readers. So let me see if I can extract a few key points that may help to understand what happened, and why it happened.

In the first two columns of this three-part series, I will offer some basics to provide context, and some of the relevant data. In the last of the three, I will drive home the points I believe are most relevant.

How Conservatives Think (Or Fail To Do So)

Most conservatives today do not believe that conservatism can or should be defined. They claim that it not an ideology, but rather merely an attitude. (I don't buy that, but that point is not relevant here.)

Conservatives once looked to the past for what it could teach about the present and the future. Early conservatives were traditionalists or libertarians, or a bit of both. Today, however, there are religious conservatives, economic conservatives, social conservatives, cultural conservatives, neoconservatives, traditional conservatives, and a number of other factions.

Within these factions, there is a good amount of inconsistency and variety, but the movement has long been held together through the power of negative thinking. The glue of the movement is in its perceived enemies. Conservatives once found a common concern with respect to their excessive concern about communism (not that liberals and progressive were not concerned as well, but they were neither paranoid nor willing to mount witch hunts). When communism was no longer a threat, the dysfunctional conservative movement rallied around its members' common opposition to anything they perceived as liberal. (This was, in effect, any point of view that differed from their own, whether it was liberal or not.)

To understanding conservatives thinking, it is important to examine not merely what conservatives believe, but also why they believe it. I found the answers to these two key questions in the remarkable body of empirical research work, almost a half-century in the making, undertaken by political and social psychologists who study authoritarian personalities.

Authoritarian Republicans: Understanding the Personality Type

While not all conservatives are authoritarians, all highly authoritarian personalities are political conservatives. To make the results of my rather lengthy inquiry very short, I found that it was the authoritarians who took control of the conservative movement in the 1980s, and then the Republican Party in the 1990s. Strikingly, these conservative Republicans - though hardly known for their timidity -- have not attempted to refute my report, because that is not possible. It is based on hard historical facts, which I set forth in considerable detail.

Authoritarian control continues to this day, so it is important to understand these people. There are two types of authoritarians: leaders (the few) and followers (the many). Study of these personalities began following World War II, when social psychologists asked how so many people could compliantly follow an authoritarian leader like Adolf Hitler and tolerate the Holocaust. Early research was based at the University of California, Berkeley, and it focused primarily on followers, culminating in the publication of a The Authoritarian Personality (1950) - a work that broadly described authoritarian personalities. The book was quite popular for decades, but as the Cold War ended, it had been on the shelf and ignored for a good while.

Given the strikingly conspicuous authoritarian nature of the contemporary conservative movement, and in turn, of the Republican Party, those familiar with the work of the Berkeley group thought it time to take another look at this work. For example, Alan Wolfe, a political science professor at Boston College, observed that the fact that "the radical right has transformed itself from a marginal movement to an influential sector of the contemporary Republican Party" called for a reexamination of this work. That is exactly what I did, although I did not discover Dr. Wolfe's call for it until well into my project.

The Authoritarian Personality relied heavily on Freudian psychology, which was not without critics, although neither Dr. Freud's work nor that of the Berkeley scientists has been proven incorrect. The weakness of this early work was the lack of empirical data backing up its conclusions. But in the half-century since its publication, that weakness has been removed, based on others' empirical work. A number of researchers have examined and reexamined the Berkeley Group's conclusions, and no one more thoroughly than Bob Altemeyer, a Yale and Carnegie-Mellon-trained social psychologist based at the University of Manitoba.

Professor Altemeyer's Findings

Altemeyer's study addressed flaws in the methodology and findings of The Authoritarian Personality, and he then proceeded to set this field of study on new footings by clarifying the study of authoritarian followers, people he calls "right-wing authoritarians." The provocative titles of his books -- Right-Wing Authoritarianism (1981), Enemies of Freedom (1988), and The Authoritarian Specter (1996) -- and of a few of his many articles found in scholarly journals -- such as "Highly Dominating, Highly Authoritarian Personalities" in the Journal of Social Psychology (2004) and "Why Do Religious Fundamentalists Tend to Be Prejudiced?" in the International Journal for the Psychology of Religion (2003)--indicate the tenor of his research and the range of his interests.

Working my way through this material, with the help of a copy of the Idiot's Guide to Statistics, for Altemeyer writes for professional peers, I realized that, since I do not have a degree in psychology, I should get guidance to be certain I understood the material correctly, because it seemed to me that the information he had developed was exactly what I needed to comprehend the personalities now dominating the conservative movement and Republican Party. Altemeyer, who is the preeminent researcher in the field, graciously agreed to tutor me in his work. I introduced him to FindLaw readers in an earlier column, when I thought it would be interesting to get his take on the writings of the very authoritarian Tom DeLay, as he explained himself in No Retreat, No Surrender.

At the outset of Conservatives Without Conscience, I provided a quick and highly incomplete summary of Altemeyer's findings, explaining that his empirical testing revealed "that authoritarians are frequently enemies of freedom, antidemocratic, anti-equality, highly prejudiced, mean-spirited, power hungry, Machiavellian, and amoral." To be clear, these are not assessments that Altemeyer makes himself about these people; rather, this is how those he has tested reveal themselves to be, when being anonymously examined.

Altemeyer has tested literally tens of thousands of first-year college students and their parents, along with others, including some fifteen hundred American state legislators, over the course of some three decades. He has tested in the South and North of the United States. There is no database on authoritarians that even comes close in its scope to that which he has created, and, more importantly, these studies are empirical data, not partisan speculation.

About a year after I published my outline of his work, Altemeyer prepared a digest of his research for general readers, The Authoritarians, which he has posted online for one and all to examine at no cost. In his book he walks readers thorough his research in a manner that requires neither an advanced degree nor a copy of the Idiot's Guide to Statistics.

In the next two columns, I will examine the implications of Altemeyer's findings, for they explain a great deal about the operations of the Republican Party as presently constituted.

John W. Dean, a FindLaw columnist, is a former counsel to the president.

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