Authoritarianism: Readers and Resources

I post this as an ongoing resource on this very important subject.  Dedicated to Frank Staheli. May he break the chains.

Altemeyer: The Authoritarians: Harvard Press, 2007

If it turns out you do not like this book, blame John Dean. You never would have heard of my research if he had not recently plowed through my studies, trying to understand, first, various people he knew in the Nixon White House, and then some leading figures of the Republican Party of 2004.

The Authoritarians – Bob Altemeyer

Altemeyer: The Authoritarian Specter

The bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City, the emergence of militias and skinheads, the rise of the religious right, the attacks on Planned Parenthood clinics, the backlash against equal rights movements, the increase in poverty…these, according to Bob Altemeyer, are all versions of one story–the authoritarian personality in action. But aren’t authoritarians Nazi types, kooks, the Klan? These are just the extreme examples, he argues. The Authoritarian Specter shows that many ordinary people today are psychologically disposed to embrace antidemocratic, fascist policies.

The book presents the latest results from a prize-winning research program on the authoritarian personality–a victory for the scientific method in the struggle to understand the worst aspects of ourselves. It connects for the first time the many ways authoritarianism undermines democracy. Many of our biggest problems, seemingly unrelated, have authoritarian roots. The scientific studies demonstrating this are extensive and thorough; their powerful findings are presented in a conversational, clear manner that engages readers from all backgrounds.

This is an important, timely work. It explains a growing movement to submit to a “man on horseback,” to attack those who are different, to march in lockstep. Altemeyer reveals that these sentiments are strongly held even by many American lawmakers. These discoveries deserve careful attention in a presidential election year.


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  1. #1 by Frank Staheli on December 3, 2011 - 3:47 pm

    Cliff: Thanks for the dedication. I feel special now… But these dadgum chains…have you got a bolt cutter or something? 😉

    • #2 by Glenden Brown on December 3, 2011 - 5:15 pm

      You have interesting timing, I read Altermeyer’s take on the tea baggers just this week. His description of them as textbook authoritarian followers really resonated. I’m still working my way through Manuel Castells’ Rise of the Network Society and he keeps hitting on themes of exclusion and inclusion in the emerging society as one of the driving forces of fundamentalism. But I also think he’s describing the forces driving the turn to authoritarianism. In one passage, he mentions an emerging culture which is constantly in flux, which reflects the dynamic of computer networks – that they are constantly being rearranged and rebuilt and the backbone architecture is designed to permit constant change and constant variation. If you’re someone who needs certainty and stability, the emerging culture is going to be one in which you experience a nearly constant crisis as the culture is shifting and shifting and any kind of certainty is going to be at best fleeting.

      The authoritarian personality is going to react extremely strongly. He/she is going to crave strong leaders who promise an end to uncertainty. There’s a contradiction, though, in that those leaders are using the tools of the emerging culture to communicate so rather than attack the emergent society, they scapegoat glbt people, feminists, ACORN, Muslims, abortion doctors etc. and promise that attacking those people will bring certainty. But it is the network society and its communication tools that are causing the uncertainty in the first place which is in turn driving the turn to authoritarianism. I guess my point is that I see the self-defeating feedback loop in this bout of authoritarianism even more clearly than earlier bouts of authoritarianism in American politics. The only thing keeping it going is the powerfully compartmentalized thinking of the authoritarian follower.

  2. #3 by Kenny Washington on December 3, 2011 - 5:10 pm

    I believe I saw an interview with Dean and he said that the far left also fit into the same authoritarian profile.

    • #4 by Glenden Brown on December 3, 2011 - 5:17 pm

      @Kenny Washington – may be, but the far left doesn’t control a major political party and hasn’t had any influence to speak of since a brief time in the 1960s. I would argue that the overton window has shifted so far to the right that moderates now look liberal and liberals now look far left but aren’t anywhere near far left.

  3. #5 by Richard Warnick on December 3, 2011 - 5:21 pm

    Now that Herman Cain has flamed out, who is the Tea Party’s fave? Can they really stomach Gingrich?

  4. #6 by cav on December 3, 2011 - 6:10 pm

    Night of the living Zombie Ray-gun!

  5. #7 by Cliff Lyon on December 3, 2011 - 7:21 pm

    Ken, you didn’t read carefully enough. Try again.

  6. #8 by Cliff Lyon on December 3, 2011 - 7:51 pm

    Frank, I can’t help you with “bolt cutters.” Some science says only ridicule and humiliation can change Authoritarian behavior.

    As for “breaking the chains?” The Science only describes Authoritarianism.

  7. #9 by Kenny Washington on December 3, 2011 - 10:22 pm

    As a researcher in the field of social ecology I can tell you with some confidence that although some researchers have argued that left-wing authoritarians do not exist (e.g., Altemeyer, 1996; Stone, 1980; Stone & Smith, 1993), others have argued that extremists on both the political left (e.g., communists) and right (fascists) are highly authoritarian, possess rigid thinking, and share similar political styles (e.g., Shils, 1954; Eysenck, 1981). For example, McClosky and Chong (1985) have demonstrated similarities between left and right extremists in the United States in, for example, their intolerance for ambiguity, their psychological rigidity, and their tough-mindedness. There is plenty of peer-reviewed literature which undermines Altemeyer’s non peer-reviewed paper.

    • #10 by Glenden Brown on December 4, 2011 - 9:16 am

      @Kenny – You’re making the wrong argument. Whether or not left and right wing authoritarians are the same or left wing authoritarians exist, the real threat in our time and our place comes from the authoritarian right. Can you name any political violence in the US that hasn’t been from the right in recent years? Whether it’s shooting doctors who perform abortions, blowing up clinics, attacking museums and churches, the political and politicized violence in the US is coming from the right, motivated by conservative politics. The American right has created a subculture steeped in violence, apocalyptic fantasies and irrational hatred and fear. Max Blumenthal documented a lengthy list of such events in his book Republican Gomorrah.

      Our challenge is not to fight over which side’s extremists are more extreme or violent but rather to tame the authoritarian right. Freedomworks is a corporate funded entity that has used and abused its resources to rally fearful and authoritarian right wingers to its cause and they gleefully disrupted public events, motivated by outright lies spread by right wing commentators. Teabagger activists publicly spit on and reviled elected members of Congress, openly carried weapons at “peaceful” rallies. A sizable chunk of the American right has embraced lies about the elected President which have been echoed by presidential candidates (that he’s not a citizen, was born in Kenya, he’s a socialist, a post-colonial marxist and so on). You may not like all the left’s rhetoric but you’d be hard pressed to find any major figure on the left spreading or agreeing with similar lies about Republicans. The majority of the criticism, for instance, of Dubya and his administration was focused on incredibly wrong headed and self-defeating policies.

      My question fundamentally comes down to – those of us on the left distanced ourselves from the really radical and dangerous parts of the left, we tamed our radicals. Are people on the right going to do the same?

  8. #11 by Frank Staheli on December 4, 2011 - 8:43 am

    Cliff: So THAT’s why you incessantly resort to humiliation tactics. It’s supposed to somehow be scientific. Sounds like a little bit MORE confirmation bias to me…

  9. #12 by Cliff Lyon on December 4, 2011 - 10:38 am


    Thanks for weighing. Dispite claim to the contrary, I want to get to the truth. As such, I would love to see any reference material you can point to.

    That said, I have a problem with the premise that communist China = Left leaning.

    Communism as an economic theory is certainly Left. Communist China on the other hand, was a totalitarian political structure thus Right wing authoritarian.

    Please advise.


  10. #13 by Cliff Lyon on December 4, 2011 - 10:46 am

    No, Frank. The humiliation thing is a very different topic that relates to socio/cultural theory.

    Humiliation plays a POWERFUL role in human organizations. Consider for a moment the role of humiliation in religious communities.

    Powerful huh?

  11. #14 by Kenny Washington on December 4, 2011 - 9:45 pm

    Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy, Vol. 3, No. 1, 2003, pp. 171–176
    Elizabeth Mullen
    University of Illinois at Chicago
    Christopher W. Bauman
    University of Illinois at Chicago
    Linda J. Skitka
    University of Illinois at Chicago

  12. #15 by Cliff Lyon on December 5, 2011 - 11:00 am


    Page 173, “Although left-wing authoritarians
    (LWAs) might be rare in Western democracies,”

    This confirms my thesis which is specific to “western democracies.”

    To be clear, we see pronounced authoritrianism at play among approximately 20% of the politically active across the spectrum.

    They are well characterized in Altemeyers statement on the Tea Party. For example, we can confirm that this population is highly likely to believe lies even in the face of empirical evidence to the contrary.

    This is a major factor when running the Global Change Game.

  13. #16 by Richard Warnick on December 5, 2011 - 2:47 pm

    Well, that 20 percent authoritarianism theory might help explain the Bush 20 Percenters — aka the Tea Party. They remained loyal to Bush to the bitter end, even though they claim to have simultaneously been against the deficits and Wall Street bailout.

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