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Cross-posted from Patterns That Connect.

Rightwing authoritarianism (RWA) is one of two attitudinal constructs (along with social dominance orientation--SDO) that combine to account for a majority of group prejudice, which in turn is a major aspect of group identity politics.  Both also correlate significantly with political conservatism.  RWA is defined as the convergence of three attitudinal clusters:

  • Authoritarian submission: A high degree of submission to the authorities who are perceived to be established and legitimate in the society in which one lives.
  • Authoritarian aggression: A general aggressiveness, directed against various persons, that is perceived to be sanctioned by established authorities.
  • Conventionalism: A high degree of adherence to the social conventions that are perceived to be endorsed by society and its established authorities.

As might be guessed, RWA is associated with a high degree of hostility toward outgroups, a key characteristic that correlates with findings discussed in the previous post in this series, indicating that hard core conservatism correlates with a strong resistance to power-sharing with various outgroups--blacks, Jews, Catholics, unions and women.

The construct was developed empirically by Canadian researcher Robert Altemeyer, who started by examining the more elaborate, Freudian-based construct presented in The Authoritarian Personality, which contained nine factors. The three factors Altemeyer identified were among the original nine factors, but he refined the questions defining the traits over time, developing a scale over time with stronger inter-item correlation.  His findings are based primarily on research using questionnaires administered to his students, and secondarily to parents, but they have been administered to others as well, including members of a large number of American state legislatures. His uses standard correlation analysis, as well as comparisons and analysis focusing on those who score in the upper 25%, termed "High RWAs" or simply "Highs."

Altemeyer explains that "right-wing'" means a "psychological sense of submitting to perceived authorities in one's life," and is not identified with a specific political ideology.  In the Soviet Union, "right-wing" meant a sense of submitting to communist authorities, and Altemeyer presented research showing this was so.  This is what his RWA (right-wing authoritarianism) scale measured. It is obviously related to the perpetuation of hierarchy, and the use of force to impose "order."

Altemeyer's third book, The Authoritarian Specter reports and discusses Altemeyer's extensive findings in considerable detail. He makes it quite clear that RWA explains statistical group tendencies, not individual behavior, and that environmental factors--such as being in a frightening emergency situation, like the United States just after 9-11--are far more powerful than attitude in predicting behavior.

Thus, he's in no way trying to prejudge, stereotype and dismiss those who may be more conservative, or to praise those who are more liberal.  Altemeyer himself scores about average on the RWA scale.

A Quick And Dirty Guide To RWA

Nonetheless, the group portrait of RWA is distinctly disturbing, as can be seen from the list of tendencies that Altemeyer compiled and listed at the end of The Authoritarian Specter as a sort of compressed summary.  I've listed most of them in the tables that follow here, which provide some thematic coherence for them.  The first is the one that goes most directly to the issue at hand--conservative identity politics, which is built around the "good us"/"demonized them" dynamic.

Table 1: Hostility & Fear Toward Outgroups

RWA's are more likely to:
  • Weaken constitutional guarantees of liberty, such as the Bill of Rights.
  • Punish severely `common' criminals in a role-playing situation.
  • Admit they get personal pleasure from punishing such people.
  • But go easy on authorities who commit crimes and people who attack minorities.
  • Be prejudiced against many racial, ethnic, nationalistic, and linguistic minorities.
  • Be hostile toward homosexuals.
  • Support `gay-bashing.'
  • Be hostile toward feminists.
  • Volunteer to help the government persecute almost anyone.
  • Be mean-spirited toward those who have made mistakes and suffered.
  • Be fearful of a dangerous world.
These items show broad and robust evidence of hostility toward designated outgroups.  There's also evidence of contempt, inability and unwillingness to walk a mile in someone else's shoes.  Systematically misunderstanding others is second nature with this sort of outlook, and is clearly related to the dynamics of an identity politics defined in opposition to groups of demonized others.  The actual interior experience of others is something that such a mindset simply cannot dare to seriously consider.  It is simply presumed to be "evil."

On the flip side, are the tendencies toward their group identity cohesion.

Table 2: Not-So-Healthy Ingroup Cohesion

RWA's are more likely to:
  • Strongly believe in group cohesiveness and `loyalty.'
  • Insist on traditional sex roles.
  • Use religion to erase guilt over their acts and to maintain their self-righteousness.
  • Be `fundamentalists' and the most prejudiced members of whatever religion they belong to.
  • Accept unfair and illegal abuses of power by government authorities.
  • Trust leaders (such as Richard Nixon) who are untrustworthy.
The items in this table can be fairly be summarized as manifestations of tribalism: group cohesiveness and `loyalty' are core values, religion serves the purpose of tribal unity and self-justification, sex roles keep people in their place, and leaders are to be trusted and obeyed, no matter what. Tibalism and cultism are clearly closely related, as will be discussed more fully in a future post. This is a strong indication that the cultism surrounding Bush is indeed consistent with conservatism, rather than a departure from it, as Greenwald assumed in his post that sparked this series in the first place.  Here I am showing that it is consistent with attitudinal underpinnings.  But those attitudes clearly translate into overt ideology and policies positions as well.

Related to such the fragile and unsupportable cartoon picture of the world shown in Table 1 (and less directly in Table 2) is a wide range flawed reasoning as well.

Table 3: Faulty reasoning

RWA's are more likely to:
  • Make many incorrect inferences from evidence.
  • Hold contradictory ideas leading them to `speak out of both sides of their mouths.'
  • Uncritically accept that many problems are `our most serious problem.'
  • Uncritically accept insufficient evidence that supports their beliefs.
  • Uncritically trust people who tell them what they want to hear.
  • Use many double standards in their thinking and judgements.
One logical flaw which reflects both on misunderstanding of others and themselves, is RWAs elevated tendency to commit what's called the "Fundamental Attribution Error" (FAE)--over-explaining others' actions in terms of personalities and under-explaining them in terms of situational factors.  This what lies behind uncritically trusting people who tell them what they want to hear--they believe what the person is saying is a true expression of how they feel, and ignore the contextual evidence that they are simply pandering. This also helps to explain why they trust unscrupulous leaders, such as Nixon and Bush.

As for self-knowledge, although RWAs have a number of character flaws consistent with group identity politics generally and religious fundamentalism [already mentioned] specifically--see Table 4--they're remarkably blind to their own failings--see Table 5.

Table 4: Profound Character Flaws

RWA's are more likely to:
  • Be dogmatic.
  • Be zealots.
  • Be hypocrites.
  • Be bullies when they have power over others.
  • Help cause and inflame intergroup conflict.
  • Seek dominance over others by being competitive and destructive in situations requiring cooperation.
Table 5: Blindness To Own Failings

RWA's are more likely to:
  • Believe they have no personal failings.
  • Avoid learning about their personal failings.
  • Be highly self-righteous.
  • Use religion to erase guilt over their acts and to maintain their self-righteousness.
The cumulative picture summarized in these five tables is clearly that of people who have a multifacted set of tendencies that work together to foster a conformist group identity that is maintained in part by demonizing others, and expresses itself in a propensity, or at least tolerance for violence.

Last, we turn to the more specifically political tendencies, some of which have been mentioned before, but are included here for the sake of completeness

Table 6: RWA's Political Tendencies

RWA's are more likely to:
  • Weaken constitutional guarantees of liberty, such as the Bill of Rights.
  • Accept unfair and illegal abuses of power by government authorities.
  • Trust leaders (such as Richard Nixon) who are untrustworthy.
  • Sometimes join left-wing movements, where their hostility distinguishes them.
  • But much more typically endorse right-wing political parties.
  • Be conservative/Reform party (Canada) or Republican Party (United States) lawmakers who
    1. have a conservative economic philosophy;
    2. believe in social dominance;
    3. are ethnocentric;
    4. are highly nationalistic;
    5. oppose abortion;
    6. support capital punishment;
    7. oppose gun-control legislation;
    8. say they value freedom but actually want to undermine the Bill of Rights;
    9. do not value equality very highly and oppose measures to increase it;
    10. are not likely to rise in the Democratic party, but do so among Republicans.

Three Broad Findings To Consider

I want to conclude this analyses by stressing three broad findings in addition to what's gone before.

First, concerning RWA and fear:  Among the most significant of Altemeyer's findings--both implicit and explicit in what we've seen above--was the fearful nature of the RWA worldview, "High RWAs stand about ten steps closer to the panic button than the rest of the population," he concluded, "They see the world as a more dangerous place than most others do, with civilization on the verge of collapse and the world of Mad Max looming just beyond."  This fearfulness is a good explanation for many of the tendencies listed above.

Second, concerning RWA and religion: The authoritarian relationship to religion is particularly troubling, as several different sorts of flaws tend to work together to blind authoritarians from seeing what they are doing.  Perhaps most striking is the greater likelihood to compartmentalize their thinking, and not notice contradictions between compartmentalized beliefs.  In a 1985 experiment, students were asked what they thought about two passages from the Gospels: "Do not judge, that you may not be judged.  For with what judgment you judge, you shall be judged. (Matthew 7:1), and "Let he who is without sin among you be the first to cast a stone at her."  Altemeyer reports:

Twenty Christian Highs said we should take the teachings literally.  Twenty-seven other Christian Highs said we should judge and punish others, but none of them explained how they reconciled this view with Jesus' teachings.  Apparently, they `believed' both (contradictory) things.  But the kicker came when I looked at various measures of authoritarian aggression I had gathered from these students.  No matter what they said they believed, both these groups of Highs were quick with the stones on the Attitudes toward Homosexuals Scale, the ethnocentrism Scale, and Posse-Homosexuals (Enemies of Freedom, pp. 222-224).
Such compartmentalization also reflects problems with self-knowledge, already noted.  Of course, it's relatively easy for one religious group to see such flaws in another group.  The really hard thing is to see it in yourself or in your group.  It's much, much easier for fundmentalists in different religions to inflame their followers against each other--and to put pressure on their more moderate co-religionists to join them.  Naturally, this feeds into a number of different tendencies listed above.

Third,concerning RWA and politics:  Altmeyer found that RWA becomes increasingly significant the more involved one is politically. Surprisingly, Altemeyer found that RWA only correlated modestly with party identification in Canada and America.  It was always higher with the more conservative party (a 3-way comparison in most Canadian cases), but the differences were relatively modest.  However, when he looked at how people perceived their elected representatives, the degrees of difference increased significantly.   Then, when he looked at the representatives themselves, he discovered that they differed even more than their constituents thought they did.

In additional to Canada, he examined a large number of state legislatures in the United States.  While a there were a few Democrats who scored very high on the RWA scale, the Republican Party as a whole scored dramatically higher on the scale, and showed far less variation than the Democrats did.  Republicans in state government in every part of the country scored much closer to one another than did Democrats. In addition, the spectrum of American politics was higher on the RWA scale than the Canadian spectrum.  That's not to say there was no overlap, but the difference was striking, nonetheless.

These findings strongly suggest that RWA reflects something very fundamental about American politics, which cannot simply be overcome by wishing it away.  It must be faced head-on and dealt with at a very fundamental level.  Conservatives and the GOP are more unified, because they see the world more similarly--albeit not more accurately.  It seems only logical to assume that this both reflects and reinforces the basic fact that their foundation is a form of identity politics, an expression of a shared identity, as opposed to the Democratic Party, which is openly and avowedly a coalition.

What About Leftwing Authoritarianism?

Altemeyer went looking for it.  He didn't find it.  He didn't find anyone who scored over 50% on the LWA scale he developed, which was a direct reflection of the RWA scale. In contrast, he has found numerous people scoring close 100% on the RWA scale.  He concluded that LWAs are "as rare as hen's teeth."  He did, of course, find authoritarianism among people on the left in the Soviet Union, as noted above.  But this was due to their social conformity to the existing authorities in their society.  And that's what RWA is.

What's Next: SDO

The next installment in this series concerns another attitudinal construct, known as social dominance orientation (SDO).  As we shall see, it is even more directly associated with group identity.


The underlying material in this diary comes from Robert Altemeyer's third and most comprehensive book, The Authoritarian Specter

Previous posts in this series:
Conservatism As Identity Politics--Intro
Conservatism As Identity Politics--Pt2: Hard Core Data

Originally posted to Paul Rosenberg on Wed Mar 01, 2006 at 03:29 PM PST.

Also republished by Psychology of Conservatives and Liberals.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Tip Jar (4.00)
    (1) If I wanted to read something this long, I'd go with Tolstoy.
    (2) If I wanted to read something this long, I'd go with Doestoevsky
    (3) "Fools Russian" in the 6th.
  •  Seems to me (none)
    that Altemeyer went to a lot of long and hard work to scientifically prove what anyone with an ounce of common sense knows instictively. But that's just MHO.

    Good diary.


    Thank you for your effort.

    Al Qeada is a faith-based initiative.

    by drewfromct on Wed Mar 01, 2006 at 03:47:56 PM PST

    •  Knowing And Proving Are Two Different Things (4.00)
      Think of all those folks who just know that Saddam had WMDs, and was intimately involved in 9/11.

      It's basis of the reality-based community.

      And, besides, there are still millions and millions and millions of people who would scream themselves silly in denial of this.  

      All the M$M insistence on how us Kossacks and our ilk are just Bush-haters. With the "sophisticates" decrying "extremism on both sides."  All that shit.  Totally debunked by 30 years of research.

      They just can't handle the truth.

  •  Very interesting (none)
    Does Altemeyer say anything about the etiology of RWA Syndrome?


    "In the beginning the universe was created. This has been widely criticized and generally regarded as a bad move." -- Douglas Adams

    by LithiumCola on Wed Mar 01, 2006 at 03:53:27 PM PST

    •  He Has A Long Chapter On It (4.00)
      in his second book, Enemies of Freedom, which is hard to get your hands on. I've read it before via inter-library loan, but the notes I took on it are lost on some backup disk somewhere.

      To the best of my recollection, some of the factors cited were environmental/demographic--being raised in a small, insular community, in a fundamentalist religion, by parents who score high in RWA, those sorts of things.  Though, actually, any sort of church membership is associated with RWA to some extent.

      •  Fantastic series, Paul. (none)
        This is the kind of stuff I scroll through dK for.

        Had a very frustrating conversation with my neighbor this evening. (We're both Jewish, and Dems.) I was pointing out how hypocritical it was of Bush to claim to have a policy of bringing democracy to the muslim countries of the ME, but then saying the U.S. "will not support a Palestinian government made up of Hamas" despite being democratically elected by the Palestinians. Both David Ben Gurion and Menachem Begin were terrorists before Israel became a country. His response: "So you support terrorism?" I gnashed my teeth. I can't understand him. He does this all the time. He sounds like a wingnut, regurgitating talking points. And he gives me his New Yorkers after he's done with them. But of course, he doesn't read the Sy Hersh articles.

        I also told him of the Neocon's deliberate plan to keep Iraq in a state of chaos in order to bring it to its knees, so it would accept whatever 'deal' the U.S. proposed in terms of the bases and PSAs (oil contracts w/Exxon etc.). I pointed out that this is Likud's strategy with the Palestinians, as stated by Sharon. He denied it and refused to accept it, then told me I should read the interview with Sharon in the New Yorker to see that I'm wrong. Then I told him that Sharon said as much in that very interview!

        Paul, did you see the Emory study: Partisans Addicted to Emotionally Biased Thinking? This may add a mechanism to Altemeyer's findings.

        •  Yes, I Saw That (none)
          By itself, it didn't impress me for a couple of reasons.

          The first is that brain-level research related to issues of political cognition never impresses me.  There is brain-level research that supports Lakoff's theory of cognitive metaphor, for example.   (People don't take longer to process metaphoric statements, ergo, they cognize them directly, not via translation to a "basic" literal level.)

          I think it's great that there's this kind of support for Lakoff's basic theory.  But his basic theory doesn't need that kind of support, IMHO.  It's pure overkill. And, more importantly, the critical arguments in Moral Politics are not materially strengthened by the brain-level research.  And, I think this is almost invariably the case. It may not always be, of course. But given the present state of the art, that's the way things stand right now.

          The second is that any experiment that shows identical, or basically similar behavior "on both sides" is immediately suspect, because it goes against so much other evidence that is out there.  And Altemeyer's evidence is simply the largest single coherent body of data.  It's by no means the only stuff that's out there.

          This is not to say that similar mechanisms aren't at work across the spectrum. As my piece notes, this is certainly the case.  We are talking about a preponderance of group behavior, which gets significantly more pronounced as people become more involved and rise to higher levels of political power.  But it is to say that the major significance for us lies precisely in how the underlying statistical tendencies give rise to or help sustain structured, and highly differentiated systems of thought. (Using the term loosely, of course!)

          Research that seems to stigmatize partisans across the board also has the implicit message of valorizing political independents.  And there is a great deal of political mythology that does so as well. This mythology would be a whole lot more convincing, however, if it weren't for the following facts:

          (1) The Democratic Party is alread a centrist party in international terms, thereby making American "independents" center-right at best.

          (2) Altemeyer's findings indicate that those in more liberal parties have lower RWA scores, and therefore are more tolerant, think more consistently, have more realistic self-images, etc.--all of which is to say that Democrats as a group think more clearly than independents.

          (3) A significant number of other cognitive/attitudinal factors also show the same pattern, indicating that more liberal people generally have fewer imparements to coherent, consistently-applied thinking.

          In short, I am not throwing out that study data because it doesn't fit my model.  I'm just saying that if taken as a starting point for studying polticial thinking, it goes against a tremendous amount evidence and is far more likely to lead one in mistaken directions.

          I would actually be far more interested to hear about this same sort of study directed at studying brain function while people were involved in cognitive tasks that had to do simply with confirming or disconfirming hypothesis along the same lines that scientific thinking proceeds.  I think this would start to give us the sort of broad-range map of possibilities in which we could then start to place more specific studies, such as the one discussed above. That would put us onto a much more promising research trajectory, IMHO.

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