Reflections on Authoritarianism
How should we define authoritarianism? Reading both Stenner (2005) and Altemeyer’s online book, “The Authoritarians” (2007), I have some thoughts. Let us first look at how Altemeyer defined authoritarianism. On page 9 he defined authoritarians as: “personalities featuring: 1) a high degree of submission to the established, legitimate authorities in their society; 2) high levels of aggression in the name of their authorities; and 3) a high level of conventionalism.”
I think there are good reasons to question Altemeyer’s use of “established, legitimate authorities” as a reference group upon which to base his most fundamental definition. And he himself provided examples of such reasons. On p.16 he wrote: “right-wing authoritarians did not support President Clinton during his impeachment and trial over the Monica Lewinsky scandal. So as I said, the support is not automatic and reflexive, but can be trumped by other concerns. In Clinton’s case his administration not only had advocated for groups anathema to authoritarians, such as homosexuals and feminists, his sexual misdeeds in the White House deeply offended many [authoritarians].”
But Bill Clinton was the duly elected President of the United States and thus he met every criterion of an established, legitimate authority. If authoritarians did not support an elected President then the definition of their group as exhibiting “a high degree of submission to the established, legitimate authorities in their society” is not accurate. Altemeyer (p. 15) had already pointed out: “We would expect authoritarian followers especially to submit to corrupt authorities in their lives: to believe them when there is little reason to do so, to trust them when huge grounds for suspicion exist, and to hold them blameless when they do something wrong.” Moreover, on p. 16 he showed that authoritarians supported Presidents Nixon and George W. Bush when their integrity had been challenged; why not Bill Clinton, an at least equally established, legitimate authority?
Altemeyer (p. 9) also referred to “traditional religious leaders” as examples of the kind of “established authorities” that “authoritarian followers usually support”. But authoritarians certainly discriminate between religious leaders such as Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, whom they usually support, and more liberal religious leaders whom they emphatically do not support, e.g., the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.
Another example occurred to me in relation to another study Altemeyer reported on (p. 28): “Gidi Rubinstein similarly found that [authoritarians] among both Jewish and Palestinian students in Israel tended to be the most orthodox members of their religion, who tend to be among those most resistant to a peaceful resolution of the Middle East conflict. If their authorities endorse hostility, you can bet most authoritarian followers will be combative.” But consider that Yitzhak Rabin was the duly elected Prime Minister of Israel, an established, legitimate authority, when he was assassinated by an ‘orthodox’ right-wing Israeli radical who opposed Rabin’s peace efforts. Rabin was obviously not the assassin’s authority even though he was ‘established’ and ‘legitimate’. Can it be merely a coincidence that Rabin and Bill Clinton were so close?
Throughout Chapter 1 of “The Authoritarians” Altemeyer repeatedly uses phrases like “their authorities” or “their in-groups” to refer to the groups to whom authoritarians give their allegiance. For example (p. 29) he wrote: “They are quite capable of adhering to the beliefs emphasized by their in-groups when these conflict with what is held by society as a whole.” (emphasis added) This seems to me an implicit admission that authoritarians have their own ‘authorities’ and ‘in-groups’ and do not give their allegiance to any and all “established, legitimate authorities”.
In thinking about this it has seemed to me that authoritarians will only glorify and submit to certain specific types of established authority, ‘authoritarian authorities’. However, this sort of formulation begs the question of defining “authoritarian”, which was the problem we set out to solve initially.
Stenner’s “authoritarian dynamic” involves the idea that when individuals with “authoritarian predispositions” are challenged by “normative threat” they will become more sharply authoritarian in thought and behavior (as well measured by Altemeyer’s Right-Wing Authoritarian Scale or RWA). She defined (p. 15) authoritarian predisposition in terms of “attitudes and behaviors variously reflecting rejection of diversity and insistence upon sameness…. The predisposition is labeled ‘authoritarianism’ because suppression of difference and achievement of uniformity necessitate autocratic social arrangements in which individual autonomy yields to group authority.”
Having “normative threat” as a very central concept she is required to consider what kind of “normative order” authoritarians would need to protect. Stenner wrote (p. 18) that she wished to distinguish authoritarians from “conservatives” by defining the latter as those who are committed to preserving a specific normative order, e.g., American Constitutionalism. She argued that although authoritarians would begin by defending the status quo and thus be hard to distinguish from mere conservatives, true authoritarians are primarily interested in maintaining uniformity and sameness in ethnic composition, political beliefs and moral values—and thus they would ultimately be willing to sacrifice any existing status quo (e.g., Weimar constitutional democracy) in favor of a new normative order that would guarantee uniformity and sameness. This then requires her to describe what type of normative order this would be.
Stenner wrote (pp. 18-9): “This is not to say, of course, that the ‘normative order’ of authoritarianism is completely interchangeable, that its content is entirely fungible, that oneness and sameness could be instituted and defended by collective commitment (voluntary or otherwise) to any set of values, norms, and beliefs. Oneness and sameness are attributes of the collective rather than the individual, and they are end states, not processes. They cannot be achieved without some type of coercive control over other people’s behavior…. If individuals are free, collective outcomes will vary, and oneness and sameness cannot be assured…. Thus, while the content of authoritarianism’s ‘normative order’ is somewhat flexible with regard to the specification of right and wrong… it is by no means value neutral. The normative order whose institution and defense might render ‘us’ one and the same can never value individual autonomy and diversity, and will always tend toward some kind of system of collective authority and constraint.”(final emphasis added)
Perhaps it is now somewhat clearer why I have been tempted to talk of ‘authoritarian authorities’. Altemeyer’s contention that authoritarians are characterized by “a high degree of submission to the established, legitimate authorities in their society” is not accurate. The only ‘established’ authorities that authoritarians glorify and defend are those who endorse a strict obedience to some form of coercive normative order that satisfies the needs of authoritarian followers. This could be Islamic fundamentalism or Christian fundamentalism, it could be Mussolini’s fascist philosophy or Hitler’s Nazi philosophy, it could be some form of coercive Marxism-Leninism or ‘democratic centralism—but, as Stenner argued: “The normative order whose institution and defense might render ‘us’ one and the same can never value individual autonomy and diversity, and will always tend toward some kind of system of collective authority and constraint.”
This may help to differentiate genuine conservatives like Bruce Fein and his call for impeachment of Bush and Cheney because of his profound commitment to the Constitution, from authoritarians like Bush and Cheney. To the degree that a conservative is committed to a particular normative order and advocates only slow and prudent changes to that order, like Edmund Burke, they qualify as genuine conservatives.
The category of so-called ‘laissez faire conservative’, which Stenner discussed (p. 86 and see her Index), as did Rossiter (1962, pp. 131-62) is, I believe, close to a contradiction in terms and I will deal with that at more length later. The only way I can see to save this concept is by arguing that American society as it has been constituted for a long time is committed to a type of ‘laissez faire’ philosophy and thus a conservative in the specifically American context might be an advocate of laissez faire. Nonetheless, the recognition that capitalism is itself sometimes a revolutionary force, as in the only true social revolution in American history, the industrial revolution—suggests why I think a philosophy that advocates giving free rein to capitalism and keeping government from regulating the economy cannot easily be called ‘conservative.’ And this is without dealing with the enormous revolutionary changes in American society worked by the corporate revolution, which should be kept conceptually distinct from the industrial revolution. If U.S. state governments and the courts had not awarded corporations such immense powers we would have surely had an industrial revolution but not necessarily a corporate revolution as well.