Tuesday, June 26, 2007

A Final Note on Authoritarianism

Let me add as a final note that I welcome the appearance of authoritarianism, both the word and the concept, into our discourse. There is a danger to it, that the term will lead to a game of labeling anyone we dislike as "authoritarian" or (worse) "double high." But it is a danger I am willing to accept. If one believes (and I do) that the present-day Republican party contains many leaders of a profoundly undemocratic outlook who pose a danger to our institutions, then those leaders have to be called something. By all means, let us call them authoritarians (or double highs). The term is a whole lot more accurate, less inflammatory, and more easily defined than fascist. If some sort of insult is to be thrown about promiscuously (and face it, it will be), then by all means let it be authoritarian (or even double high) and not fascist.


The Need for Non-Authoritarian Conservatives

A popular lament among liberals these days is that the authoritarians have taken over the Republican party altogether, unlike the fine, non-authoritarian conservatism of the good old days. This should be taken with a grain of salt. In the early 1950's, after all, the Republican party had a strong McCarthyite wing (while the right wing of the Democratic Party was dominated by Southern segregationists). In the late 1950's, the John Birch Society became influential. And then there is Nixon. So obviously there has been a strong authoritarian streak within conservatism for a long time. The difference now is the extent to which the authoritarians have taken over the Republican Party, their complete domination of the Republican primaries, and their eagerness to win general elections by "rallying the (authoritarian) base." This is unfortunate because I do believe that a strong non-authoritarian conservatism is important to a healthy democratic body politic.

Doubtless it is presumptuous of me, as a liberal, to seek to define true conservatism or tell conservatives what they should be. But let me give it a try. I go back to a definition learned in college -- that liberalism is optimism about human nature and conservatism is pessimism. Though perhaps skepticism would be a better word. A conservative need not consider human nature evil, so much think it unsafe to gamble on human nature being good. After all, in the absence of institutional safeguards, it takes only a few evil people to ruin everything. We should not trust in the goodness of human nature, but in institutions that can handle human evil. This is certainly a sound principle. Conservative skepticism also applies to social innovation and seemingly brilliant new ideas. A conservatives attitude toward reform is, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it; if it is broke, proceed with extreme caution." Or, as Founding Father John Dickinson put it, "Experience must be our only guide. Reason may mislead us."

A society consisting only of (non-authoritarian) conservatives would be stodgy and sluggish in dealing with challenges (new and old). A society consisting only of liberals would be flightly and overly given to foolish and ill-thought-out social innovations. We need both liberals who dare to dream and conservatives who subject those dreams to merciless scrutiny; liberals whose vision soars and consevatives who keep their feet firmly planted on the ground. (One sure sign of danger in the current administration is that it is now liberals taking the traditionally conservative role of being "reality based.")

Let there be no doubt; respect for authority, as well as tradition, is a part of this kind of conservatism. Anyone who does not trust in human nature or believe that people can be expected to be good on their own will favor authority to compel people to be good (or at least stay out of trouble). But respect for authority is not the same as authoritarianism. The difference between conservatives and authoritarians is that conservatives take their skepticism about human nature to its logical conclusion and apply it to authority as much as to anyone else.
If we cannot trust in the goodness of ordinary people without authority to keep them in line, neither should be trust in the goodness authority. Too much concentration of power is dangerous because power tends to be abused. We should not trust in the goodness of our leaders, but in sound institutions to keep them in line.

Non-authoritarian conservatism may be well summed up in a famous quote from James Madison: "If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary." Conservatives never assume that anyone is an angel.


Thursday, June 07, 2007

Beware the Authoritarian Within

Altemeyer described authoritarians as thinking in terms of us versus them, ethnocentric and distrustful of outsiders, driven by fear to submit to authority, self-righteously aggressive on behalf of authority, and a general danger to democracy. In fact, the overall tone of his book gives the impression that we virtuous non-authoritarians are being menaced by evil authoritarians (defined more or less as all conservatives), and that we should fear the threat they pose to democracy and take energetic action to defend ourselves against their menacing onslaught. The problem, of course, is that that way lies you-know-what, a danger he only gets around to warning us against in Chapter 7 (the last chapter).

The danger is so strong because, in fact, the traits he so often describes as authoritarian are actually human traits that we all share to some degree. Who does not prefer the company of people with similar values and congenial views? Who does not want leaders who share their own values? Who does not support leaders from their own in-group and tend to defend them against out-groups? Who does not want to strengthen institutions they control against institutions controlled by rivals? Who does not feel the temptation to place picking the "right" leaders with the "right" values over obverving all procedural nicety. And, as Altemeyer makes clear, everyone tends to become authoritarian when fearful and feeling menaced. The difference between people with high and low authoritarian scores is, at most, one of degree. The danger here is of it becoming not even a matter of degree, but simply of which team one roots for. So how do we know whether we are actually standing up for freedom and democracy or just standing up for our in-group and identifying it with freedom and democracy?

To begin with, resist the temptation of fear. Just as we urge right-wingers be realistic about the actual threat posed by terrorists and not exaggerate it, so too we should be realistic about the threat to democracy posed by the current Administration and not exaggerate it. (Finding out what they are actually up to would help here; nothing is so frightening as the shadow-threat whose exent we don't know).

At least as importantly, resist the temptation of demonization. It can be so much fun to wallow in self-righteous indignation, congradulating ourselves on our virtues, and making our foes, whether terrorists or the Bush Administration out to be pure evil. And in this we become just like them. In order to overcome those temptations, let us engage with Administration supporters and others whose views we dislike and make some attempt at dialogue. Altemeyer and others recommend this as a way of overcoming authoritarians' tendancy to demonize liberals. But it is useful in the opposite way too, it helps curb our own temptation to demonize. (Confession: I come up badly short here).

Resist the temptation to believe that the ends justify the means. Everyone knows about this danger, but everyone is tempted by it. The means are, in effect, those tedious procedural rules of fair play it is so easy to brush aside. As I have said before, it is not natural or easy to elevate the procedural rules of fair play above all else, but it is essential if democracy is to survive. The best way to do this is probably to go firmly on record about what is and is not permissible fair play. Then someone can hold us to our own words if we break them.

Finally, resist the temptation of self-righteousness. This means maintaining a constant attitude of self-criticism and self-doubt. It means constantly examining ourselves for authoritarian tendancies and paying attention when others, including our opponents, claim to see such tendancies in us. Authoritarians are well-known for mocking liberals' propensity to self-criticism and self-doubt and dismissing it as a weakness, compared the the strength of their own self-confidence. Don't believe them. The Bush Administration is made up of people with an extraordinarily low capacity for self-criticism or self-doubt. Look where it got them.


Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Why Authoritarianism is Not the Same as Statism

At first glance, one would expect authoritarians to be statists, i.e., to be defenders of the power of government as the ultimate authority. But there are many authoritarians (the Religious Right, the John Birch Society, the militia movement) who traditionally fear government and want to restrict its power. Why this seeming paradox? The answer, I believe, is simple; authoritarians want to enhance the power of institutions they control and reduce the power of institutions they do not.

My first insight into the phenomenon came from Robert Bork's book, Slouching Toward Gomorrah. Bork considers himself non-authoritarian because he wants to limit the power of the state, and to encourage institutions independent of government. Yet he invariably encourages authoritarianism in families, churches, universities, corporations, etc., and sees any sign of democracy outside of government as social decay. And, despite Bork's purported support for democratic government, his few mentions of Communism (his book was written after the Cold War) border on favorable, and he shows considerable affection for the Middle Ages when dissent could be punished by burning at the stake. My own conclusion was that Bork conceded democratic government as an unavoidable evil, and settled for upholding maximum authoritarianism outside of government. My brother pushed this analysis one step further: Bork wanted to limit the power of the state because it was not authoritarian enough and stood to infringe on the authoritarian institutions he preferred.

Another useful insight comes from Sara Robinson of Orcinus. Explaining why right wingers are so hostile to the United Nations and international cooperation in general, she says:

Back in that generation [the 1930's], people still had very Victorian ideas of how power flowed; and military-style hierarchy was all they really knew. And because the anti-one-world-government grognards still understand power and hierarchy this way, it's fair to guess that much of their fear stems from the thought that they'll be subordinated to leaders who don't meet their specific criteria for legitimacy -- always a hot-button issue for authoritarians.

Recall Altemeyer's description (in Chapter 3) of authoritarians are strongly ethnocentric, distrustful outsiders, and viewing things in terms of us versus them. It follows that authoritarian followers do not have a blanket attitude of submissiveness toward all authority. Their attitude is one of submissiveness toward authority they see as legitimate (i.e., toward leaders of their own in-group who share their values and goals) and deep hostility toward any authority outside their group. Doubtless Robinson is right, that authoritarians particularly fear submitting to "leaders who don't meet their specific criteria for legitimacy" because they assume that those leaders will be just as authoritarian as they are.

In a country as large and diverse as United States, the national government will normally give a large voice to people an authoritarian in-group sees as outsiders with dangerous ideas. Hence it should not be too surprising to see authoritarians distrust the federal government. Some may see state government as sufficiently congenial and favor states rights. Some may see states as giving too much voice to outsiders and favor maximum local power. The Religious Right is traditionally distrustful of government in general and prefers to concentrate power in authoritarian families, churches and (private) schools. The John Birch Society saw government as riddled with Communists and built up a Bolshevik-like organization to counter it. And the militia movement of the 1990's were little short of anarchists -- organized into authoritarian military structures. These examples present a seeming paradox: The most authoritarian organizations are often the most distrustful of government, because government is never "pure" enough for them.

The militia movement raises another question -- what happens when anti-statism becomes outright revolutionism. Altemeyer (in Chapter 1) refers to authoritarian followers as Right Wing Authoritarians, which does not refer to a particular ideology, but to support for established authorities and traditional values. In a Communist country, a person who blindly followed the Communist Party would be a Right Wing Authoritarian. Perhaps a better term might be status quo authoritarians. Altemeyer says there can also be left-wing authoritarians, who might also be called revolutionary authoritarians. These are the revolutionaries dedicated to the overthrow of existing and traditional sources of authority, who nonetheless build equally authoritarian power structures for themselves. (Jacobins and Bolsheviks had very hierarchical and centralized organizations). They eternally fight among themselves about who has the greatest revolutionary purity. As conservatives are fond of pointing out, when such people seize control of the state, the results are horrifying. But revolutionary (or left wing) authoritarians are mostly a phenomenon of societies in which a significant number of people regard the whole social order and established leadership as illegitimate. Such people are rare in post WWII United States and Canada, apparently too rare for valid psychological studies. Nonetheless, I wish Altemeyer had discussed such people in more detail. I would like to know whether their psychological portrait is similar to or different from people who are authoritarian on behalf of traditional institutions. And what of people like the militia movement (or, for that matter, Bin Laden and his followers) who consider themselves revolutionaries, but on behalf of an abandoned or betrayed tradition?

Authoritarians who wish to enhance the power of institutions they control and restrict the power of institutions they do not control can switch from anti-statist to statist overnight as soon as they take control of the government. In a democracy like the United States, that fortunately means winning an election, and fortunately authoritarians can be removed at the next election when their ways put people off. What is new and disturbing is the extent to which authoritarianism has become partisan. The authoritarian wing has taken over the Republican Party to the extent that Republican primaries are little better than contests to see who can be the most authoritarian. In power, the authoritarian wing of the Republican party becomes statist fast. And in the meantime, the Rush Limbaughs, Bill O'Reillys and so forth have been convincing their followers that any Democratic leader is inherently illegitimate. If a Democrat becomes the next President, expect a return of the slime machine that attacked Clinton, raised many-fold, and expect the more extreme members of the right to take to the woods with their guns. Authoritarians in control wielding the power of the state or authoritarians in the woods preparing for armed resistence. These may be our options in the 2008 elections. I hardly known which to dread more.


Sunday, June 03, 2007

Robert Altemeyer on Authoritarians

One of the most popular ideas among liberal commentators these days is the concept of the authoritarian personality, drawing heavily on Robert Altemeyer's book The Authoritarians (available on line). Altemeyer is a Canadian psychologist whose research on authoritarianism was known mostly to professional colleagues until John Dean (of Watergate fame) popularized it in his book, Conservatives Without Conscience. Dean also persuaded Altemeyer to write his on-line book, summarizing his research for the general public.

Chapter 1 defines authoritarian followers as people who are blindly supportive of established authority figures and willing to ignore their misdeeds, aggressive and punitive in support of authority, conformist, and insistent that everyone else also conform. Chapter 3 is an unflattering description of authoritarian thinking. Authoritarian followers care more about reaching a conclusion they like than whether it is supported by facts or logic. They can hold contradictory views simultaneously without being aware of it, and hold their views dogmatically regardless of evidence. They lack self-awareness and a capacity for self criticism. Authoritarians are strongly ethnocentric. They associate as much as possible only with their in-group, distrust outsiders, and tend to see things in terms of us versus them, and to place a high value on group loyalty and cohesiveness. But there is a flaw in this description, particularly the accusation that authoritarians hold contradictory and illogical beliefs. Most people, whether authoritarian or not, hold a multitude of values and principles and, in this messy, complex world, they often come into conflict. Apparent contradictions in such cases are often simply decisions which value has higher priority.

Consider, for instance, Chapter 4, which discusses authoritarianism and religious fundamentalism. Fundamentalists are strong defenders of the right of parents to raise their children as they see fit. Altemeyer gives the hypothetical (pp. 126-127) of a teen from a troubled home seeking advice from another family. If the child was raised as a Christian and seeks advice from atheists, fundamentalists defend the rights of parents to raise their children and belief outsiders should not try to undermine the child's Christian beliefs. But if a troubled child from an atheistic home seeks advice from Christians, most fundamentalists think they should ignore the parents' authority and seek a conversion. In another example (pp. 115-117), fundamentalists favored U.S. schools preaching Christianity despite the wishes of religious minorities. They justified this as a matter of majority rule. But they did not believe that schools in Muslim countries should preach Islam against the wishes of religious minorities, as a matter of minority rights. Altemeyer sees these as examples of a fundamentalist "double standard." But, of course fundamentalists are being perfectly consistent; they are favoring Christianity over any rival religion or non-religion. What they are really saying is that promoting Christianity trumps any consideration of parental authority, majority rule, or minority rights. And, after all, if you believe that Christians go to Heaven and everybody else goes to Hell, what can be more important that promoting Christianity at all costs?

Similar, but less obvious are political cases decribed in Chapter 3. Authoritarians are more likely than non-authoritarians to censor "dangerous" ideas, either of the left or right, including racist ideas (pp 83-84). Clearly authoritarians believe that promoting good ideas over bad ones (including racism) is more important than a value-neutral freedom of expression. More troubling (pp. 81-83) is the hypothetical of a speaker inciting a riot between pro- and anti-gay demonstrators. Authoritarians would punish the speaker more or less severely depending on whether he was giving a pro- or anti-gay speech. This can be treated as a double standard. Or it can be taken to mean that authoritarians consider violence more or less reprehensible depending on whether it is committed on behalf of a "good" or "bad" cause.

And here, I think, lies the answer to the "mystery" (Introduction, p. 2) as to why some people don't seem to want democracy. Democracy is really not as easy or natural as we have been taught to assume. It values procedure over substance. It demands obedience to leaders who are chosen by the right procedure (i.e, who win the election), regardless of how loathsome their values or policies may be to us. It expects us to treat abstract procedural details, such as federalism or separation of powers, as more important than the actual merits of what policy to adopt. It insists that we respect the rights of people we despise (sometimes deservedly). Freedom of expression makes no distinction between good and bad ideas, but expects us to give equal privilege to even the vilest ideas that surely have nothing to contribute. And, to people who believe that their religion is the sole path to Heaven, freedom of religion requires us to allow the spread of false doctrines that will condemn countless people to Hell. These are not easy rules to swallow.

And, in fact, authoritarians do not swallow these rules. They value adopting right and moral policies over any procedural rules of fair play as to how these policies are reached. They do not respect the rights of people they consider underserving. They value the promotion of good ideas over bad ones more than an abstract and value-neutral freedom of expression. They want every advantage for true religion over false. And, increasingly, they are even beginning to value having leaders like themselves, who share their outlooks and values, over electoral nicities.

In a society that did not profess an attachment to democracy, or to freedom of religion and expression, authoritarians could openly say that they favor truth over democratic rule. But in the United States today, it is utterly unacceptable to admit, even to one's self, that one opposes democracy. Thus authoritarians seem self-contradictory and hypocritical. But strip away the pretense of democracy, and authoritarian views are perfectly consistent.

I will address this further in my next post.

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