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.

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