Conservatism and Authoritarianism: A Rejoinder

Preface by Washington’s Blog:  Washington’s Blog is a non-partisan site.  

We believe that the war between liberals and conservatives is a false divide-and-conquer dog-and-pony show created by the powers that be to keep the American people divided and distracted. See this, thisthis, this, this, this, this, this, this, this and this. And see number 1.

Moreover, we believe that both mainstream parties are bankrupt of ethics – and ignoring what people want – and so we think that cheerleading for Democrats-versus-Republicans is counter-productive.

We also know highly ethical liberals and highy ethical conservatives … and scum from both sides of the spectrum.

Eric Zuesse is a very good researcher and writer, and frequent poster at Washington’s Blog.   Mr. Zuesse wrote a piece calling out Dr. John Ray … and conservatives in general.

Dr. Ray asked if he could respond.  Below is his response.

We are not taking sides in this debate. After all, we believe that “all conservatives are …” or “all liberals are …” pieces are counter-productive, and that building bridges to fight corruption is much more useful.

It is sometimes said of Vivaldi that he did not write 232 concertos. He wrote the same concerto 232 times. Perhaps we are all a bit like that. Eric Zuesse certainly his. His recent effusion on the evils of conservatives is much like the one he wrote last year which I responded to at that time. His recent offering is however rather more derogatory about me so I thought I should say something again. I will however try not to fall into the Vivaldi trap. I will be concentrating on just one point on this occasion. People can read my earlier reply here

Zuesse is primarily pushing the old 1950s wheelbarrow set in motion by famed Marxist theoretician Theodor Adorno (born Theodor Wiesengrund). Adorno and his friends wrote at great length in an effort to prove that conservatives were “authoritarian”. Their work was however much criticized on methodological grounds from the get-go. Their conclusions were popular, however, and remain so to some extent.

I subsequently spent 20 years doing survey research into various aspects of the Adnorno theory, resulting in over 200 published academic journal articles. So I may be able to point to some things Zuesse has missed. Zuesse appears to have no background in psychological research.

Zuesse’s lodestar seems to be the semi-revival of the Adorno theory by Robert Altemeyer so I will confine my comments on this occasion to Altemeyer’s claims.

A major problem with Altemeyer’s work is revealed when we find that his RWA measuring instrument identifies the Communists of the old Soviet Union as right-wing. But if they are right-wing who is left wing? His confusion arises from his apparent definition of conservatism as “opposed to change”. That definition is however politically naive and quite absurd. Conservatives from Burke onward have never been opposed to change as such but rather opposed to changes desired and enacted by Leftists.

Undoubted conservatives such as Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan were certainly great agents of change — so much so that they shifted the whole Overton window Rightwards. In their advocacy of a carbon price even global warmers now use market-oriented thinking.

The current Left/Right polarity is between conservatives who want less government control and Leftists who want more of that. Altemeyer seems to be quite unaware of that so his work has no current political relevance.

In detail: The decline and fall of Communist regimes in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe enabled use of his RWA scale there. Studies in the East such as those by Altemeyer & Kamenshikov (1991), McFarland, Ageyev and Abalakina-Paap (1992) and Hamilton, Sanders & McKearney (1995) showed that high RWA scores were associated with support for Communism!! So an alleged “Rightist” scale was found to be a measure of Leftism! If you took it at face-value, it showed Communists were Rightists! But black might as well be white.

After that, Altemeyer more or less gave up his original claim and engaged in a bit of historical revisionism. He said (Altemeyer, 1996, p. 218) that when he “began talking about right-wing authoritarianism, I was (brazenly) inventing a new sense, a social psychological sense that denotes submission to the perceived established authorities in one’s life”. It is true that he did originally define what he was measuring in something like that way (in detail, he defined it as a combination of three elements: submissiveness to established authority, adherence to social conventions and general aggressiveness) but what was new, unusual or “brazen” about such a conceptualization defies imagination. The concept of submission to established authority was, for instance, part of the old Adorno et al (1950) work. What WAS brazen was Altemeyer’s claim that what he was measuring was characteristic of the political Right. But it is precisely the “Right-wing” claim that he now seems to have dropped and the RWA scale is now said to measure simply submission to authority. A definition of conservatism that embraces communists would certainly be seen as terminally perverse to any modern-day Western conservative.

So Zuesse has hitched his wagon to a fallen star. Altemeyer’s work tells us nothing about actual conservatism. See:

Adorno,T.W., Frenkel-Brunswik, E., Levinson, D.J. & Sanford, R.N. (1950). The authoritarian personality. New York: Harper.

Altemeyer, R. (1996). The Authoritarian Specter. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Altemeyer, R. & Kamenshikov, A. (1991) Impressions of American and Soviet behaviour: RWA changes in a mirror. South African J. Psychology 21, 255-260.

Hamilton, V. L., Sanders, J., & McKearney, S. J. (1995). Orientations toward authority in an authoritarian state: Moscow in 1990. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 21, 356-365

McFarland, S. G., Ageyev, V. S., & Abalakina-Paap, M. A. (1992). Authoritarianism in the former Soviet Union. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 63, 1004-1010

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