The Authoritarian ~ by Robert Altmeyer
Who Are The Authoritarian Followers?
Because this book is called The Authoritarians, you may have thought it dealt with autocrats and despots, the kind of people who would rule their country, or department, or football team like a dictator. That is one meaning of the word, and yes, we shall talk about such people eventually in this book. But we shall begin with a second kind of authoritarian: someone who, because of his personality, submits by leaps and bows to his authorities.
It may seem strange, but this is the authoritarian personality that psychology has studied the most. We shall probably always have individuals lurking among us who yearn to play tyrant. Some of them will be dumber than two bags of broken hammers, and some will be very bright. Many will start so far down in society that they have little chance of amassing power; others will have easy access to money and influence all their lives.
On the national scene some will be frustrated by prosperity, internal tranquillity, and international peace–all of which significantly dim the prospects for a demagogue -in-waiting. Others will benefit from historical crises that automatically drop increased power into a leader’s lap. But ultimately, in a democracy, a wannabe tyrant is just a comical figure on a soapbox unless a huge wave of supporters lifts him to high office. That’s how Adolf Hitler destroyed the Weimar Republic and became the Fuhrer. So we need to understand the people out there doing the wave. Ultimately the problem lay in the followers.
In this chapter we’ll consider the way I measure people’s tendency to be authoritarian followers and whether this approach has any merit. And if after that you find yourself thinking, “More, more, I still want more. I simply love reading books on a monitor!” I’ll tell you the story of what happened at my university on the night of October 19, 1994, When Authoritarians Ruled The Earth.
Right-wing and Left-Wing Authoritarian Followers
Authoritarian followers usually support the established authorities in their society, such as government officials and traditional religious leaders. Such people have historically been the “proper” authorities in life, the time-honoured, entitled, customary leaders, and that means a lot to most authoritarians. Psychologically these followers have personalities featuring:
1) a high degree of submission to the established, legitimate authorities in their society;
2) high levels of aggression in the name of their authorities; and
3) a high level of conventionalism.
In the next chapter we’ll try to figure out why high RWAs are so aggressive. Then we’ll try to understand how nice, ordinary people–like some of your neighbors, some of your co-workers, and perhaps even some of your relatives–became right-wing authoritarians.
Because the submission occurs to traditional authority, I call these followers right- wing authoritarians. I’m using the word “right” in one of its earliest meanings, for in Old English “riht”(pronounced “writ”) as an adjective meant lawful, proper, correct, doing what the authorities said. (And when someone did the lawful thing back then, maybe the authorities said, with a John Wayne drawl, “You got that riht, pilgrim!”)
In North America people who submit to the established authorities to extraordinary degrees often turn out to be political conservatives, 2 so you can call them “right-wingers” both in my newfangled psychological sense and in the usual political sense as well. But someone who lived in a country long ruled by Communists and who ardently supported the Communist Party would also be one of my psychological right-wing authoritarians even though we would also say he was a political left-winger. So a right-wing authoritarian follower doesn’t necessarily have conservative political views. Instead he’s someone who readily submits to the established authorities in society, attacks others in their name, and is highly conventional. It’s an aspect of his personality, not a description of his politics. Right-wing authoritarianism is a personality trait, like being characteristically bashful or happy or grumpy or dopey.
You could have left-wing authoritarian followers as well, who support a revolutionary leader who wants to overthrow the establishment. I knew a few in the 1970s, Marxist university students who constantly spouted their chosen authorities, Lenin or Trotsky or Chairman Mao. Happily they spent most of their time fighting with each other, as lampooned in Monty Python’s Life of Brian where the People’s Front of Judea devotes most of its energy to battling, not the Romans, but the Judean People’s Front. But the left-wing authoritarians on my campus disappeared long ago. Similarly in America “the Weathermen” blew away in the wind. I’m sure one can find left-wing authoritarians here and there, but they hardly exist in sufficient numbers now to threaten democracy in North America. However I have found bucketfuls of right-wing authoritarians in nearly every sample I have drawn in Canada and the United States for the past three decades. So when I speak of “authoritarian followers” in this book I mean right-wing authoritarian followers, as identified by the RWA scale.
The RWA Scale
The what? The Right-Wing Authoritarianism scale. Get out a pencil. I’m going to take you into the inner sanctum of a personality test. Just don’t be FRIGHTENED!
Below is the latest version of the RWA scale. Read the instructions carefully, and then write down your response to each statement on a sheet of paper numbered 1-22.
This survey is part of an investigation of general public opinion concerning a variety of social issues. You will probably find that you agree with some of the statements, and disagree with others, to varying extents. Please indicate your reaction to each statement on the line to the left of each item according to the following scale:
Write down a -4 if you very strongly disagree with the statement.
Write down a -3 if you strongly disagree with the statement.
Write down a -2 if you moderately disagree with the statement.
Write down a -1 if you slightly disagree with the statement.
Write down a +1 if you slightly agree with the statement.
Write down a +2 if you moderately agree with the statement.
Write down a +3 if you strongly agree with the statement.
Write down a +4 if you very strongly agree with the statement.
If you feel exactly and precisely neutral about an item, write down a “0.”
(“Dr. Bob” to reader: We’ll probably stay friends longer if you read this paragraph.) Important: You may find that you sometimes have different reactions to different parts of a statement. For example, you might very strongly disagree (“-4″) with one idea in a statement, but slightly agree (“+1″) with another idea in the same item. When this happens, please combine your reactions, and write down how you feel on balance (a “-3″ in this case).
___ 1. The established authorities generally turn out to be right about things, while the radicals and protesters are usually just “loud mouths” showing off their ignorance.
___ 2. Women should have to promise to obey their husbands when they get married.
___ 3. Our country desperately needs a mighty leader who will do what has to be done to destroy the radical new ways and sinfulness that are ruining us.
___ 4. Gays and lesbians are just as healthy and moral as anybody else.
___ 5. It is always better to trust the judgement of the proper authorities in government and religion than to listen to the noisy rabble-rousers in our society who are trying to create doubt in people’s minds
___ 6. Atheists and others who have rebelled against the established religions are no doubt every bit as good and virtuous as those who attend church regularly.
___ 7. The only way our country can get through the crisis ahead is to get back to our traditional values, put some tough leaders in power, and silence the troublemakers spreading bad ideas.
___ 8. There is absolutely nothing wrong with nudist camps.
___ 9. Our country needs free thinkers who have the courage to defy traditional ways, even if this upsets many people.
___ 10. Our country will be destroyed someday if we do not smash the perversions eating away at our moral fibre and traditional beliefs.
___ 11. Everyone should have their own lifestyle, religious beliefs, and sexual preferences, even if it makes them different from everyone else.
___ 12. The “old-fashioned ways” and the “old-fashioned values” still show the best way to live.
___ 13. You have to admire those who challenged the law and the majority’s view by protesting for women’s abortion rights, for animal rights, or to abolish school prayer.
___ 14. What our country really needs is a strong, determined leader who will crush evil, and take us back to our true path.
___ 15. Some of the best people in our country are those who are challenging our government, criticizing religion, and ignoring the “normal way things are supposed to be done.”
___ 16. God’s laws about abortion, pornography and marriage must be strictly followed before it is too late, and those who break them must be strongly punished.
___ 17. There are many radical, immoral people in our country today, who are trying to ruin it for their own godless purposes, whom the authorities should put out of action.
___ 18. A “woman’s place” should be wherever she wants to be. The days when women are submissive to their husbands and social conventions belong strictly in the past.
___ 19. Our country will be great if we honour the ways of our forefathers, do what the authorities tell us to do, and get rid of the “rotten apples” who are ruining everything.
___ 20. There is no “ONE right way” to live life; everybody has to create their own way.
___ 21. Homosexuals and feminists should be praised for being brave enough to defy “traditional family values.
___ 22. This country would work a lot better if certain groups of troublemakers would just shut up and accept their group’s traditional place in society.
Done them all, as best you could? Then let’s score your answers, and get an idea of whether you’re cut out to be an authoritarian follower. First, you can skip your answers to the first two statements. They don’t count. I put those items on the test to give people some experience with the -4 to +4 response system. They’re just “warm- ups.” Start therefore with No. 3.
If you wrote down a “-4” that’s scored as a 1.
If you wrote down a “-3″ that’s scored as a 2.
If you wrote down a “-2″ that’s scored as a 3.
If you wrote down a “-1″ that’s scored as a 4.
If you wrote down a “0″ or left the item unanswered, that’s scored as a 5.
If you wrote down a “+1″ that’s scored as a 6.
If you wrote down a “+2″ that’s scored as a 7.
If you wrote down a “+3″ that’s scored as an 8.
If you wrote down a “+4″ that’s scored as a 9.
Your answers to Items 5, 7, 10, 12, 14, 16, 17, 19 and 22 are scored the same way.
Now we’ll do the rest of your answers, starting with No. 4.
If you wrote down a “-4″ that’s scored as a 9.
If you wrote down a “-3″ that’s scored as an 8.
If you wrote down a “-2″ that’s scored as a 7.
If you wrote down a “-1″ that’s scored as a 6.
If you wrote down a “0″ or left the item unanswered, that’s scored as a 5.
If you wrote down a “+1″ that’s scored as a 4.
If you wrote down a “+2″ that’s scored as a 3.
If you wrote down a “+3″ that’s scored as a 2.
If you wrote down a “+4″ that’s scored as a 1.
Now simply add up your twenty scores. The lowest total possible would be 20, and the highest, 180, but real scores are almost never that extreme. Introductory psychology students at my Canadian university average about 75. Their parents average about 90. Both scores are below the mid-point of the scale, which is 100, so most people in these groups are not authoritarian followers in absolute terms. Neither are most Americans, it seems. Mick McWilliams and Jeremy Keil administered the RWA scale to a reasonably representative sample of 1000 Americans in 2005 for the Libertarian Party and discovered an average score of 90.3, 4 Thus the Manitoba parent samples seem similar in overall authoritarianism to a representative American adult sample. My Manitoba students score about the same on the RWA scale as most American university students do too.
Let me give you three compelling reasons why you should treat your personal score with a grain of salt. First, psychological tests make mistakes about individuals, which is what you happen to be, I’ll bet. Even the best instruments, such as the best IQ tests, get it wrong sometimes–as I think most people know. Thus the RWA scale can’t give sure-thing diagnoses of individuals. (But it can reliably identify levels of authoritarianism in groups, because too-high errors and too-low errors tend to even out in big samples. So we’ll do the group grope in this book, and not go on the individual counselling trip. )
Second, how you responded to the items depended a lot on how you interpreted them. You may have writhed in agony wondering, “What does he mean by _______?” as you answered. If I failed often to get the gist of what I was saying over to you, your score will certainly be misleading.
Third, you knew what the items were trying to measure, didn’t you, you rascal! The RWA scale is a personality test disguised as an attitude survey, but I’ll bet you saw right through it. In fact, you could probably take each statement apart and see how I was trying to slyly tap the various components of the RWA personality trait.
Take that first-scored item, No. 3: “Our country desperately needs a mighty leader (authoritarian submission) who will do what has to be done to destroy (authoritarian aggression) the radical new ways and sinfulness that are ruining us” (conventionalism). Well if you’re smart enough to do that, you’re smart enough to realize how easily you might have slanted your answers to look good. So I didn’t ask you to answer the RWA scale to see if you’d find true happiness and fulfilment as a storm trooper in some dictator’s army. It’s not a vocational test. Instead, I wanted you to experience for yourself the instrument used to identify and study authoritarian followers. Most of what I have uncovered about authoritarianism, I have dug up with this tool, and now you know what it is and how it works.
Is The RWA Scale Valid?
According to the High Laws of Science (you do not have to genuflect here), ideas must be repeatedly tested to see if they fail. So the next (and extremely important) question is, does the RWA scale really measure what it says it measures? Are the test scores valid? If they are, we should find that high scorers submit to established authority more than most people do, aggress more in the name of such authority, and are much more conventional. What’s the evidence? Authoritarian Submission. Everybody submits to authority to some degree. Imagine a world in which people ignored traffic laws and sped through red lights. The cost of auto insurance would shoot through the roof (although the line-ups to buy it would become much shorter). But some people go way beyond the norm and submit to authority even when it is dishonest, corrupt, unfair and evil. We would expect authoritarian followers especially to submit to corrupt authorities in their lives: to believe them when there is little reason to do so, to trust them when huge grounds for suspicion exist, and to hold them blameless when they do something wrong. We don’t expect absolutes here; people are much too complicated to completely, always, blindly submit, no matter what. But IF the RWA scale truly measures the tendency to be an authoritarian follower, those who score highly on it should tend to do these things, right? So do they?
Well, they will tell you that people should submit to authority in virtually all circumstances. If you give them moral dilemmas (e.g. should one steal an absurdly expensive drug to save a life?) they’re more likely to say, “The law is the law and must be obeyed” than most people are. High RWAs also say they would bow more to show respect for their fathers, the president of companies where they worked, and so on, than most people indicate. (An astronomer suggested I ask about the bowing, which I thought was silly, but he was right. “Social scientists are such blockheads!”) High RWAs trusted President Nixon longer and stronger than most people did during the Watergate crisis.11 Some of them still believed Nixon was innocent of
criminal acts even after he accepted a pardon for them. (Similarly the Allies found many Germans in 1945 refused to believe that Hitler, one of the most evil men in history, had ordered the murder of millions of Jews and others. “He was busy running the war,” Hitler’s apologists said. “The concentration camps were built and run by subordinates without his knowing it.”) To pick a more current example, authoritarian followers believed, more than most people did, President George W. Bush’s false claims that Saddam Hussein had extensive links to al-Qa’ida, and that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. And they supported the invasion of Iraq, whereas less authoritarian Americans tended to doubt the wisdom of that war from the start.
Caution Number One: On the other hand, right-wing authoritarians did not support President Clinton during his impeachment and trial over the Monica Lewinsky scandal. So as I said, the support is not automatic and reflexive, but can be trumped by other concerns. In Clinton’s case his administration not only had advocated for groups anathema to authoritarians, such as homosexuals and feminists, his sexual misdeeds in the White House deeply offended many high RWAs.
Shifting our focus a bit, please give your reaction to the story below:
It has been reported in the press that the FBI has maintained illegal wire-taps of the telephones
of about 60 persons in the United States who were suspected of being sympathetic toward radical
political organizations. The FBI is reported to be taking no chances that these persons might become
active in their support of these groups. Under current legislation such wire taps are legally permissible
only if a judge has signed a court order authorizing them. The FBI reportedly has never sought court
approval of these wire-taps because they believed their case was too weak and the courts would deny
them. The FBI has denied the wire-taps exist, and described the report as a “complete fabrication.”
If the story is true, how serious a matter would you say the illegal wire-tapper are?
0 = Not serious at all; they clearly are justified by the circumstances.
1 = Mildly serious
2 = Somewhat serious
3 = Pretty serious
4 = Extremely serious; such acts strike at the foundation of a free society.
What would you say? You can put me down for a “4.” What’s the point of having laws protecting privacy if the law enforcers can decide to ignore them whenever they wish, and then get away with it?
The issue may remind you of the Bush administration’s policy of authorizing the National Security Agency to engage in electronic spying, without warrants, on Americans suspected of supporting terrorism–which simply ignored the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act that required prior court approval of such surveillance. And indeed, David Winter at the University of Michigan discovered that high RWAs felt Bush’s policy was “both necessary and appropriate” because of terrorism. But the wiretaps case presented above comes from a study I did over thirty years ago, in the autumn of 1974, using students from five scattered American universities. I found that persons who scored highly on the RWA scale tended to answer with 0’s, 1’s and 2’s, while those who scored low in RWA used 3’s and 4’s much more often. (The overall average in those months immediately following Watergate equalled 3.0.)
And this is just the beginning. Over the years I have found that authoritarian followers blissfully tolerated many illegal and unjust government actions that occurred in the United States and Canada, such as:
– a police burglary of a newspaper office to get confidential information.
– drug raids carried out without search warrants because judges wouldn’t give them.
– denial of right to assemble to peacefully protest government actions.
– “dirty tricks” played by a governing party on the opposition during an election.
– immigration office discrimination against radical speakers.
– placing agents provocateurs in organizations to create dissension and bad press relations.
– burning down the meeting place of a radical organization.
– unauthorized mail openings.
Authoritarian followers seem to have a “Daddy and mommy know best” attitude toward the government. They do not see laws as social standards that apply to all. Instead, they appear to think that authorities are above the law, and can decide which laws apply to them and which do not–just as parents can when one is young. But in a democracy no one is supposed to be above the law. Still, authoritarians quite easily put that aside. They also believe that only criminals and terrorists would object to having their phones tapped, their mail opened, and their lives put under surveillance. They have bought their tickets and are standing in line waiting for 1984, The Real Thing.
There might as well not be a Fourth Amendment to the Constitution. And when the Military Commissions Act of 2006 is used to deny people the right of habeas corpus–one of the oldest rights in western law–it is unlikely that right-wing authoritarians will object to the loss of this constitutional guarantee either.
In fact, who even needs the whole Bill of Rights? Here is a (fake) letter-to-the-editor I asked some San Francisco State University students to respond to in 1990.
If a person stops to think about it, most of the problems we are having can be traced to the Bill
of Rights–or more precisely, to the way it has been interpreted by the Supreme Court. “Freedom of
speech” has been twisted to mean that pornographers can sell their filth, and that anybody can say
whatever he wants, whether it’s good for society or not. And “freedom of religion” has been twisted to
mean children can’t pray in public schools any more. And the “right to happiness” has been twisted to
mean women can have abortion after abortion if they’re “unhappy” being pregnant. And think how many
drug pushers and criminals have gotten off scot-free because their “rights” were supposedly violated after
they had robbed or killed somebody.
A lot of people hoped the new Supreme Court, rid of the “Liberal Majority” which had made all
these terrible rulings, would overturn them. But it’s clear now that they won’t. No Supreme Court can
reverse the ruling of an earlier Supreme Court, so we are stuck with these interpretations as long as there
is a Bill of Rights. And we will soon be destroyed as a nation because of them. So the only thing we can
do, to make America the free, pure, safe Christian nation that the founding fathers intended it to be, is to
repeal the Bill of Rights.
If you like, you can count up how many ignorant, inaccurate, misleading and just plain stupid things there are in this letter. I knew it was ridiculous when I composed it. But I got the material from various people I’ve heard speak on the subject. If you haven’t heard them, tune in to “talk radio” some night.
I asked the students how sensible they thought the letter was, and whether they thought the Bill of Rights should be repealed. High RWAs found the letter pretty sensible, don’t you know, and they favoured repealing the Bill of Rights more than anyone else did. Which sprinkles a dash of irony into this stew. The founding fathers added the Bill of Rights to the Constitution to prevent tyranny by the government. I wonder if they realized that democracy could be undermined from “below” as well as crushed by tyranny from “above” by people who didn’t want the freedoms?
The last string of studies I want to lay before you regarding authoritarian submission concerns authoritarians’ willingness to hold officials accountable for their misdeeds. Or rather, their lack of willingness–which catches your eye because high RWAs generally favour punishing the be-jabbers out of misdoers. But they proved less likely than most people to punish a police officer who beat up a handcuffed demonstrator, or a chief of detectives who assaulted an accused child molester being held in jail, or–paralleling the trial of U.S. Army Lt. William Calley–an Air Force officer convicted of murder after leading unauthorized raids on Vietnamese villages.
The “Milgram experiment,” which we shall discuss at the end of this book, offers another example of authoritarian followers “going easy” on authorities. In his famous study Stanley Milgram manoeuvred subjects into a situation in which they were ordered by an Experimenter to inflict painful, and possibly lethal, electric shocks on another person (who in fact was not hurt at all). The subjects clearly did not want to deliver the shocks, but the Experimenter told them they had to. The Experimenter even said, if pressed, that he would accept responsibility for whatever happened. Yet Tom Blass of the University of Maryland at Baltimore found that high RWA students tended to blame the Experimenter less for what happened to the victim than most students did. Whom did they blame instead? I found, when I replicated the study, they blamed the poor devil who was ordered to deliver the shocks, and the victim, more than most others did.
If some day George W. Bush is indicted for authorizing torture, you can bet your bottom dollar the high RWAs will howl to the heavens in protest. It won’t matter how extensive the torture was, how cruel and sickening it was, how many years it went on, how many prisoners died, how devious Bush was in trying to evade America’s laws and traditional stand against torture, or how many treaties the U.S. broke. Such an indictment would grind right up against the core of authoritarian followers, and they won’t have it. Maybe they’ll even say, “The president was busy running the war. He didn’t really know. It was all done by Rumsfeld and others.”
Authoritarian Aggression. When I say authoritarian followers are aggressive I don’t mean they stride into bars and start fights. First of all, high RWAs go to church enormously more often than they go to bars. Secondly, they usually avoid anything approaching a fair fight. Instead they aggress when they believe right and might are on their side. “Right” for them means, more than anything else, that their hostility is (in their minds) endorsed by established authority, or supports such authority. “Might” means they have a huge physical advantage over their target, in weaponry say, or in numbers, as in a lynch mob. It’s striking how often authoritarian aggression happens in dark and cowardly ways, in the dark, by cowards who later will do everything they possibly can to avoid responsibility for what they did. Women, children, and others unable to defend themselves are typical victims. Even more striking, the attackers typically feel morally superior to the people they are assaulting in an unfair fight. We shall see research evidence in the next chapter that this self-righteousness plays a huge role in high RWAs’ hostility.
Believe it or not, researchers are not allowed to organize murderous mobs to study hostility. So we have to study authoritarian aggression in subtler ways. For example:
You are a judge presiding at the trial of “The People vs. Robert Smith.” Evidence introduced in
court indicates that on the evening of May 23rd, a Mr. Matthew Burns (a 47-year-old, Caucasian
accountant) was walking to his car in a hotel parking lot when he was stopped by a man who produced
a pistol and demanded Mr. Burns’ wallet. Mr. Burns complied, but as the robber ran from the scene Mr.
Burns ducked into a doorway and began shouting “Stop that man!”
These cries were heard by a policeman cruising nearby in a patrol car who after a short chase
apprehended a Mr. Robert Smith, (a 28-year-old Caucasian of no fixed address or occupation). The
police officer saw Mr. Smith throw what proved to be Mr. Burns’ wallet down a sewer as he was being
pursued. Smith matched the general description Mr. Burns gave of his assailant, but Mr. Burns was
unable to identify Smith “with absolute certainty” because it was dark in the parking lot at the time of the
Smith told the court he saw another man running from the parking lot, and then he found the
wallet. He began to run after picking up the wallet because he heard the police siren and realized how
incriminating the circumstances were. That was also, according to Smith, the reason he threw the wallet
down the sewer.
Smith has a record of two previous “mugging” arrests and one prior conviction. He was found
guilty of robbing Mr. Burns by the jury, and it is your duty now to declare sentence. A second conviction
of armed robbery of this sort is punishable by up to ten years imprisonment, with parole possible after
1/3 of the sentence has been served.
When asked if he had anything to say before being sentenced, Smith said again that he was
innocent. What sentence would you give?
Many factors would undoubtedly shape someone’s decision in this matter, even if s/he were just filling out a booklet of surveys and was suddenly asked to imagine being a judge. But such role-playing does create a situation in which someone can imagine punishing someone else in the name of established authority. I’d give Smith about four or five years of further experience with the penitentiary system, and overall, subjects answering my survey would impose an average sentence of about 3.5 years. But right-wing authoritarians would send Robert Smith to the slammer for a significantly longer time than most people would.
In fact they’d send just about anyone to jail for a longer time than most people would, from those who spit on the side-walk to rapists. However, as noted earlier, authoritarian followers usually would go easy on authorities who commit crimes, and they similarly make allowances for someone who attacks a victim the authoritarian is prejudiced against. (If you were a district attorney prosecuting a lynching case, you would NOT rejoice at a jury filled with high RWAs.) But in general they would sentence most criminals to longer terms than the average Joe would. They also tend to strongly endorse capital punishment.
Why are high RWAs extra-punitive against law-breakers? For one thing, they think the crimes involved are more serious than most people do, and they believe more in the beneficial effects of punishment. But they also find “common criminals” highly repulsive and disgusting, and they admit it feels personally good, it makes them glad, to be able to punish a perpetrator. They get off smiting the sinner; they relish being “the arm of the Lord.” Similarly, high RWA university students say that classmates in high school who misbehaved and got into trouble, experienced “bad trips” on drugs, became pregnant, and so on “got exactly what they deserved” and that they felt a secret pleasure when they found out about the others’ misfortune.
Which suggests authoritarian followers have a little volcano of hostility bubbling away inside them looking for a (safe, approved) way to erupt. This was supported by an experiment I ran in which subjects were (supposedly) allowed to deliver electric shocks to someone trying to master a list of nonsense syllables. The subject/teacher could choose the level of shock for each mistake the learner made. Since the punishment was sanctioned by the experimenter, this opened the door for the authoritarian. The higher the subject’s RWA scale score, the stronger the shocks delivered.
Here are some items from another scale. How would you respond to them on a -4 to +4 basis?
1. There are entirely too many people from the wrong sorts of places being admitted into our country now.
2. Black people are, by their nature, more violent and “primitive” than others.
3. Jews cannot be trusted as much as other people can.
4. As a group, aboriginal people are naturally lazy, dishonest and lawless.
5. Arabs are too emotional, and they don’t fit in well in our country.
6. We have much to fear from the Japanese, who are as cruel as they are ambitious.
I’ll bet you have figured out that I use these to measure prejudice. You may be taken aback however to discover that these prejudices usually show up bundled together in a person. But social psychologists found long ago that people who are prejudiced against one group are usually prejudiced against a whole lot more as well. Prejudice has little to do with the groups it targets, and a lot to do with the personality of the holder. Want to guess who has such wide-ranging prejudices? Authoritarian followers dislike so many kinds of people, I have called them “equal opportunity bigots.” They will not win the gold medal in the Prejudice Olympics (we’ll find out who does in a later chapter), but high RWAs will definitely be on the podium.
Here’s another one of my measures, which I call “Posse,” that you may find so ridiculous that you’d say no one would ever buy into it. Humour me, gentle reader.
Suppose the federal government, some time in the future, passed a law outlawing various religious cults. Government officials then stated that the law would only be effective if it were vigorously enforced at the local level and appealed to everyone to aid in the fight against these cults. Please respond to the following statements according to the following scale:
-4 indicates the statement is extremely untrue of you.
-3 indicates the statement is very untrue of you etc. to:
+4 indicates the statement is extremely true of you.
1. I would tell my friends and neighbours it was a good law.
2. I would tell the police about any religious cults I knew.
3. If asked by the police, I would help hunt down and arrest members of religious cults.
4. I would participate in attacks on religious cult meeting places if organized by the proper authorities.
5. I would support the use of physical force to make cult members reveal the identity of other cult members.
6. I would support the execution of religious cult leaders if he government insisted it was necessary to protect the country.
I’ll assume, because I know what a fine person you are, that you would respond to each of these statements with a -4 or a -3. Most people do. But not authoritarian followers. They typically answer with -2s and -1s, and sometimes even say, “Yes I would.” If that shocks you, remember that the premise behind “Posse” runs right down Main Street in the authoritarian aggression mind-set. When the authorities say, “Go get ‘em,” the high RWAs saddle up.
Who can ‘em be? Nearly everybody, it turns out. I started with a proposition to outlaw Communists and found authoritarian followers would be relatively likely to join that posse. Ditto for persecuting homosexuals, and ditto for religious cults, “radicals” and journalists the government did not like. So I tried to organize a posse that liberals would join, to go after the Ku Klux Klan. But high RWAs crowded out everyone else for that job too. Then I offered as targets the very right-wing Canadian Social Credit Party, the Confederation of Regions Party, and the mainstream Progressive Conservative Party of Canada. These were the parties of choice for most authoritarian followers at the time, yet high RWAs proved more willing to persecute even the movements they liked than did others.
Finally, just to take this to its ludicrous extreme, I asked for reactions to a “law to eliminate right-wing authoritarians.” (I told the subjects that right-wing authoritarians are people who are so submissive to authority, so aggressive in the name of authority, and so conventional that they may pose a threat to democratic rule.) RWA scale scores did not connect as solidly with joining this posse as they had in the other cases. Surely some of the high RWAs realized that if they supported this law, they were being the very people whom the law would persecute, and the posse should therefore put itself in jail. But not all of them realized this, for authoritarian followers still favoured, more than others did, a law to persecute themselves. You can almost hear the circuits clanking shut in their brains: “If the government says these people are dangerous, then they’ve got to be stopped.”
One more thing. Remember when I was talking about putting President Bush on trial for authorizing torture? Look back at Items 5 and 6 in my list of acts an ardent authoritarian follower might do in support of a malevolent government. It’s been clear in my studies for several decades that lots of people, with no persuading by the authorities at all, were already close to endorsing the torture and execution of their fellow citizens if the government simply said it was necessary. So it would be no surprise at all if they supported President Bush’s insistence that America be allowed to torture suspected foreign terrorists.
High RWAs tend to feel more endangered in a potentially threatening situation than most people do, and often respond aggressively. In 1987 my colleague Gerry Sande and I had five-man teams of male introductory psychology students role-play NATO in an “international simulation” involving (they thought) another team of students playing as the Warsaw Pact. Some of the NATO teams were composed entirely of low RWA students, and other NATO teams were stocked entirely with highs. (We experimenters secretly played the Warsaw Pact.) The simulation began with a couple of ambiguous moves by the Warsaw Pact, such as holding military exercises earlier than anticipated, and withdrawing divisions to rear areas (possibly for rest, or –as Dr. Strangelove might argue–possibly for redeployment for an attack). The NATO teams could respond with non-threatening or threatening moves of varying magnitudes. But if they made threats, the Warsaw pact responded with twice as much threat in return, and the NATO team would reap what it had sown as an escalation of aggressive moves would likely result.
The low RWA teams did not interpret the ambiguous moves at the beginning of the game as serious threats and thus seldom made threatening moves. The high RWAs on the other hand usually reacted to the opening Warsaw Pact moves aggressively, and sowed a whirlwind. Over the course of the simulation, the high RWA teams made ten times as much threat as the low teams did, and usually brought the world to the brink of nuclear war.
Caution Number Two: Can we conclude from all these findings that authoritarian followers always aggress when they think the “proper authorities” approve? No, no more than they always submit to established authority. “Always” is a lot, and such generalizations ignore the complexity of human motivation. Fear of counter-aggression can freeze the authoritarians hand, or belief that the hostility is unlawful and will be punished. Nevertheless, one can easily find settings in which high RWAs’ aggressive inclinations comes bubbling to the surface.
Conventionalism. By conventionalism, the third defining element of the right-wing authoritarian, I don’t just mean do you put your socks on before your shoes, and I don’t just mean following the norms and customs that you like. I mean believing that everybody should have to follow the norms and customs that your authorities have decreed. Authoritarians get a lot of their ideas about how people ought to act from their religion, and as we’ll see in chapter 4 they tend to belong to fundamentalist religions that make it crystal clear what they consider correct and what they consider wrong. For example these churches strongly advocate a traditional family structure of father-as-head, mother as subservient to her husband and caretaker of the husband’s begotten, and kids as subservient, period. The authoritarian followers who fill a lot of the pews in these churches strongly agree. And they want everybody’s family to be like that. (A word of advice, guys: check with your wives first.)
Thanks to Mikhail Gorbachev (Thanks so much, Mikhail!) I can show you how thoroughly some high RWAs sop up the teachings of another set of authorities, their government. As soon as Gorbachev lifted the restraints on doing psychological research in the Soviet Union an acquaintance of mine, Andre Kamenshikov, administered a survey to students at Moscow State University with the same freedom that western researchers take for granted. The students answered the RWA scale and as well a series of questions about who was the “good guy” and who was the “bad guy” in the Cold War. For example, did the USSR start the arms race, or the USA?
Would the United States launch a sneak nuclear attack on the Soviet Union if it knew it could do so without retaliation? Would the USSR do that to the United States? Does the Soviet Union have the right to invade a neighbor who looks like it might become allied with the United States? Does the USA have that right when one of its neighbours starts cozying up to the USSR? At the same time Andre was doing his study, I asked the same questions at three different American universities.
We found that in both countries the high RWAs believed their government’s version of the Cold War more than most people did. Their officials wore the white hats, the authoritarian followers believed, and the other guys were dirty rotten warmongers. And that’s most interesting, because it means the most cock-sure belligerents in the populations on each side of the Cold War, the ones who hated and blamed each other the most, were in fact the same people, psychologically. If they had grown up on the other side of the Iron Curtain, they probably would have believed the leaders they presently despised, and despised the leaders they now trusted. They’d have been certain the side they presently thought was in the right was in the wrong, and instead embraced the beliefs they currently held in contempt.20, 21
Gidi Rubinstein similarly found that high RWAs among both Jewish and Palestinian students in Israel tended to be the most orthodox members of their religion, who tend to be among those most resistant to a peaceful resolution of the Middle East conflict. If their authorities endorse hostility, you can bet most authoritarian followers will be combative. A lot of high RWAs apparently do not think that the peacemakers will be blessed.
You can also gauge the conventionalism of authoritarian followers through my “feedback-conformity experiments.” I simply tell a group who earlier had filled out a scale for me what the average response had been to each item, in the sample as a whole. For example, I would tell them that the average answer to Item 1 of the RWA scale was a “+1,” the average answer to Item 2 was a “-2,” and so on. Then I ask the sample to answer the scale again, with the average-answers-from-before staring them right in the face. The point, as you have no doubt surmised, is to see which extreme moves more toward the norm, the lows or the highs. High RWAs shift their answers toward the middle about twice as much as lows do. This even works on hard-core authoritarian beliefs such as their answers about homosexuals and religious fundamentalism.
Which explains another peculiar finding. If I tell a group of former subjects most of what I’ve told you in this chapter–which I think raise some questions about how “Blessed are the authoritarians”–and then ask the sample what they personally would like their own RWA scale score to be, what do you think happens? The low RWAs say they’d like to be low RWAs. So do the middles. But the highs usually say they want to be middles, not lows. I thought this happened because highs often dislike the people who would score low on the RWA scale, and that may be part of the explanation.. But I also discovered that if you ask subjects to rank the importance of various values in life, authoritarian followers place “being normal” substantially higher than most people do. It’s almost as though they want to disappear as individuals into the vast vat of Ordinaries.
Caution Number Three: Once again, however, I should temper our natural tendency to overgeneralise. High RWAs would like to be rich as much as the next person would, they’d like to be smarter than average, and so on. It’s “good” to be different in some ways, it seems. And I found they would not change their opinions about abortion an inch by showing them how different they were from most others. They are quite capable of adhering to the beliefs emphasized by their in-groups when these conflict with what is held by society as a whole. Nevertheless, they do get tugged by what they think everybody else is saying and doing. For example, their attitudes toward homosexuals have become markedly more positive recently, just as the rest of society’s attitudes have changed. And thirty years ago the solid majority of high RWA students in my samples said premarital sexual intercourse was flat-out immoral. Now most say it is moral if the couple plans to get married.
Unauthoritarians and Authoritarians: Worlds of Difference
By now you must be developing a feel for what high RWAs think and do, and also an impression of low RWA’s. Do you think you know each group well enough to predict what they’d do if they ran the world? One night in October, 1994 I let a group of low RWA university students determine the future of the planet (you didn’t know humble researchers could do this, did you!). Then the next night I gave high RWAs their kick at the can.
The setting involved a rather sophisticated simulation of the earth’s future called the Global Change Game, which is played on a big map of the world by 50-70 participants who have been split into various regions such as North America, Africa, India and China. The players are divided up according to current populations, so a lot more students hunker down in India than in North America. The game was designed to raise environmental awareness, and before the exercise begins players study up on their region’s resources, prospects, and environmental issues.
Then the facilitators who service the simulation call for some member, any member of each region, to assume the role of team leader by simply standing up. Once the “Elites”in the world have risen to the task they are taken aside and given control of their region’s bank account. They can use this to buy factories, hospitals, armies, and so on from the game bank, and they can travel the world making deals with other Elites. They also discover they can discreetly put some of their region’s wealth into their own pockets, to vie for a prize to be given out at the end of the simulation to the World’s Richest Person. Then the game begins, and the world goes wherever the players take it for the next forty years which, because time flies in a simulation, takes about two and a half hours.
The Low RWA Game
By carefully organizing sign-up booklets, I was able to get 67 low RWA students to play the game together on October 18th . (They had no idea they had been funnelled into this run of the experiment according to their RWA scale scores; indeed they had probably never heard of right-wing authoritarianism.) Seven men and three women made themselves Elites. As soon as the simulation began, the Pacific Rim Elite called for a summit on the “Island Paradise of Tasmania.” All the Elites attended and agreed to meet there again whenever big issues arose. A world-wide organization was thus immediately created by mutual consent.
Regions set to work on their individual problems. Swords were converted to ploughshares as the number of armies in the world dropped. No wars or threats of wars occurred during the simulation. [At one point the North American Elite suggested starting a war to his fellow region-airs (two women and one guy), but they told him to go fly a kite–or words to that effect.]
An hour into the game the facilitators announced a (scheduled) crisis in the earth’s ozone layer. All the Elites met in Tasmania and contributed enough money to buy new technology to replenish the ozone layer.
Other examples of international cooperation occurred, but the problems of the Third World mounted in Africa and India. Europe gave some aid but North America refused to help. Africa eventually lost 300 million people to starvation and disease,
and India 100 million.
Populations had grown and by the time forty years had passed the earth held 8.7 billion people, but the players were able to provide food, health facilities, and jobs for almost all of them. They did so by demilitarizing, by making a lot of trades that benefited both parties, by developing sustainable economic programs, and because the Elites diverted only small amounts of the treasury into their own pockets. (The North American Elite hoarded the most.)
One cannot blow off four hundred million deaths, but this was actually a highly successful run of the game, compared to most. No doubt the homogeneity of the players, in terms of their RWA scores and related attitudes, played a role. Low RWAs do not typically see the world as “Us versus Them.” They are more interested in cooperation than most people are, and they are often genuinely concerned about the environment. Within their regional groups, and in the interactions of the Elites, these first-year students would have usually found themselves “on the same page”–and writ large on that page was, “Let’s Work Together and Clean Up This Mess.” The game’s facilitators said they had never seen as much international cooperation in previous runs of the simulation. With the exception of the richest region, North America, the lows saw themselves as interdependent and all riding on the same merry-go-round.
The High RWA Game
The next night 68 high RWAs showed up for their ride, just as ignorant of how they had been funnelled into this run of the experiment as the low RWA students had been the night before. The game proceeded as usual. Background material was read, Elites (all males) nominated themselves, and the Elites were briefed. Then the “wedgies” started. As soon as the game began, the Elite from the Middle East announced the price of oil had just doubled. A little later the former Soviet Union (known as the Confederation of Independent States in 1994) bought a lot of armies and invaded North America. The latter had insufficient conventional forces to defend itself, and so retaliated with nuclear weapons. A nuclear holocaust ensued which killed everyone on earth–7.4 billion people–and almost all other forms of life which had the misfortune of co-habitating the same planet as a species with nukes.
When this happens in the Global Change Game, the facilitators turn out all the lights and explain what a nuclear war would produce. Then the players are given a second chance to determine the future, turning back the clock to two years before the hounds of war were loosed. The former Soviet Union however rebuilt its armies and invaded China this time, killing 400 million people. The Middle East Elite then called for a “United Nations” meeting to discuss handling future crises, but no agreements were reached.
At this point the ozone-layer crisis occurred but–perhaps because of the recent failure of the United Nations meeting–no one called for a summit. Only Europe took steps to reduce its harmful gas emissions, so the crisis got worse. Poverty was spreading unchecked in the underdeveloped regions, which could not control their population growth. Instead of dealing with the social and economic problems “back home,” Elites began jockeying among themselves for power and protection, forming military alliances to confront other budding alliances. Threats raced around the room and the Confederation of Independent States warned it was ready to start another nuclear war. Partly because their Elites had used their meagre resources to buy into alliances, Africa and Asia were on the point of collapse. An Elite called for a United Nations meeting to deal with the crises–take your pick–and nobody came.
By the time forty years had passed the world was divided into armed camps threatening each other with another nuclear destruction. One billion, seven hundred thousand people had died of starvation and disease. Throw in the 400 million who died in the Soviet-China war and casualties reached 2.1 billion. Throw in the 7.4 billion who died in the nuclear holocaust, and the high RWAs managed to kill 9.5 billion people in their world–although we, like some battlefield news releases, are counting some of the corpses twice.
The authoritarian world ended in disaster for many reasons. One was likely the character of their Elites, who put more than twice as much money in their own pockets as the low RWA Elites had. (The Middle East Elite ended up the World’s Richest Man; part of his wealth came from money he had conned from Third World Elites as payment for joining his alliance.) But more importantly, the high RWAs proved incredibly ethnocentric. There they were, in a big room full of people just like themselves, and they all turned their backs on each other and paid attention only to their own group. They too were all reading from the same page, but writ large on their page was, “Care About Your Own; We Are NOT All In This Together.”
The high RWAs also suffered because, while they say on surveys that they care about the environment, when push comes to shove they usually push and shove for the bucks. That is, they didn’t care much about the long-term environmental consequences of their economic acts. For example a facilitator told Latin America that converting much of the region’s forests to a single species of tree would make the ecosystem vulnerable. But the players decided to do it anyway because the tree’s lumber was very profitable just then. And the highs proved quite inflexible when it came to birth control. Advised that “just letting things go” would cause the populations in underdeveloped areas to explode, the authoritarians just let things go.
Now the Global Change Game is not the world stage, university students are not world leaders, and starting a nuclear holocaust in a gymnasium is not the same thing as launching real missiles from Siberia and North Dakota. So the students’ behaviour on those two successive nights in 1994 provides little basis for drawing conclusions about the future of the planet. But some of what happened in this experiment rang true to me. I especially thought, “I’ve seen this show before” as I sat on the sidelines and watched the high RWAs create their very own October crisis.
You have trudged your way through (I suspect) the most boring chapter in this book, and are entitled to some sort of reward. I hope you consider this worthy payment: You now know that the RWA scale is a reliable, a valid, and (as these things go) a rather powerful instrument for identifying the authoritarian follower personality. That’s worth knowing because most of what follows in the later chapters depends on it. The social sciences are awash with attitude scales, opinion surveys, and personality tests, and frankly most of them are not very good IMHO. But this one (among others) appears to be the real deal.
A goodly amount of evidence has piled up showing that scores on the RWA scale really do measure tendencies toward authoritarian submission, authoritarian aggression, and conventionalism. We can therefore use it to try to understand the people who seem, so unwittingly, ready to cash in democracy, and perhaps the world.
~ VF ~