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Why Authoritarians Now Control the Republican Party: The Rise of Authoritarian Conservatism
Part Two in a Three-Part Series


Friday, Sep. 21, 2007

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

Today, the Grand Old Republican Party is controlled by authoritarian conservatives. (As I mentioned in my prior column, the first in this three-part series, to my knowledge no person in the GOP has ever denied that fact - and they are well-aware of my book.) More specifically, as I broadly outlined in my last column, the research of social scientists such as Bob Altemeyer has revealed the personality traits of both those authoritarians who are followers, and those who are their leaders.

The Followers: Right-Wing Authoritarians

Princeton political scientist Fred I. Greenstein has cautioned about the uses of personality in analyzing political activity; in fact, he directly addressed "the tangled history of studies of authoritarianism." He noted, however, that while the study of authoritarian personalities once seemed to be at a "dead end," that has proven not to be the case. Rather, "in the 1980s an ingenious and rigorous program of inquiry by Altemeyer (1981, 1988) furnished persuasive empirical evidence that the original authoritarian construct was an approximation of an important political-psychological regularity--the existence in some individuals of an inner makeup that disposes them to defer to authority figures."

These, of course, are followers. Altemeyer labeled these people "right-wing authoritarians" not because he was looking to target political conservatives, but rather because he was drawing broadly on the historical terms that identify those who openly submit to established authorities, and whether those authorities are political, economic or religious, those who submit to them are traditionally described as being on the right wing. As Altemeyer developed and refined his testing, however, it became apparent that those who tested as highly submissive to economic or religious authorities also proved to be hard-right political conservatives.

In addition to being especially submissive to established authority, Altemeyer's research revealed that those he calls right-wing authoritarians also show "general aggressiveness" towards others, when such behavior is "perceived to be sanctioned" by established authorities. Finally, these people are always highly compliant with the social conventions endorsed by society and established authorities. These basic traits, submissiveness to authority and conventionality, are the essence of those Altemeyer describes as right-wing authoritarians. If these traits are not present in some significant (albeit varying) degree, he does not consider the subject to be a right-wing authoritarian. However, these people can, and often do, consistently reveal they have many other interesting traits as well.

Based on Altemeyer's study, as well as those of other social psychologists, I prepared a list of the additional traits that these personalities, both men and women who test high as right-wing authoritarians, often evidence: highly religious, moderate to little education, trust untrustworthy authorities, prejudiced (particularly against homosexuals, women, and followers of religions other than their own), mean-spirited, narrow-minded, intolerant, bullying, zealous, dogmatic, uncritical toward their chosen authority, hypocritical, inconsistent and contradictory, prone to panic easily, highly self-righteous, moralistic, strict disciplinarian, severely punitive, demands loyalty and returns it, little self-awareness, usually politically and economically conservative/Republican.

The Leaders: Social Dominators

Much of the work on authoritarianism focused on followers, and only in recent decades have social psychologists developed tests to measure the traits of authoritarian leaders, or as Altemeyer states, "person who wanted to be submitted to." These people, because of their inclination and desire to dominate others and to dominate social situations in which they find themselves, are said to have a "social dominance orientation," given their take-charge natures.

The term "social dominance orientation" may sound like academic jargon, but actually it is highly descriptive of the personalities of many who run social and political situations and organizations--the leaders who insist on running the show. The word "social," of course, refers to the general organization of society; "dominance" relates to control or command over other people; and "orientation," as used here, means their inclination or disposition. These are people who seize every opportunity to lead, who enjoy having power over others, and who will seek it both fairly and not so fairly.

People who test high as social dominators are also economically conservative and have little tolerance for equality. They consistently agree when asked about statements such as the following: "Some people are just more worthy than others"; "This country would be better off if we cared less about how equal all people were"; and "To get ahead in life, it is sometimes necessary to step on others." In addition, they will respond in the negative to the proposition that "All humans should be treated equally." (In fact, they are given many more questions when tested; I am merely providing a very small sample.)

Again, I have prepared a listing of the traits revealed in the testing of these remarkably manipulative and cunning personalities, who are typically men: dominating, opposes equality, desirous of personal power, amoral, intimidating and bullying, faintly hedonistic, vengeful, pitiless, exploitive, manipulative, dishonest, cheats to win, highly prejudiced (racist, sexist, homophobic), mean-spirited, militant, nationalistic, tells others what they want to hear, takes advantage of "suckers," specializes in creating false images to sell self, may or may not be religious, usually politically and economically conservative/Republican.

These lists of traits for both right-wing authoritarian followers, and social dominating authoritarian leaders, should be understood as not necessarily describing every person who falls into the type. While many have all the traits, not all will have all, or even most, of them. Most people who test high as authoritarians, whether followers or leaders, have some of these traits, however.

(I will not deal, here, with another group which I address in Conservatives Without Conscience at some length: the groups of those who uniquely test high for all these traits - both those of a leader and those of a follower. This happens with a small number of social dominators when given both tests. Seeing themselves as running the world, they respond as high as followers do on certain traits, because they want people to follow them. These so-called "double highs" are people I labeled as "conservatives without conscience," but they are beyond this summary. Nonetheless, they too fall under the general description of those leaders and followers who subscribe to authoritarian conservatism.)

Authoritarian Conservatism

No one familiar with the findings of social scientists who study authoritarianism relating to the social-dominating leaders was surprised when they became the leaders in control of the Republican Party, nor when they demanded strict adherence to their conservative political, religious and economic worldview. Nor was there any surprise among social scientists when the right-wing authoritarian followers went along with their leaders, not to mention aggressively pushing the message and turning against those who were not believers.

Needless to say, Republicans have not come anywhere close to pursuing the type of political authoritarianism found in countries like China and Russia, or in any of the many semi-dictatorial or quasi-totalitarian governments. Our constitutional system makes that nearly impossible. Nor is authoritarian conservatism new in our country.

Alexander Hamilton, the monarchist-leaning founding father, can justifiably be considered America's first prominent authoritarian conservative. Political scientists Charles W. Dunn and J. David Woodard reported in their study The Conservative Tradition in America that Hamilton's "brand of conservatism may be properly labeled authoritarian conservatism." Dunn and Woodard trace the ideology of authoritarian conservatism to Joseph de Maistre, a French nobleman and political polemicist who became an outspoken opponent of Enlightenment thinking, and who favored a strong central government. De Maistre was more famously known by later generations for his admiration of hangmen, whom he felt were essential for social order.

Conservative scholar Peter Viereck examined authoritarian conservatism in his work Conservatism: From John Adams to Churchill, in which he reported the "rival brands" of early conservatism, dividing them into two founding schools: that of Edmund Burke, and that of Maistre. Viereck characterized Burkean conservatism as "the moderate brand," while characterizing Maistre's as "reactionary." Burkean conservatism was not authoritarian but constitutionalist, while Maistrean conservatism was "authoritarian in its stress on the authority" being granted to "some traditional elite." Although most conservative scholars choose to ignore Maistre, treating him as an unwelcome member of the family, his work is significant in that it suggests that authoritarianism was an integral component of conservatism at the time of its founding.

As one sifts through the conservative philosophy of the religious right and of the neo-conservatives, the Maistrean philosophy is conspicuously present. Unlike traditional conservatives who embrace varying degrees of libertarianism - drawn from the core beliefs of classic Nineteenth Century liberalism - the authoritarian conservative wants an all-powerful chief executive who runs a mighty military that implements his will.

Authoritarian conservatism was growing in force in Washington for a decade before Bush and Cheney arrived at the White House, but their administration has taken it to its highest and most dangerous level in American history. It is doubtful they could have accomplished this, had authoritarian conservatism not already taken hold in Congress and the federal judiciary. In the final segment of this three-part series of columns, I will highlight a few of the aspects of authoritarian conservatism that are troubling for American government.

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

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