From John Ray's shorter notes

20 May, 2013

Altemeyer is still fundamentally confused

At least since 1950, Leftist psychologists have been fascinated by the concept of authoritarianism. They have good reason to be. The most authoritarian regimes in recent history have been socialist: From the Communist Lenin, Stalin and Mao, through the national socialist Hitler to the ghastly Pol Pot. So authoritarianism is in the bones of Leftists. We also see that orientation in their virtually universal refusal to condemn the gran lider of Cuba ("Great Leader", Fidel Castro) and their unrelenting attempts to fasten the bonds of regulation around most aspects of life in the USA. And they are always eager to spend your money for you whether you want them to or not.

But authoritarianism is repugnant to most people gripped by it so the Left have a need to deny the authoritarianism which is innate to them. They need to pretend to be something else. And they are rather good at that. They pretend to be do-gooders even though most of what they do turns out badly.

Another very useful way of deflecting criticism is simply denial. If you say often enough that you are not authoritarian, people might believe you. And a very effective way of reinforcing such denials is of accusing your opponents of what is really true of yourself. Freud called that "projection". So Leftist psychologists have made great efforts to prove that conservatives are the authoritarian ones, not themselves.

That merry little scheme started with the work of Marxist theoretician Adorno in 1950 but foundered eventually on the poor evidence for the various Adorno assertions. I cover that here.

The Adorno work was however refurbished from 1981 on by Robert Altemeyer of the University of Manitoba in Canada and I have pointed out from early on how sloppy Altemeyer's work is (e.g. here and here and here) .

Altemeyer has however continued to write books on authoritarianism and has gained a certain degree of notice outside academe, particularly through the blog of Jonathan Turley. Not much about Altemeyer's story has changed over the years but maybe there is by now a case for me to update a little my comments on his work.

Altemeyer has compiled a set of statements (the RWA scale) which in his view reflect "Right Wing Authoritarianism". But he is very shifty about what he means by "right-wing". Sometimes he refers to it as meaning conservative and at other times he admits that it is uncorrelated with vote for conservative political parties.

In other words his research is about conservatives who are as likely to vote Democrat as Republican! A truly odd bunch! The truth, I suspect, is that Altemeyer would not know a conservative if he fell over one. I have no doubt that the Psychology Dept. at the University of Manitoba is the standard Leftist bubble that one expects of such Depts so strange beliefs about conservatives and much else could flourish in that environment.

So what the RWA scale really measures is anybody's guess. I see it as measuring an old fashioned form of extreme conservatism that no longer has political relevance or, indeed, any relevance at all. So the political relevance of Altemeyer's various research findings exists only in Altemeyer's imagination and need detain nobody for any time at all.

But if Altemeyer is vague about "right wing", he is quite clearly wrong about authoritarianism. He makes it clear that it is not dictators he is talking about but rather their followers. He claims that he is measuring a tendency for people to submit to authority. But there is no such thing. Nobody just respects authority per se. Different people respect different authorities. Altemeyer is convinced that conservatives in the USA are characterized by a respect for conventional authority. Yet most American conservatives these days almost spit when they talk about the President, Congress and the Supreme Court. Not much respect for the conventional authorities of America there!

And even the old mainline churches get short shrift among conservatives. Conservatives tend to respect "rebel" evangelical churches, churches with a strong streak of independence.

Altemeyer has some awareness of the political irreverence of American conservatives so to save his theory he nominates Rush Limbaugh and his ilk as authorities that conservatives respect. But Limbaugh is no authority at all. He is just a radio commentator! People listen to him because they agree with him, not for any other reason. In Altemeyer's world, agreeing with anybody is dangerous!

And it is not only in conservative politics that one finds an absence of a general tendency to respect authority. I set out here some evidence from psychological research which shows that respect for authority in one field does not generalize to respect for authority in other fields. That being so, Altemeyer is studying a unicorn (or perhaps more specifically, a chimera).

So wherever you look at Altemeyer's theories you find that he is not studying what he thinks he is studying. He is studying something that exists only in his own imagination.

But a relatively recent work of his really puts the cap on his intellectual confusion. He has written an extensive history and analysis of the Tea Party movement. And he does get one thing right. He notes that a lot of the Tea Partiers are evangelical Christians.

Even Altemeyer cannot avoid noticing however that Libertarians are prominent in the Tea Party movement too. So are Libertarians authoritarian? Good old Altemeyer sticks to his guns and says they are. He calls libertarians "The Other Authoritarian Personality". That people who comprehensively reject authoritative control over our lives are also submissive to authority must be one of the most crosseyed assertions in contemporary politics. Black might as well be white. Again Altemeyer is living in a little world of his own imagination.

Altemeyer also likes the "Social Dominance Orientation" theory of Pratto and Sidanius but I have pointed out the large holes in that some time ago.

Finally, the whole idea that you need to be a particular personality type to support an authoritarian regime is contrary to the evidence. Well-known experiments by both Milgram and Zimbardo showed vividly that perfectly ordinary people can be conned into supporting extremely authoritarian actions. And prewar writers such as Roberts and Heiden agree that by the late 30's Hitler was quite simply the most popular man in Germany. They LIKED his claim that they were a Herrenvolk (Master race)! His support ranged from the intelligentsia to the workers and, contrary to the usual Marxist piffle, the hard-core Nazis (the SA) were predominantly working class -- usually the more rebellious element of society.

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