Saturday, September 8, 2007

Interesting John Dean Column

Understanding the Contemporary Republican Party: Authoritarians Have Taken Control - appears to be the first in a series that summarize in brief Dean's recent book (Conservatives Without Conscience) as well as the work of psychologist Bob Altemeyer. An admittedly lengthy excerpt:

Authoritarian Republicans: Understanding the Personality Type

While not all conservatives are authoritarians, all highly authoritarian personalities are political conservatives. To make the results of my rather lengthy inquiry very short, I found that it was the authoritarians who took control of the conservative movement in the 1980s, and then the Republican Party in the 1990s. Strikingly, these conservative Republicans - though hardly known for their timidity -- have not attempted to refute my report, because that is not possible. It is based on hard historical facts, which I set forth in considerable detail.

Authoritarian control continues to this day, so it is important to understand these people. There are two types of authoritarians: leaders (the few) and followers (the many). Study of these personalities began following World War II, when social psychologists asked how so many people could compliantly follow an authoritarian leader like Adolf Hitler and tolerate the Holocaust. Early research was based at the University of California, Berkeley, and it focused primarily on followers, culminating in the publication of a The Authoritarian Personality (1950) - a work that broadly described authoritarian personalities. The book was quite popular for decades, but as the Cold War ended, it had been on the shelf and ignored for a good while.


Professor Altemeyer's Findings

Altemeyer's study addressed flaws in the methodology and findings of The Authoritarian Personality, and he then proceeded to set this field of study on new footings by clarifying the study of authoritarian followers, people he calls "right-wing authoritarians." The provocative titles of his books -- Right-Wing Authoritarianism (1981), Enemies of Freedom (1988), and The Authoritarian Specter (1996) -- and of a few of his many articles found in scholarly journals -- such as "Highly Dominating, Highly Authoritarian Personalities" in the Journal of Social Psychology (2004) and "Why Do Religious Fundamentalists Tend to Be Prejudiced?" in the International Journal for the Psychology of Religion (2003)--indicate the tenor of his research and the range of his interests.

Working my way through this material, with the help of a copy of the Idiot's Guide to Statistics, for Altemeyer writes for professional peers, I realized that, since I do not have a degree in psychology, I should get guidance to be certain I understood the material correctly, because it seemed to me that the information he had developed was exactly what I needed to comprehend the personalities now dominating the conservative movement and Republican Party. Altemeyer, who is the preeminent researcher in the field, graciously agreed to tutor me in his work. I introduced him to FindLaw readers in an earlier column, when I thought it would be interesting to get his take on the writings of the very authoritarian Tom DeLay, as he explained himself in No Retreat, No Surrender.

At the outset of Conservatives Without Conscience, I provided a quick and highly incomplete summary of Altemeyer's findings, explaining that his empirical testing revealed "that authoritarians are frequently enemies of freedom, antidemocratic, anti-equality, highly prejudiced, mean-spirited, power hungry, Machiavellian, and amoral." To be clear, these are not assessments that Altemeyer makes himself about these people; rather, this is how those he has tested reveal themselves to be, when being anonymously examined.

Altemeyer has tested literally tens of thousands of first-year college students and their parents, along with others, including some fifteen hundred American state legislators, over the course of some three decades. He has tested in the South and North of the United States. There is no database on authoritarians that even comes close in its scope to that which he has created, and, more importantly, these studies are empirical data, not partisan speculation.

About a year after I published my outline of his work, Altemeyer prepared a digest of his research for general readers, The Authoritarians, which he has posted online for one and all to examine at no cost. In his book he walks readers thorough his research in a manner that requires neither an advanced degree nor a copy of the Idiot's Guide to Statistics.

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