Can Only Republicans Can Be Authoritarians?

In an essay, “The Rise of American Authoritarianism,” posted on Vox.com (March 1), Amanda Taub makes three claims: (1) Donald Trump is backed by authoritarians who feel threatened by social, political, and economic changes in the U.S.; (2) the GOP’s appeal to traditionalism and law-and-order has attracted  “a vast and previously bipartisan population of Americans with authoritarian tendencies,” insuring there will be more Trump-like candidates in the future; and (3) since ”Democrats, by contrast, have positioned themselves as the party of civil rights, equality, and social progress…” they can be absolved of any charge of harboring authoritarians.

In an essay posted on thefederalist.com (March 8), David Harsanyi asserts that “Democrats Should Worry about Their Own Authoritarianism.” Harsanyi’s basic thesis is that “using the benchmarks of authoritarianism -- strong centralized power and limited political freedoms -- we can just as easily describe the modern Democratic Party’s agenda as we can Trumpism.”

Ms. Taub’s essay is seriously flawed. Although Harsanyi offers a telling correction, he does not explore the corpus of social science research that supports his argument.

This essay extends Harsanyi’s argument. By exploring social science research on authoritarianism, I will show why Harsanyi’s critique of Taub is fundamentally correct, albeit incomplete.  

Taub rightly notes that academic interest in the authoritarian personality (and its political ramifications) originated when people inside and outside of Academe tried fathom the Nazis’ popularity. Sadly, her essay almost immediately goes off the rails.

Although there had been a few pioneering efforts to explain popular support for fascistic regimes, the comprehensive study of the social-psychological dynamics behind anti-Semitism and fascism did not begin until 1945, when the American Jewish Committee sponsored a series of studies of the topics.

The most important of those studies was a multi-year project by professors and graduate students at the University of California, Berkeley. The team was headed by Theodor W. Adorno, a leading member of the Frankfort (Germany) school of critical theory, which drew heavily on Hegel, Marx, and Freud. (Adorno was a refugee from Hitler’s Germany, as were others from the Frankfort school.)

In 1950, Adorno, Else Frenkel-Brunswick, Daniel Levinson, and Nevitt Sanford published The Authoritarian Personality, which is the fountainhead of empirical research on the psycho-dynamics of anti-Semitism and authoritarianism.

Although the Berkeley team’s work is flawed, it is not “junk science,” as Taub dismissively calls it.

Adorno and his co-authors postulated that a series of attitude clusters -- anti-Semitism, ethnocentrism, and political and economic conservatism -- combined to produce what they called “implicit anti-democratic trends or potentiality for fascism,” measured by the now-famous F (for fascism) Scale, which would become the center-piece of the Berkeley team’s research. They developed several scales to tap each cluster/personality trait. (Unfortunately, with the exception of a few questions on the Political and Economic Conservatism Scale, all items were worded so that agreement signified the cluster/trait being measured.) Then, using a variety of in-depth psychiatric tests, they explored the psychodynamics of each cluster/trait.

The authors of The Authoritarian Personality did not study random samples of the American populace. Rather, they investigated readily available groups such as college students, prison inmates, psychiatric patients, public school teachers, and public health nurses. As the social psychologist, Roger Brown, noted in Social Psychology (1965), “[t]he majority of the subjects [studied by Adorno, et al.] could be characterized as white, non-Jewish, native-born, middle-class Americans and the authors guessed that their findings would hold for this population.”

As Brown noted, “[t]he [F] scale is intended to measure implicit authoritarianism or antidemocratic trends in a personality, trends rendering the personality susceptible to explicit Fascist propaganda.”

According to the Berkeley team, authoritarianism was a multi-faceted phenomenon, consisting of nine anti-democratic symptoms. Boiled down, they depict someone who is extremely rigid, views the world in black-and-white terms as a very dangerous place, is intolerant, obsessed with power and toughness, submissive toward anyone perceived as a legitimate authority, and hostile to despised out-groups.

The authoritarian is also likely to be anti-Semitic, bigoted toward other minorities and despised out-groups, and, to a lesser extent, committed to conservative political and economic perspectives.

How did someone become an authoritarian? Of course, if one were not a white, native-born, non-Jewish person from a middle-class background, he/she was extremely unlikely to be an authoritarian; at least as far as the Berkeley team was concerned.

But, for the “suspect categories,” Adorno and his colleagues drew heavily from Freud’s theories about personality development, larded with neo-Marxism, to account for how an authoritarian personality would emerge.

Cast in terms of Freud’s notions about id-ego-super-ego, the authoritarian personality is someone with a punitive ego and a weak super-ego. As the political psychologist William Stone put it in The Psychology of Politics (1974), the authoritarian “was thought to stem from childhood experiences, especially from subjection to harsh, inflexible discipline, together with a rather cold emotional climate in the home.” If the individual’s parents were also anxious about status -- here is where neo-Marxism reared its ugly head -- early childhood experiences were especially likely to lead to authoritarian tendencies.

Adorno et al.’s assertions about authoritarianism were virtually received wisdom among social scientists for a few years. Gradually, however, acceptance was undermined by several trenchant critiques, typified by the essays in Richard Christie and Marie Jahoda’s co-edited Studies in the Scope and Method of the Authoritarian Personality (1954). 

The Berkeley team was criticized because they had not investigated random samples of the populace; therefore, their findings probably did not apply to the general populace. Moreover, most of their scales suffered from “response set;” if some people are prone to agree with any reasonably sounding item, that tendency, rather than the substance of the scale questions, could explain Adorno, et al.’s findings. Low IQ and poor educational backgrounds were allegedly as important as personality traits in producing authoritarian tendencies. There were also problems with the Berkeley team’s analyses of its in-depth studies.

Perhaps the most devastating critique of the Berkeley team was the charge that they had focused solely on right-wing authoritarianism. They had ignored comparable tendencies -- especially inflexibility, intolerance, and submissiveness (to left-wing dictators like Josef Stalin) -- among leftists. 

Earlier allusions to this conceptual blinker were confirmed when the social psychologist Milton Rokeach, who had assisted the Berkeley team as a graduate student, published The Open and Closed Mind (1960). As the psychologist Bob Altemeyer noted in The Authoritarian Specter (1996), “Rokeach set out to study ‘general authoritarianism,’ unassociated with any particular ideology….” Rokeach showed that the F Scale tapped only conservative tendencies. He developed a new measure, the D (for dogmatism) Scale. 

Although scholars have raised questions about the D Scale’s technical details, none has disproved its findings that both left- and right-wing extremists score high on the measure. The dogmatic personality is someone who, regardless of ideological leaning, is intolerant of ambiguity and rigid in outlook.

If Harsanyi had cited Rokeach, he would have had Taub cold. As it is, their dispute looks like an instance of she says, he says. Harsanyi’s analysis is well-taken, but it could have been even stronger. Left-wing extremists are just as closed-minded and intolerant as right-wing authoritarians.

In an essay, “The Rise of American Authoritarianism,” posted on Vox.com (March 1), Amanda Taub makes three claims: (1) Donald Trump is backed by authoritarians who feel threatened by social, political, and economic changes in the U.S.; (2) the GOP’s appeal to traditionalism and law-and-order has attracted  “a vast and previously bipartisan population of Americans with authoritarian tendencies,” insuring there will be more Trump-like candidates in the future; and (3) since ”Democrats, by contrast, have positioned themselves as the party of civil rights, equality, and social progress…” they can be absolved of any charge of harboring authoritarians.

In an essay posted on thefederalist.com (March 8), David Harsanyi asserts that “Democrats Should Worry about Their Own Authoritarianism.” Harsanyi’s basic thesis is that “using the benchmarks of authoritarianism -- strong centralized power and limited political freedoms -- we can just as easily describe the modern Democratic Party’s agenda as we can Trumpism.”

Ms. Taub’s essay is seriously flawed. Although Harsanyi offers a telling correction, he does not explore the corpus of social science research that supports his argument.

This essay extends Harsanyi’s argument. By exploring social science research on authoritarianism, I will show why Harsanyi’s critique of Taub is fundamentally correct, albeit incomplete.  

Taub rightly notes that academic interest in the authoritarian personality (and its political ramifications) originated when people inside and outside of Academe tried fathom the Nazis’ popularity. Sadly, her essay almost immediately goes off the rails.

Although there had been a few pioneering efforts to explain popular support for fascistic regimes, the comprehensive study of the social-psychological dynamics behind anti-Semitism and fascism did not begin until 1945, when the American Jewish Committee sponsored a series of studies of the topics.

The most important of those studies was a multi-year project by professors and graduate students at the University of California, Berkeley. The team was headed by Theodor W. Adorno, a leading member of the Frankfort (Germany) school of critical theory, which drew heavily on Hegel, Marx, and Freud. (Adorno was a refugee from Hitler’s Germany, as were others from the Frankfort school.)

In 1950, Adorno, Else Frenkel-Brunswick, Daniel Levinson, and Nevitt Sanford published The Authoritarian Personality, which is the fountainhead of empirical research on the psycho-dynamics of anti-Semitism and authoritarianism.

Although the Berkeley team’s work is flawed, it is not “junk science,” as Taub dismissively calls it.

Adorno and his co-authors postulated that a series of attitude clusters -- anti-Semitism, ethnocentrism, and political and economic conservatism -- combined to produce what they called “implicit anti-democratic trends or potentiality for fascism,” measured by the now-famous F (for fascism) Scale, which would become the center-piece of the Berkeley team’s research. They developed several scales to tap each cluster/personality trait. (Unfortunately, with the exception of a few questions on the Political and Economic Conservatism Scale, all items were worded so that agreement signified the cluster/trait being measured.) Then, using a variety of in-depth psychiatric tests, they explored the psychodynamics of each cluster/trait.

The authors of The Authoritarian Personality did not study random samples of the American populace. Rather, they investigated readily available groups such as college students, prison inmates, psychiatric patients, public school teachers, and public health nurses. As the social psychologist, Roger Brown, noted in Social Psychology (1965), “[t]he majority of the subjects [studied by Adorno, et al.] could be characterized as white, non-Jewish, native-born, middle-class Americans and the authors guessed that their findings would hold for this population.”

As Brown noted, “[t]he [F] scale is intended to measure implicit authoritarianism or antidemocratic trends in a personality, trends rendering the personality susceptible to explicit Fascist propaganda.”

According to the Berkeley team, authoritarianism was a multi-faceted phenomenon, consisting of nine anti-democratic symptoms. Boiled down, they depict someone who is extremely rigid, views the world in black-and-white terms as a very dangerous place, is intolerant, obsessed with power and toughness, submissive toward anyone perceived as a legitimate authority, and hostile to despised out-groups.

The authoritarian is also likely to be anti-Semitic, bigoted toward other minorities and despised out-groups, and, to a lesser extent, committed to conservative political and economic perspectives.

How did someone become an authoritarian? Of course, if one were not a white, native-born, non-Jewish person from a middle-class background, he/she was extremely unlikely to be an authoritarian; at least as far as the Berkeley team was concerned.

But, for the “suspect categories,” Adorno and his colleagues drew heavily from Freud’s theories about personality development, larded with neo-Marxism, to account for how an authoritarian personality would emerge.

Cast in terms of Freud’s notions about id-ego-super-ego, the authoritarian personality is someone with a punitive ego and a weak super-ego. As the political psychologist William Stone put it in The Psychology of Politics (1974), the authoritarian “was thought to stem from childhood experiences, especially from subjection to harsh, inflexible discipline, together with a rather cold emotional climate in the home.” If the individual’s parents were also anxious about status -- here is where neo-Marxism reared its ugly head -- early childhood experiences were especially likely to lead to authoritarian tendencies.

Adorno et al.’s assertions about authoritarianism were virtually received wisdom among social scientists for a few years. Gradually, however, acceptance was undermined by several trenchant critiques, typified by the essays in Richard Christie and Marie Jahoda’s co-edited Studies in the Scope and Method of the Authoritarian Personality (1954). 

The Berkeley team was criticized because they had not investigated random samples of the populace; therefore, their findings probably did not apply to the general populace. Moreover, most of their scales suffered from “response set;” if some people are prone to agree with any reasonably sounding item, that tendency, rather than the substance of the scale questions, could explain Adorno, et al.’s findings. Low IQ and poor educational backgrounds were allegedly as important as personality traits in producing authoritarian tendencies. There were also problems with the Berkeley team’s analyses of its in-depth studies.

Perhaps the most devastating critique of the Berkeley team was the charge that they had focused solely on right-wing authoritarianism. They had ignored comparable tendencies -- especially inflexibility, intolerance, and submissiveness (to left-wing dictators like Josef Stalin) -- among leftists. 

Earlier allusions to this conceptual blinker were confirmed when the social psychologist Milton Rokeach, who had assisted the Berkeley team as a graduate student, published The Open and Closed Mind (1960). As the psychologist Bob Altemeyer noted in The Authoritarian Specter (1996), “Rokeach set out to study ‘general authoritarianism,’ unassociated with any particular ideology….” Rokeach showed that the F Scale tapped only conservative tendencies. He developed a new measure, the D (for dogmatism) Scale. 

Although scholars have raised questions about the D Scale’s technical details, none has disproved its findings that both left- and right-wing extremists score high on the measure. The dogmatic personality is someone who, regardless of ideological leaning, is intolerant of ambiguity and rigid in outlook.

If Harsanyi had cited Rokeach, he would have had Taub cold. As it is, their dispute looks like an instance of she says, he says. Harsanyi’s analysis is well-taken, but it could have been even stronger. Left-wing extremists are just as closed-minded and intolerant as right-wing authoritarians.