Monday, April 12, 2010

The Authoritarians

Ever since I finished reading it a few weeks ago, I've been meaning to recommend the book The Authoritarians by Bob Altemeyer of the University of Manitoba. So, consider it recommended. It’s available online for free at the page linked-to above. The book’s been out since 2006, so it’ll already be familiar to a lot of people, but it was news to me when I learned of it a few months back, and I know I’m not the only one. So, like I said: recommended.

There are more things of interest in that book than I can shake a stick at, so I’ll just touch on one: Altemeyer reproduces a quote from President Carter (see page 181) in which he was “describing the fundamentalist movements that have taken control of the Republican Party”, as Altemeyer characterized it. The quote is this:

“Almost invariably, fundamentalist movements are led by authoritarian males who consider themselves to be superior to others and, within religious groups, have an overwhelming commitment to subjugate women and to dominate their fellow believers.”

According to the footnotes, that’s from Carter’s book Our endangered values: America’s moral crisis, pg. 34.

Altemeyer’s research suggests that those authoritarians are even worse than Carter described. But what interested me most about that quote is its relationship to something I heard President Carter say in an interview more than a decade ago, on PBS’ News Hour, in which he said something to the effect that the politicians and other movers and shakers he encountered in Washington during his presidency were unusually apt to state, at least privately, that they had attained their privilege, power and wealth due to being God’s chosen ones. The rest of us, by extension, were some lower order of being that was meant to be ruled by, and serve the interests of, them, the chosen ones. (I don’t remember him indicating that that viewpoint was specific to members of any one political party, by the way.) Carter, of course, was appalled by such assertions.

The existence of that attitude struck me as being of the utmost importance, both to explain a lot of things that happen in the halls of power, and as a warning of what more could happen, and so I set off to read almost everything President Carter had written, both before, and after, his presidency, hoping to find him expanding on that statement. Unfortunatley, while I found many interesting things in his books, I never found that statement, or anything like it.

Nonetheless, that statement, at least as I remember it, fits in very well with Altemeyer’s research, especially on what he calls the “Double Highs.” (See chapter 5.) And Altemeyer was good enough to specifically study the attitudes of the members of America’s state legislatures. (Regrettably, his survey was performed before the test for “double highs” existed, but the results are relevant, nonetheless.) He describes the results as follows:

I sent the thirty-item RWA scale I was using in my research then to fifty legislative chambers, and in every single one except the Louisiana House, the Republicans scored higher overall than the Democrats. Although the “right-wing” in right-wing authoritarianism refers to a psychological trait that endorses submission to established authority (see chapter 1), not a political ideology, the RWA scale finds different levels of this trait in politicians from the two parties. The Republicans scored almost 40 points higher than the Democrats on the average, on the 30-item scale.

The graph he provides showing where the Democrats and Republicans of the various state legislatures scored on the RWA scale (see figure 5.1 on page 201) shows Republicans scoring in a very tight grouping at the high end of the scale, and Democrats scattered all over the scale, though mostly scoring lower than Republicans. That probably explains the high cohesion within the Republican party, and what I perceive to be the low cohesion within the Democratic party. Offhand, I can’t find an indication of exactly when Altemeyer conducted those surveys, but he indicates that they were all done before 1994. So, if President Carter wasn’t noticing any more of the “I’m God’s chosen one” attitude in one party or the other during his administration (and that’s a big “if”, because he simply might not have mentioned it, or I may not have remembered him mentioning it, or it might have been edited out of the interview), Altemeyer’s data would indicate that holders of that attitude disproportionately and rapidly migrated to the Republican party.

That such a profoundly undemocratic attitude exists anywhere within our society is inevitably destructive. When it finds a place where it is welcome and can congregate it becomes lethal. And so to the “chosen ones” I say this: You are not superior to the rest of us, and your conceit that you are has soaked your hands in blood that will not wash off.

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