Looking Left and Right: Authoritarianism Pt 1



As we showed in our analysis of the Clinton/Obama primary fight in 2008, in our book, as well as in analysis of election data from 2010 and 2012, what distinguishes Democratic from Republican voters among whites isn’t education level or income level. It’s authoritarianism. The data are consistent in this – low authoritarian white folks with less than a college education, or who earn less than the median income, overwhelmingly support Democrats. Conversely, whites with high incomes and high education levels but who also score high in authoritarianism strongly support Republicans. In other words, it’s not “working-class whites” per se, who support very conservative candidates. It’s authoritarians, whether they are working class or not. This, too, is consistent with the composition of the (not-so-mysterious) Trump coalition. [1] 

I was first introduced to the concept of the Authoritarian personality via research  conducted by Robert Altemeyer, a now-retired Professor of Psychology at the University of Manitoba [although that concept was broached earlier by, among others, Erich Fromm and Theodore Adorno.]. His report was both disturbing and fascinating, and when one understands the basic components of the authoritarians [leaders and followers], it’s fairly easy to spot most if not all of those traits across a wide swath of those occupying today’s far Right.

While admittedly an ungracious characterization, Altemeyer described the authoritarian follower this way [applicable also to fundamentalist members of the Religious Right, who are typically considered to be authoritarian followers]:

They are highly submissive to established authority, aggressive in the name of that authority, and conventional to the point of insisting everyone should behave as their authorities decide. They are fearful and self-righteous and have a lot of hostility in them that they readily direct toward various out-groups. They are easily incited, easily led, rather un-inclined to think for themselves, largely impervious to facts and reason, and rely instead on social support to maintain their beliefs. They bring strong loyalty to their in-groups, have thick-walled, highly compartmentalized minds, use a lot of double standards in their judgments, are surprisingly unprincipled at times, and are often hypocrites.
But they are also Teflon-coated when it comes to guilt. They are blind to themselves, ethnocentric and prejudiced, and as closed-minded as they are narrow- minded. They can be woefully uninformed about things they oppose, but they prefer ignorance and want to make others become as ignorant as they. They are also surprisingly uninformed about the things they say they believe in.


Adorno et al. listed nine characteristics associated with the ‘authoritarian personality’ (a concept first posited by the psychologist and sociologist Erich Fromm). The nine traits were: rigid adherence to convention; submission to the authorities of the in-group; aggression against those who deviated from convention; opposition to imaginative, subjective or soft-hearted experience; superstition and rigid belief categories; obsession with strength and powerful father figures; generalized hostility and anger at humanity; the tendency to believe that wild and dangerous things are going on in the world, a projection of repressed emotions; and an obsession with sex [2]

When coupled with the various characteristics both attributed to the typical conservative personality [as upcoming posts will discuss in greater detail] and as leading conservative writers [such as Russell Kirk] have themselves acknowledged, a picture develops of a fairly steadfast proponent of certain clear-cut beliefs and principles—whether justified or not.

When one’s beliefs are relied upon as the source for behaviors and the principles themselves, rarely will they be dislodged by facts. And so here we are.

No doubt those on the Right have their criticisms of the progressive personality—justified or not—but when their inclination is to avoid ambiguity and instead come to quick conclusions about even the most complex social and political issues without wasting much time on those subtleties, it becomes difficult if not impossible to find a bridge even minimally wide-enough to find common ground. Fear-mongering by both certain elements of the media and political leaders with agendas distinct from those of the average citizen only widens the divide.

How does any of this help? For all of the doubts and denials fostered about important issues of the day such as climate change, peak oil, inequality, the highly-polarized nature of public discourse itself, and the various social/cultural issues creating even more disagreement, reality remains unmoved by the various rationales and psychological short-cuts adopted.

If we don’t begin finding ways to tone down the divisive nature of our social and political conversations but instead continue our headlong insistence that only our side is correct and the other side is evil incarnate, no one will be satisfied when we’re all forced to address those many significant challenges with limited options left to any of us.

Perhaps asking ourselves What Happens Then? before we reach that point might be worth considering.

More to come….[NOTE: Next post will be on March 7]


~ My Photo: Boston MA sunrise – 02.02.16


Looking Left and Right:
Inspiring Different Ideas, Envisioning Better Tomorrows

Be the change you want in the world Gandhi

The world is not dangerous because of those who do harm, but because
of those who look at it without doing anything Albert Einstein



[1] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jonathan-weiler/demystifying-the-trump-co_b_8089380.html; Demystifying the Trump Coalition: It’s the Authoritarianism by Jonathan Weiler – 09.04.15
[2] http://www.salon.com/2011/12/05/the_infantile_style_in_american_politics/; The infantile style in American politics by Gary Kamiya – 12.05.11


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As I state in the “About Me” section, I’m driven by an intense commitment to learn why those on the conservative side of the fence view so many matters of great importance to us all so differently than do those of us on the progressive side. Those contrasting behaviors, beliefs, and ideologies are contributing factors to the very problems we’re trying to solve—the ones we must solve if our own ambitions and our hopes for a peaceful and prosperous world we leave to our children are to be well-served.

If we don’t recognize and accept that bitter partisanship is not always the wisest or most beneficial strategy, the goal of a better future will forever be as far away tomorrow as it is today.

The late Senator Paul Wellstone’s observation continues to hold far more truth and power than we give it credit:

We all do better when we all do better

Why make setting up inevitable and enduring conflict the primary objective of policy and planning?


* I invite you to enjoy my two books [here and here], and to view my other   blogs–at this website [see below] and also at Peak Oil Matters

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Life Will Answer Thought-provoking inquiries & observations about how (and why) Life does … and does not, work for everyone. [Inspired by my book of the same name].

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The Middle Age FolliesAn occasional column offering a slightly skewed look at life for those of us on the north side of 50 … far north.