17 October 2007


Bob Altemeyer is a Canadian social scientist who has dedicated his career to studying the "authoritarian mindset," both those who seek out power and those who obediently follow it. His work was cited extensively in John Dean's book Conservatives Without Conscience (which I haven't read), and decided to write a brief, non-technical distillation of his ideas and release it as a free PDF (get it here).

I've only read the first chapter, but I have to make a note of something because it reinforces a recurring idea that I was kicking around last month.

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 neighbors 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. (boldface mine)
"RWA" is an abbreviation of "right-wing authoritarian," which doesn't necessarily mean the political right, but rather an adherence to convention and tradition; the current Establishment, whatever it may be. I was listening to Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's commentary for The Lives of Others when he noted somewhat casually that, after the Berlin Wall fell, many of the old GDR bureaucrats landed upright on the boards of major corporations. It makes one question exactly how sincerely they believed in the official Communist byline they once recited religiously.

The paper is available for free, so I encourage you to go have a read. Of particular interest as well is the result of a global simulation done once with people of little authoritarian bent and another with their high-RWA counterparts. The outcome calls to mind a quote I once saw on the web, paraphrased: "That someone wants to be president is reason enough to declare them unfit for the job."