Authoritarians At the Gate

“Political tags – such as royalist, communist, democrat, populist, fascist, liberal, conservative, and so forth – are never basic criteria. The human race divides politically into those who want people to be controlled and those who have no such desire.” – Robert A. Heinlein

Andrew O’Hehir recently posted an article on Salon [1] and Alternet [2] titled “Hey Liberals: You Haven’t Won the Culture War” in which he argues that the extreme political polarization that currently exists:

. . . involves values or mores that people hold on a primordial or unconscious level, which are not easily expressed in language and not readily subjected to rational inquiry. Translated into the political realm, these fundamental cultural mores become entrenched ideological positions, modes of expressing the unshakable conviction that my side is right and yours is wrong.

He is definitely onto something. He has identified the aspect of the political environment which has created and will perpetuate its current toxicity . . .

Since the subject has been broached, lets see how it’s played out over the past 40 years or so . . . The Republican party has alienated moderates to the point that even some moderate Republicans have changed their party affiliation to Independent and moderate Congressional Republicans who had the respect of their peers from both sides of the aisle have elected not to return. (Think Olympia Snowe). It now exhibits a significant redshift. Or as Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein in their book It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism [3] put it:

. . . the Republican party, has become an insurgent outlier – ideologically extreme; contemptuous of the inherited social and economic policy regime; scornful of compromise; unpersuaded by conventional understanding of facts, evidence, and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition. When one party moves this far from the center of American politics, it is extremely difficult to enact policies responsive to the country’s most pressing challenges.


In every chapter of this book, we have documented the ways in which the Republican Party has become the insurgent outlier in American politics and as such contributes disproportionately to its dysfunction.4 If the case we have made about the GOP is accurate, then the culture and ideological center of the Republican Party itself, at the congressional, presidential, and, in many cases, state and local levels, must change if U.S. democracy is to regain its health. The contemporary GOP, to the horror of many of its longtime stalwarts and leaders like former senators John Danforth of Missouri and Alan Simpson of Wyoming, has veered toward tolerance of extreme ideological beliefs and policies and embrace of cynical and destructive means to advance political ends over problem solving. These tendencies have led to disdain for negotiation and compromise unless forced into them and rejection of the legitimacy of its partisan opposition (as manifested especially in the continuing drumbeat questioning the birthplace of President Obama, and the refusal of major party figures to condemn the birthers).

More after the fold . . .

Newton’s Third Law applies to politics as well as billiard balls. People can’t behave the way the Republican party has behaved recently and not expect that others might find it offensive. Political scientists, sociologists, political neuroscientists and psychologists have been studying this dynamic and the causal factors that led up to this latest partitioning of the political landscape for forty years or so. It is very different from any in the past. Learning more about the divide and its causes will help one appreciate the gravity of the problem. Understanding why and how it is different will help one appreciate how much of a challenge it will be to right the ship. There are fixes, but the challenge will be implementing them.

O’Hehir suggests that the current divide is characterized by differences that are visceral and morality/values based. Yea verily, and in their book Authoritarianism and Polarization in American Politics, psychologists Marc Hetherington and Jonathan Weiler [4] show how and why it came about. They review recent political history and show how the Republicans’ use of hot-button issues ended up changing the political environment into one focused on emotional (gut-level) issues. This, in turn, released the “authoritarian genie” which has ended up polarizing the population along worldview/authoritarian lines.

In their words:

Finally, our results are significant because they suggest that the growing polarization in American politics may reflect fundamental dispositional orientations. It further suggests that polarization may be persistent and sustain an increasingly intense and acrimonious political divide. [Emphasis mine] Our results suggest that the differences between authoritarians and nonauthoritarians explain an important piece of that conflict which, in turn, has become increasingly central to the nature of political conflict more generally in America today.

. . .

Considering our story up to now, we believe we have adduced powerful evidence for the increasingly central role that authoritarianism has come to play in structuring party competition, mass preferences, and the relevant issue agenda of the past forty years. Never since at least the dawning of the survey era has there been such fundamental clarity and distinction between the two parties on such a wide range of issues organized around a particular worldview. Beginning in the late 1960s, our political system began a transformation that, in fits and starts but inexorably, produced a picture in increasingly sharp resolution – one in which the division between people’s fundamental outlooks became refracted onto a landscape of increasingly irreconcilable political differences.


The parties, however, have sorted more clearly along authoritarian/nonauthoritarian lines, with substantial consequences for understanding the nature of the political divide. [Emphasis mine]

In other words, rather than this polarization being driven by differences of opinion on policy, political differences now are being exacerbated by differences in personal worldviews. Hence the debt limit brouhaha last year and the current “fiscal cliff.” If the works had been gummed up by issues/concerns that were truly fiscal in nature; if the debate had been at the level of “Lets figure out how to fix this problem so that we can move on to the next one;” and if all of the players had felt they had skin in the game; the process might have been ugly, but sooner or later some compromise could have been reached.

The debt limit brouhaha was brought to us by people whose only goal was to cram their position down everyone else’s throats and who were prepared to play chicken with the country’s economy to get their way. These people were not the least bit interested in solving the problem. They saw the problem as leverage to impose their position on everyone else and didn’t care if they sank the ship in the process. They did what they did for purely personal, rigidly held ideological reasons.

Mann and Ornstein again:

As bad as the atmospherics were, the new and enhanced politics of hostage taking, of putting political expedience above the national interest and tribal hubris above cooperative problem solving, suggested something more dangerous, especially at a time of profound economic peril.

Revisiting O’Hehir:

Translated into the political realm, these fundamental cultural mores become entrenched ideological positions, modes of expressing the unshakable conviction that my side is right and yours is wrong.

Hetherington and Weiler suggest that as time goes on, the polarization between the groups will continue getting greater. This is not your father’s politics any more. It is a different game with different players and different rules. From the authoritarians’ point of view, it is not politics. It is personal. There is no precedent for managing this kind of political environment, and it’s not being managed right now.

(There are parts of the ensuing discussion that some might interpret as being unflattering or maybe even insulting to those who have certain worldviews. That was not the intent of the researchers. The subjects of discussion are worldviews, the behavior patterns associated with them and how they have affected the political process. None of what will be discussed here is intended to be taken as “Right” or “Wrong,” “Good” or “Bad” any more than is hair color, eye color or handedness. If there is a value judgment to be made, it should be based on how productive the political process is and how effective it is in being able to manage the impact of these worldviews on it).

In order to appreciate the implications of Hetherington and Weiler’s findings, one must understand authoritarianism and authoritarians. So what are they?

Authoritarianism is a worldview: a core set of beliefs, personal ethics, personal value system and emotions. Psychologist Karen Stenner [5] describes authoritarianism this way:

In the end, then, authoritarianism is far more than a personal distaste for difference . . . It becomes a normative “worldview” about the social value of obedience and conformity (or freedom and difference), the prudent and just balance between group authority and individual autonomy (Duckitt, 1989), and the appropriate uses of (or limits on) that authority. This worldview induces both personal coercion of and bias against different others (racial and ethnic outgroups, political dissidents, moral “deviants”) as well as political demands for authoritative constraints on their behavior. The latter will typically include legal discrimination against minorities and restrictions on immigration, limits on free speech and association, and the regulation of moral behavior, for example, via policies regarding school prayer, abortion, censorship, and homosexuality, and their punitive enforcement.

And authoritarians:

Authoritarians prove to be relentlessly “sociotropic” boundary-maintainers, norm-enforcers, and cheerleaders for authority, whose classic defensive stances are activated by the experience or perception of threat to those boundaries, norms, and authorities. Those are the critical conditions to which authoritarians are eternally attentive. The perceived loss of those conditions—via disaffection with leaders, or divided public opinion—is the catalyst that activates these latent predispositions and provokes their increased manifestation in racial, political, and moral intolerance (and its corollary: punitiveness). This is the authoritarian’s classic “defensive arsenal,” concerned with differentiating and defending “us”, in conditions that appear to threaten “us”, by excluding and discriminating against “them”: racial and ethnic minorities, political dissidents, and moral “deviants.” In conditions of normative threat, authoritarian fears are alleviated by defense of the collective “normative order”: positive differentiation of the ingroup, devaluation of and discrimination against outgroups, obedience to authorities, conformity with rules and norms, and intolerance and punishment of those who fail to obey and conform.

Stenner gives us the 50,000 ft. view. To get down to the level of “OK, how would I know one if I saw one,” we can turn to Bob Altemeyer, a psychologist who studied authoritarianism for over 40 years at the University of Manitoba. He recently wrote a book called The Authoritarians [6] in which he describes the research he did, the questionnaires he used, the methodology employed and the results he got. It is sort of a one-stop-shopping guide on authoritarianism for the ordinary person. It is well worth reading if one would like to get a good understanding of what makes authoritarians tick and how they behave.

Here are some excerpts:

Authoritarians exhibit:

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

Authoritarian Submission. Everybody submits to authority to some degree. . . . But some people go way beyond the norm and submit to authority even when it is dishonest, corrupt, unfair and evil. 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.

Authoritarian Aggression. When I say authoritarian followers are aggressive I don’t mean they stride into bars and start fights. First of all, high RWAs [Right Wing Authoritarians] go to church enormously more often than they go to bars. Secondly, they usually avoid anything approaching a fair fight. Instead they aggress when they believe right and might are on their side. ‘Right’ for them means, more than anything else, that their hostility is (in their minds) endorsed by established authority, or supports such authority. ‘Might’ means they have a huge physical advantage over their target, in weaponry say, or in numbers, as in a lynch mob. It’s striking how often authoritarian aggression happens in dark and cowardly ways, in the dark, by cowards who later will do everything they possibly can to avoid responsibility for what they did. Women, children, and others unable to defend themselves are typical victims. Even more striking, the attackers typically feel morally superior to the people they are assaulting in an unfair fight. We shall see research evidence in the next chapter that this self-righteousness plays a huge role in high RWAs’ hostility.

Conventionalism. By conventionalism, the third defining element of the right-wing authoritarian, I don’t just mean do you put your socks on before your shoes, and I don’t just mean following the norms and customs that you like. I mean believing that everybody should have to follow the norms and customs that your authorities have decreed. Authoritarians get a lot of their ideas about how people ought to act from their religion, and as we’ll see in chapter 4 they tend to belong to fundamentalist religions that make it crystal clear what they consider correct and what they consider wrong. For example these churches strongly advocate a traditional family structure of father-as-head, mother as subservient to her husband and caretaker of the husband’s begotten, and kids as subservient, period. The authoritarian followers who fill a lot of the pews in these churches strongly agree. And they want everybody’s family to be like that.

Authoritarians do not think like everyone else does. Their cognitive processes are different. They are wired differently. First we will hear a bit more from Altemeyer and then from others from other disciplines.

How Authoritarian followers think:

The key to the puzzle springs from Chapter 2’s observation that, first and foremost, followers have mainly copied the beliefs of the authorities in their lives. They have not developed and thought through their ideas as much as most people have. Thus almost anything can be found in their heads if their authorities put it there, even stuff that contradicts other stuff. A filing cabinet or a computer can store quite inconsistent notions and never lose a minute of sleep over their contradiction. Similarly a high RWA can have all sorts of illogical, self-contradictory, and widely refuted ideas rattling around in various boxes in his brain, and never notice it.

But research reveals that authoritarian followers drive through life under the influence of impaired thinking a lot more than most people do, exhibiting sloppy reasoning, highly compartmentalized beliefs, double standards, hypocrisy, self-blindness, a profound ethnocentrism, and – to top it all off – a ferocious dogmatism that makes it unlikely anyone could ever change their minds with evidence or logic.

He then goes on to catalogue and discuss in detail the “seven deadly shortfalls of authoritarian thinking.”

1 – Illogical thinking

They particularly had trouble figuring out that an inference or deduction was wrong. To illustrate, suppose they had gotten the following syllogism:

1. All fish live in the sea.
2. Sharks live in the sea.
3. Therefore, sharks are fish.

The conclusion does not follow, but high RWAs would be more likely to say that the reasoning was correct than most people would. If you ask them why it seems right, they would likely tell you, ‘Because sharks are fish.’ In other words, they thought the reasoning was sound because they agreed with the last statement. If the conclusion was right, they figure, then the reasoning must have been right. Or to put it another way, they don’t ‘get it’ that the reasoning matters – especially on a reasoning test.

. . .

Deductive logic aside, authoritarians also have trouble deciding whether empirical evidence proves, or does not prove, something. They will often think some thoroughly ambiguous fact verifies something they already believe in. So if you tell them that archaeologists have discovered a fallen wall at ancient Jericho, they are more likely than most people to infer that this proves the Biblical story of Joshua and the horns is true – when the wall could have been knocked over by lots of other groups, or an earthquake, and be from an entirely different era (which it is).

2 – Highly Compartmentalized Minds

As I said earlier, authoritarians’ ideas are poorly integrated with one another. It’s as if each idea is stored in a file that can be called up and used when the authoritarian wishes, even though another of his ideas – stored in a different file – basically contradicts it. We all have some inconsistencies in our thinking, but authoritarians can stupify you with the inconsistency of their ideas. Thus they may say they are proud to live in a country that guarantees freedom of speech, but another file holds, ‘My country, love it or leave it.’ The ideas were copied from trusted sources, often as sayings, but the authoritarian has never ‘merged files’ to see how well they all fit together. It’s easy to find authoritarians endorsing inconsistent ideas. Just present slogans and appeals to homey values, and then present slogans and bromides that invoke opposite values. The yea-saying authoritarian follower is likely to agree with all of them. Thus I asked both students and their parents to respond to, ‘When it comes to love, men and women with opposite points of view are attracted to each other.’ Soon afterwards, in the same booklet, I pitched ‘Birds of a feather flock together when it comes to love.’ High RWAs typically agreed with both statements, even though they responded to the two items within a minute of each other.

But that’s the point: they don’t seem to scan for self-consistency as much as most people do. Similarly they tended to agree with “A government should allow total freedom of expression, even it if threatens law and order” and “A government should only allow freedom of expression so long as it does not threaten law and order.” And “Parents should first of all be gentle and tender with their children,” and “Parents should first of all be firm and uncompromising with their children; spare the rod and spoil the child.”

3 – Double Standards

When your ideas live independent lives from one another it is pretty easy to use double standards in your judgments. You simply call up the idea that will justify (afterwards) what you’ve decided to do. High RWAs seem to get up in the morning and gulp down a whole jar of “Rationalization Pills.”

4 – Hypocrisy

You can also find a considerable amount of hypocrisy in high RWAs’ behavior. For example, the leaders of authoritarian movements sometimes accuse their opponents of being anti-democratic and anti-free speech when the latter protest against various books, movies, speakers, teachers and so on.

High RWAs don’t have a problem with being in favor of capital punishment while at the same time being pro-life. Freedom of religion is very important to high RWA fundamentalists, but if they had their way, the United States would be a fundamentalist Christian theocracy. (In other words, freedom of religion is important when it comes to their religion, but theirs is the only one that counts. Rather like Henry Ford’s reply when asked what colors were available for his cars. The answer attributed to him was: “Any color you want as long as it’s black).”

5 – Blindness to Themselves

If you ask people how much integrity they personally have, guess who pat themselves most on the back by claiming they have more than anyone else. This one is easy if you remember the findings on self-righteousness from the last chapter: high RWAs think they had lots more integrity than others do. Similarly when I asked students to write down, anonymously, their biggest faults, right-wing authoritarians wrote down fewer than others did, mainly because a lot of them said they had no big faults. When I asked students if there was anything they were reluctant to admit about themselves to themselves, high RWAs led everyone else in saying, no, they were completely honest with themselves.

And when I give feedback lectures to classes about my studies and describe right-wing authoritarians, it turns out the high RWAs in the room almost always think I am talking about someone else.

6 – A Profound Ethnocentrism

They are so ethnocentric that you find them making statements such as, ‘If you’re not with us, then you’re against us.’ There’s no neutral in the highly ethnocentric mind. This dizzying ‘Us versus Everyone Else’ outlook usually develops from traveling in those ‘tight circles’ we talked about in the last chapter, and whirling round in those circles reinforces the ethnocentrism as the authoritarian follower uses his friends to validate his opinions.

But this is especially important to authoritarians, who have not usually thought things out, explored possibilities, considered alternate points of view, and so on, but acquired their beliefs from the authorities in their lives. They then maintain their beliefs against new threats by seeking out those authorities, and by rubbing elbows as much as possible with people who have the same beliefs.

I know I’m right because the people I agree with say I am.

Because authoritarians depend so much on their in-group to support their beliefs (whereas other people depend more on independent evidence and logic), high RWAs place a high premium on group loyalty and cohesiveness.

Authoritarian followers want to belong, and being part of their in-group means a lot to them. Loyalty to that group ranks among the highest virtues, and members of the group who question its leaders or beliefs can quickly be seen as traitors. Can you also sense from these items the energy, the commitment, the submission, and the zeal that authoritarian followers are ready to give to their in-groups, and the satisfaction they would get from being a part of a vast, powerful movement in which everyone thought the same way? The common metaphor for authoritarian followers is a herd of sheep, but it may be more accurate to think of them as a column of army ants on the march.

Authoritarian followers are highly suspicious of their many out-groups; but they are credulous to the point of self-delusion when it comes to their in-groups.

To take a non-political example of walking extra miles for authorities, when people first began to reveal they had been sexually assaulted as children by priests and ministers, bishops often issued statements saying they had thoroughly investigated the charge and found it had no merit. That was good enough for the authoritarian followers. If the evidence nevertheless grew against Father X, church authorities asked the public, “Whom are you going to believe, this obviously disturbed person who claims to have been assaulted, or the Church?” That too was an easy one for the high RWAs.

If it eventually became known that the bishops’ own inquiries had discovered that Father X was indeed a pedophile, but the bishops still denied he was and sometimes even quietly transferred Father X to another parish, where he sexually assaulted still more children, do you think the high RWAs learned anything from this? How many “disconnects” do you think they have at hand to avoid realizing they allowed themselves to be deceived?

I fear you will wait a long time before authoritarian followers wise up to their chosen leaders, and to themselves – and their leaders know it. When the Watergate revelations were sinking his ratings in the polls, Richard Nixon pointed out to his chief of staff, H. R. Haldemann, “I think there’s still a hell of a lot of people out there…[who] want to believe. That’s the point, isn’t it?” “Why sure,” Haldemann replied. “Want to and do.” (Conversation of April 25, 1973 recorded on the ‘Watergate tapes’. reported by the New York Times on November 22, 1974, p. 20.)

7 – Dogmatism: The Authoritarian’s Last Ditch Defense, or Don’t Confuse Me With Facts, My Mind’s Made Up –

By dogmatism, I mean relatively unchangeable, unjustified certainty.

It’s easy to see why authoritarian followers would be dogmatic, isn’t it? When you haven’t figured out your beliefs, but instead absorbed them from other people, you’re really in no position to defend them from attack. Simply put, you don’t know why the things you believe are true. Somebody else decided they were, and you’re taking their word for it. So what do you do when challenged?

Well first of all you avoid challenges by sticking with your own kind as much as possible, because they’re hardly likely to ask pointed questions about your beliefs. But if you meet someone who does, you’ll probably defend your ideas as best you can, parrying thrusts with whatever answers your authorities have pre-loaded into your head. If these defenses crumble, you may go back to the trusted sources. They probably don’t have to give you a convincing refutation of the anxiety-producing argument that breached your defenses, just the assurance that you nonetheless are right. But if the arguments against you become overwhelming and persistent, you either concede the point – which may put the whole lot at risk – or you simply insist you are right and walk away, clutching your beliefs more tightly than ever.

From a different source (Mooney [7]):

As it turned out, not even Bush’s own words could change the minds of these Bush voters . . . The remaining 41 [of 49] all came up with ways to preserve their beliefs, ranging from generating counterarguments to simply being unmovable:

INTERVIEWER: . . . the September 11 Commission found no link between Saddam and 9/11, and this is what President Bush said. [pause] This is what the commission said. Do you have any comments on either of those?

RESPONDENT: Well, I bet they say that the Commission didn’t have any proof of it but I guess we still can have our opinions and feel that way even though they say that.

(In other words, high RWAs deal with cognitive dissonance by just ignoring the datum that creates the dissonance. It’s easy: Clap your hands over your ears and run away shouting “Na, na, na, I can’t hear you! Don’t confuse me with facts, my mind’s made up!)”

Altemeyer also investigated the relationship between authoritarianism and religious fundamentalism. These phenomena are orthogonal to each other, and though there doesn’t have to be any relationship between them, it turns out that fundamentalists tend to be authoritarian followers. Not all high RWAs are religious fundamentalists, but it is very, very hard to find a religious fundamentalist who does not score high on the RWA scale.

This chapter has presented my main research findings on religious fundamentalists. The first thing I want to emphasize, in light of the rest of this book, is that they are highly likely to be authoritarian followers. They are highly submissive to established authority, aggressive in the name of that authority, and conventional to the point of insisting everyone should behave as their authorities decide. They are fearful and self-righteous and have a lot of hostility in them that they readily direct toward various out-groups. They are easily incited, easily led, rather un-inclined to think for themselves, largely impervious to facts and reason, and rely instead on social support to maintain their beliefs. They bring strong loyalty to their in-groups, have thick-walled, highly compartmentalized minds, use a lot of double standards in their judgments, are surprisingly unprincipled at times, and are often hypocrites.

To this point, the selections from The Authoritarians have been taken from the discussion of authoritarian followers. RWA followers have no desire whatsoever to be the leader of the pack. After all, a primary trait of authoritarians is “a high degree of submission to the established, legitimate authorities in their society.” They need to be in the pack surrounded by those who agree with them and reinforce them. They need someone else to set the rules. It’s the “I know I’m right because the people who agree with me told me I am” thing. Going against the grain is complete anathema to them and anyone who is willing to challenge their “received view” poses an existential threat to it.

Altemeyer also investigated the behavior patterns of the leadership side of the authoritarian system. He characterizes the difference between authoritarian followers and leaders this way:

But huge differences exist between these two parts of an authoritarian system in (1) their desire for power, (2) their religiousness, (3) the roots of their aggression, and (4) their thinking processes . . .

How would one identify a candidate for a leadership position in an authoritarian system? There are two sets of candidates . . . one being those who score high on the Social Dominance Orientation scale. [8] High RWAs are exactly the group of people that high SDOs like. High SDOs are all about power and dominance. Altemeyer developed a couple of scales to study the nature of high SDOs and what makes them tick.

He describes the behavior patterns of people who score high on the Personal Power, Meanness and Dominance Scale this way:

High scorers are inclined to be intimidating, ruthless, and vengeful. They scorn such noble acts as helping others, and being kind, charitable, and forgiving. Instead they would rather be feared than loved, and be viewed as mean, pitiless, and vengeful. They love power, including the power to hurt in their drive to the top. Authoritarian followers do not feel this way because they seldom have such a drive to start with.

He characterizes the behavior of those who score high on the Exploitive Manipulative Amoral Dishonesty Scale like this:

Social dominators thus admit, anonymously, to striving to manipulate others, and to being dishonest, two-faced, treacherous, and amoral. It’s as if someone took the Scout Law (“A scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, …”) and turned it completely upside down: “A ‘winner’ is deceitful, manipulative, unfair, base, conniving, …” Furthermore, while the followers may feel admiration bordering on adoration of their leaders, we should not be surprised if the leaders feel a certain contempt for their followers. They are the suckers, the _marks,” the fools social dominators find so easy to manipulate.

They will say and do anything to get in a position of power. The end justifies the means and they have no scruples. All a high SDO needs to do is tell a bunch of high RWAs what they want to hear and they’ve got it made.

Once someone becomes a leader of the high RWAs’ in-group, he can lie with impunity about the out-groups, himself, whatever, because he knows the followers will seldom check on what he says, nor will they expose themselves to people who set the record straight. Furthermore they will not believe the truth if they somehow get exposed to it, and if the distortions become absolutely undeniable, they will rationalize it away and put it in a box. If the scoundrel’s duplicity and hypocrisy lands him on the front page of every daily in the country, the followers will still forgive him if he just says the right things.

High RWAs and high SDOs complement each other but their motivations are different. High SDOs issue the call . . .

out of meanness, as an act of intimidation and control; the follower [responds] out of fear and self-righteousness in the name of authority.”

See if you can guess the source of this statement:

“Naturally, the common people don’t want war, but they can always be brought to do the bidding of the leaders. Tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and endangering the country. It works the same in every country.”

Sound familiar?

No . . . Dick Cheney is an excellent guess, but it was actually Herman Goering in his testimony at the Nuremburg Trials. He knew his high RWAs. And he’s right. It does, indeed, work the same in every country.

The second type of authoritarian leader is what Altemeyer calls the “lethal combination,” the Double Highs. These are people who score high on both the Social Dominance Orientation scale and the Right Wing Authoritarian scale . . .

But a Double High has the best chance of attracting this army of yearning and loyal supporters. He comes packaged as ‘one of our own,’ one of the in-group. He not only shares their prejudices, their economic philosophy, and their political leanings, he also professes their religious views, and that can mean everything to high RWAs. He too may be faking his religiousness to some extent, but he will have the credentials up front, and the phrase-dropping familiarity with the Bible to pass the test with flying colors. He’ll know the code words of the movement. He’ll appear to believe everything “all the good people” believe about Satan, being born again, evolution, the role of women, sex, abortion, school prayer, law and order, “perverts,” censorship, zealotry, holy wars, America-as-God’s-right-hand, and so on. Given this head start, you can expect to find a Double High leading most of the right-wing authoritarian groups in our country.

(For those who might be interested in seeing exactly what Altemeyer’s scales are all about, he includes them in his book. If one is interested in learning more about the SDO scale, visit the Your Morals web site, take the SDO questionnaire and find out where you stand among all of the other people who have taken it. (The RWA questionnaire is there also). For those interested in understanding more about the research behind the data that are presented here, reading Altemeyer’s book and a visit to the Your Morals site would be well worth one’s time. Along with the SDO and RWA questionnaires, there are many, many other questionnaires on the Your Morals site that have been proven to be effective in teasing out all sorts of information about one’s psychological makeup).

For a catalogue of high SDO and Double High leaders, how they behave in a political environment, and what they have done to our country, one could do no better than to read Conservatives Without Conscience by John Dean. [9] From the teaser on the cover flap:

By examining the legacies of old-time conservatives such as J. Edgar Hoover, Spiro Agnew, and Phyllis Schlafly and of current figures such as Dick Cheney, Tom DeLay, Bill Frist, Newt Gingrich and Jack Abramoff, he presents a compelling portrait of leaders who are indifferent to the founding principles of liberty and equality, and who cloak their actions in moral superiority while pushing the country further and further from its constitutional foundations.


For true conservatives, it will demand serious reflection as a trenchant explanation of how conservatism lost its bearings, and a warning of its dangerous ramifications.

If, after having read Conservatives Without Conscience, your tolerance for disgust has not been overwhelmed, for dessert, one might try reading Christopher Hitchens’ The Trial of Henry Kissinger [10] and/or watch Eugene Jarecki’s documentary, The Trials of Henry Kissinger. [11] Better yet, do both. Read the book just for the pleasure of reading Hitchens when he has his nose out of joint. Watch the documentary to hear directly from some of the people who were personally involved with Kissinger. Reading about Kissinger and what he did is one thing. Seeing and hearing people who were involved in some of the events makes them much more “up close and personal.” Cheney was in the Single A minors compared to Kissinger.

An example of how authoritarian leaders and followers can come together is given by Craig Unger in an interview [12] about his book The Fall of the House of Bush. The conversation was about the confluence of the neocons and the Christian right in order to advance their agendas. When asked how it was that they ended up in bed together, Unger replied:

“They play very different roles. The neocons are an ideological vanguard and the Christian right is a mass electoral base.”

There you have it. Hard-core high SDOs like Rumsfeld and Cheney and neocons like Wolfowitz, Pearle and Abrams throwing chum in the water and the Christian right in a feeding frenzy . . .

Bottom line: authoritarianism is not about politics. It is a worldview. So is nonauthoritarianism. But nonauthoritarians are not just authoritarians dialed way down. They are completely different beasts. They have different value systems; different approaches to dealing with change, novelty and conflict resolution . . . their brains work differently. [13] Where authoritarians see the world in black and white, nonauthoritarians see not only black and white, but shades of gray. Where authoritarians see differences of opinion and conflict resolution as a zero-sum game, nonauthoritarians work toward win-win resolutions. Where authoritarians have the “If you’re not with us, you’re agin’ us” view of differences of opinion, nonauthoritarians have the perspective of “Well, we disagree, so let’s just agree to disagree.” Where authoritarians simply ignore information that conflicts with their beliefs, nonauthoritarians say, “Well, isn’t that interesting. I guess I’ll have to rethink my position.”

Differences between the two worldviews show up in many scientific disciplines. Jonathan Haidt is a psychologist who studies moral reasoning. In The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, [14] he talks about how liberals and conservatives have very different moral/value matrices which in turn determine how they weight their values and what is important to them. (For an excellent 20-minute presentation on his research and findings, see his 2008 TED Talk. [15]) Where Stenner and Altemeyer describe authoritarian behavior patterns, Haidt investigates how people assemble their worldviews and moral/values matrices and why it happens the way it does.

In The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science – and Reality, Chris Mooney [7] does a review of the social psychological, evolutionary psychological, cognitive psychological, cognitive neuroscience and genetics literatures on how it is that conservatives continually deny reality in the face of conclusive evidence and how the brains of liberals and conservatives are different.

We have spent a lot of time getting to know authoritarians and how they think and behave. Although authoritarianism is a component of one’s worldview, in the past, there was not necessarily a correlation between where a person fell along the RWA scale and her location along the political right-left dimension. Before “the big divide,” there were authoritarian Democrats, authoritarian Libertarians, authoritarian Republicans and authoritarian Independents. Conversely, there were liberal Republicans, Libertarians and Democrats. But as Hetherington and Weiner have shown, the nature of the issues chosen by the Republicans, the rhetoric they employed, and the way in which Republican elites have chosen to cast the political environment as an “us or them” struggle, have ended up throwing red meat to the authoritarians in the party. By winding up the Tea Partiers, the right-wing religious fundamentalists, etc., and herding everyone to the starboard side of the ship, the Republican elites have ended up changing the nature of the political environment and rupturing the GOP.

In the past, bipartisan coalitions could work together to resolve their differences and deal with issues that affected everyone. However, we are at the point now that the most liberal Republican is more conservative than the most conservative Democrat. And since the authoritarian/nonauthoritarian dimension is a core component of peoples’ worldviews, this polarization is turning into a very personal, us-against-them, I’m-going-to-do-everything-I-can-do-to-screw-you confrontation.

Now would be a good time to reflect on Mann and Ornstein’s comments and start connecting the dots.

After the last election, we heard things that might lead one to believe that the strategy that the GOP had been using for the last 40 years or so had backfired:

“We’ve got to give our political organization a very serious proctology exam,” Mr. Barbour said Wednesday. “We need to look everywhere.”

“We have to look at everything in depth,” Mr. Barbour said, “and be brutally honest.”

Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin said Republicans needed to adopt a new “tone.”

Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana said, “We need to modernize our party.”

and best of all . . .

“I absolutely reject that notion [Romney’s assertion that Obama won by “following the old playbook” of bestowing favors on special interest groups]. I don’t think that represents where we are as a party,” Mr. Jindal said. He added, “We have got to stop dividing the American voters.” all quotations [16]

David Frum in his book Why Romney Lost [17] opines:

The Republican Party is becoming increasingly isolated and estranged from modern America.

They are right. For the past 40 years, the GOP has been insulting its moderate constituents and alienating everyone else, and in the process, has let the “authoritarian genie” out of the bottle. Messers Barbour, Walker, Jindal and Frum are right and one wishes them good luck.

But then we come to the spanner in the works: The challenge for the Republican party is that, in order for them to succeed in “adopting a new ‘tone,'” “modernize the party,” and “stop dividing the American voters,” it is going to have to become more moderate, more inclusive and dial back the current hard-core approach and agenda and rhetoric. It needs to show that “conservative” doesn’t, in fact, mean “authoritarian.” It needs to invite the RINOs and independents back to the table. It needs to show moderates that they are welcome and wanted in the party. It needs to rein in the authoritarians and demonstrate to the world that they are under control.

Doing so, however, will be immensely threatening to the authoritarians. Given what we have learned about them, (among other things, that they’re full of righteous indignation and become very aggressive when they feel that they are being threatened) it is safe to say that the process will be more painful than pulling teeth without the benefit of anesthetic. The image of standing in front of a bull and waving a red flag comes to mind. If the Republican elite is serious about the party becoming based in reality rather than ignoring it, becoming more moderate, and reaching out to others, doing so is going to put the moderate Republicans and the intensely ethnocentric, don’t-confuse-me-with-facts-my-mind’s-made-up “Rauthoritarians” on a sticky wicket.

Right now, the GOP is really two parties: the nominal GOP and the Rauthoritarians. Authoritarians make up about 25% of the voting populace. The Republican party in toto comprises 40% +/- of the electorate. In the event of a major food fight within the party, the numbers are in the authoritarians’ favor. So is the fact that they are much more cohesive and better organized than are the moderates . . . And then, there’s the money . . . with the coming of the Super PAC and Citizens United, “the Party” doesn’t control the purse strings to the degree it has in the past. The Club For Growth, FreedomWorks, American Crossroads, the Kochtopus and the Sheldon Adelmans of the world are free to back whomever they like. The Rauthoritarians have essentially created their own alternate universe inside the GOP.

They have the best of both worlds: they can live in their own little world more or less unencumbered by responsibility and accountability, (or reality, even) but at the same time, they have become the puppet master of the Republican party. The 2010 election season was their prom night. The last primary season was their coming out party. They’re still a bit rough around the edges and they haven’t quite yet gotten the knack of swinging that great double-edged sword of theirs around without nicking themselves. Nonetheless, they have demonstrated their ability to hold the Republican Party hostage and extend their influence into the real world. From a detached observer’s perspective it is an incredibly interesting phenomenon that is fascinating to watch. Not so much so, though, once one begins considering the implications . . .

And then there’s ALEC. The Koch brothers and ALEC have demonstrated that Tip O’Neil’s observation that all politics being local is certainly true . . . and not only in the way he meant it. It is much easier to manage the “temperature” and direction of state and local politics than at the national level. Arizona, Florida, Wisconsin, Ohio . . . Michigan . . . Texas . . . best state governments money can buy . . .

There are few incentives for authoritarians in red states to change their stripes and, given the gerrymandering that has occurred since the last census, it is probably safe to say that “authoritarian/Tea Party” seats at both the state and national level are going to be safe for a while.

There is the potential for this conflict between state-level politics and national politics to become really messy. The electorate of any state is more homogeneous than it is at the national level and one might expect that the effect of the polarization would be greater in red states. This amplification would exacerbate the difference between red-state political environments and that at the national level. The red states could become less inclined to be “good citizens.” One needs only to observe the surge to implement ALEC model legislation in newly captured Republican state houses and governorships and red states’ reactions to Obamacare to believe that another outcome of this polarization is going to be increased polarization and antipathy between deep red states and the federal government.

Before we continue I’m going to introduce two terms:

Reality Bubble –

The term “reality bubble” has generalized beyond its original market-based meaning. The principle really applies to any situation where a person or group of people succeed in sustaining (for a time) a belief inconsistent with objective facts. The reality inside the bubble is what I call beta reality – beliefs are the “facts” of this reality, and their effects (the actions taken by people based upon them) are the equivalent of the effects of objective facts as enforced by the laws of physics in objective (alpha) reality, which is outside the bubble. [18]

Reality Distortion Field (RDF) –

The RDF was said by Andy Hertzfeld to be Steve Jobs’ ability to convince himself and others to believe almost anything with a mix of charm, charisma, bravado, hyperbole, marketing, appeasement and persistence. RDF was said to distort an audience’s sense of proportion and scales of difficulties and made them believe that the task at hand was possible. [19]

There are already glimmerings of the work the Republicans have cut out for themselves:

1. The RDF at work:

“Evangelical leaders and conservative activists have a simple message for establishment Republicans about Mitt Romney’s failed presidential bid: We told you so.” [20]

Revisit Altemeyer’s observation about authoritarians’ blindness to themselves. Romney wasn’t the problem. They were the problem. And, come “Hell or Noah’s high water,” they’ll fight any dilution of their influence.

2. Marco Rubio replying to a question about how old he thinks the earth is in an interview for GQ:

I’m not a scientist, man. I can tell you what recorded history says, I can tell you what the Bible says, but I think that’s a dispute amongst theologians and I think it has nothing to do with the gross domestic product or economic growth of the United States. I think the age of the universe has zero to do with how our economy is going to grow. I’m not a scientist. I don’t think I’m qualified to answer a question like that. At the end of the day, I think there are multiple theories out there on how the universe was created and I think this is a country where people should have the opportunity to teach them all. I think parents should be able to teach their kids what their faith says, what science says. Whether the Earth was created in 7 days, or 7 actual eras, I’m not sure we’ll ever be able to answer that. It’s one of the great mysteries. [21]

And he is on the Senate Committee on Commerce, SCIENCE and Transportation.

3. An article on Talking Points Memo titled “Creation Controversies The Norm Among Potential Republican 2016 Contenders” which reports comments about evolution or creationism made by Chris Christie, Bobby Jindal, Rand Paul and Marco Rubio. [22] Apparently the reality bubble is still intact.

4. From Robert Land’s piece in the New York Times online section “Room for Debate” discussion on “What’s Next for the GOP.” [23]

The G.O.P. must not, and cannot, ignore its foundation and base. Exit polls show that white evangelicals made up 26 percent of the electorate, 3 percent more than in 2004. . . . While the G.O.P. needs to expand its base by embracing immigration reform and finding younger candidates and spokespersons, especially young women to make the pro-life case, they must not moderate their social conservative message. If the G.O.P. found it hard to win with their current base, imagine how excruciatingly difficult, if not impossible, it would be for them to try and win without that base.

Stenner eschews the term “social conservatism” for “authoritarianism.” This gives one an idea of the problem for the Republicans. Here is a group that comprises (so Richard Land says) 26% of the electorate. They are on a mission, and with the right leadership, will do everything in their power to advance their agenda. The challenge for the GOP as a whole is that a majority of the population has no desire to have the agenda of its “foundation and base” foisted on them. As a matter of fact, most people find it an insult to their intelligence. Many people in the last election didn’t vote so much “for” the Democrats, but “against” the Rauthoritarians.

The best thing the Republican party could do to right the ship is to heave that ballast overboard. But, as already noted, there are more Rauthoritarians than there are RINOs, so the probability of that happening without a food fight is pretty low. Numbers-wise and discipline-wise, the Rauthoritarians are in the stronger position. But their main advantage is that they know what they want and have an infrastructure and an agenda to accomplish it, whereas the RINOs are just now figuring out that they really have a problem. They just took one on the chin and are still trying to figure out which way is up . . .

The worst thing for the Republicans and everyone else is that, for the Rauthoritarians, the primary function of the political process is to provide them with a mechanism to use as a shillelagh to beat “them” into submission and make “them” toe “their” line. Compromise is not part of a high RWA’s vocabulary. There is no need for negotiation because they are right and that’s just the way it is. They have God on their side so they feel that they can, while being wrapped in righteous indignation, justifiably give everyone else the finger. For authoritarians, negotiation is a zero-sum game and they get to keep the goodies. Richard Mourdock’s definition of “compromise” [24] comes to mind here . . .

For the past fifteen years or so, the inmates have been gaining control of the asylum. As we’ve seen, it is the nature of the authoritarian beast to feel threatened even when there isn’t any reason to be. The corrective action the Republicans need to take will be a threat and anathema to them. It is going to take some very strong leadership and a steel will to bring the party back to reality.

The longer it takes to restore some semblance of reality, respect for others and adult maturity to the organization, the bigger the gap between the beta reality of the Rauthoritarian party and the alpha reality of the 74% will become. The GOP desperately needs nonauthoritarians, but they have no incentive to participate in its current configuration. Worse yet, given the “retirement rate” and disaffiliation from the Party by moderates, there actually seems to be a disincentive for moderates to participate. The party is being hiacked by a collection of hypocritical, xenophobic, misogynistic high SDOs, Double Highs and high RWAs. And they’ve been off the leash long enough now that they’ve gotten used to it.

In the end, we all need a healthy two-party system that is focused on building and fixing rather than obstructing and tearing down. Playing political chicken with the future of the country is not the way to get more votes. In an adult world, a person can completely disagree with someone else but still respect the other person’s right to their opinion. In an adult world, people realize that no one can ever get everything they want, but with a little good-faith negotiation it is possible to end up with a solution that gives everyone most of what they need.

Ideologues do not further progress, they hinder it. Remember Newton’s Third Law. Authoritarians are like spoiled brats who throw temper tantrums whenever they don’t get everything they want. They have no respect for others. They have no desire to play well with others. If we are going to have a healthy political system, the Republican elites are going to have to understand that this new environment is not business as usual and come up with a plan for how to lower the temperature some. Right now, the Rauthoritarians are a much bigger problem for the GOP leadership than the Democrats are. And it is hard to see how things can get better until the inertia that’s driving the current polarization process is reversed.

The ball is in the GOP’s court to sort this all out. They let the genie out of the bottle. If they can’t/don’t put the it back, Harrison Salisbury’s [25] words may prove to be prophetic:

Sinclair Lewis aptly predicted in “It Can’t Happen Here” that if fascism came to America [or at least the Republican party] it would come wrapped in the flag and whistling “The Star Spangled Banner.”

After which it will take up the cross and begin marching to a rousing rendition of “Onward, Christian Soldiers.”

This discussion of the phenomenon of authoritarianism and the behavior of authoritarians was not based on opinion. It was based on reports of psychological and physiological data gathered from thousands of subjects under rigorous conditions using methodologies and procedures that have been refined over decades of research. Data are not self-righteous, nor do they have social or political agendas. Data are data. One implication of the data that we have on high RWAs, high SDOs and Double Highs is that, under certain political environments and certain leadership, “The Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave” can be turned into “The Land of the High RWAs” who will happily impose their version of Truth, Good, Right, Wrong, Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness” on everyone . . . even those – ESPECIALLY those – who disagree with them.

It is the opinion of the author that the solution to the looming problem is not to go out and declare war on “The Authoritarians.” That is not a helpful approach. The high RWAs’ response to threat is to go into shields-up mode and become more aggressive. It is not possible to have a constructive dialogue when they are in that state.

High RWAs are not necessarily skilled debaters, but they intuitively understand that their position can be undermined if the assumptions upon which they have based their belief system are invalidated. High RWAs will not engage in any exercise that might result in having their core premises challenged. They just will not engage. They will dissemble, they will obfuscate, they will change the subject, they will make up justifications for what they believe, but under no circumstances will they expose their assumptions to critique. They will throw the baby out with the bath water first. Haidt [14] puts it this way:

  • The mind is divided into parts, like a rider (controlled processes) on an elephant (automatic processes). The rider evolved to serve the elephant.
  • You can see the rider serving the elephant when people are morally dumbfounded. They have strong gut feelings about what is right and wrong, and they struggle to construct post hoc justifications for those feelings. Even when the servant (reasoning) comes back empty-handed, the master (intuition) doesn’t change his judgment.
  • The social intuitionist model starts with Hume’s model and makes it more social. Moral reasoning is part of our lifelong struggle to win friends and influence people. That’s why I say that “intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second.” You’ll misunderstand moral reasoning if you think about it as something people do by themselves in order to figure out the truth.
  • Therefore, if you want to change someone’s mind about a moral or political issue, talk to the elephant first. If you ask people to believe something that violates their intuitions, they will devote their efforts to finding an escape hatch — a reason to doubt your argument or conclusion. They will almost always succeed.

Cognitive scientists, social psychologists and neuroscientists have studied the mechanism that people employ in doing this. The phenomenon is called motivated reasoning and is one of the mechanisms people use to mitigate cognitive dissonance. Mooney [7] uses the second chapter of his book to talk about it and to introduce what he calls the “smart idiot effect.” Here is his description:

The politically sophisticated or knowledgeable are often more biased, and less persuadable, than the ignorant. “People who have a dislike of some policy—for example, abortion—if they’re unsophisticated they can just reject it out of hand,” says Stony Brook’s Milton Lodge. “But if they’re sophisticated, they can go one step further and start coming up with counterarguments” These counterarguments, because they are emotionally charged and become stored in memory and the brain, literally become part of us. They thus allow a person with more sophistication to convince him- or herself even more strongly about the correctness of an initial conviction.

Basically, a snowball has a better chance to survive hell than does one have in changing a high RWA’s mind if one challenges them head-on.

Remember Altemeyer’s comments on authoritarians’ conventionalism and dogmatism. The thought of directly confronting them brings to mind the image of poking a stick into a hornet’s nest and stirring it around . . . Even better is the scene from “Blazing Saddles in which Sherriff Bart has just doused a dazed Mongo with a bucket of water. Mongo wakes up and breaks the chains that had held him to the bars of the jail. Sherriff Bart draws his gun because he thinks Mongo is going to come after him. The Waco Kid stops Sherriff Bart by saying: “No, no! Don’t shoot him! You’ll just make him mad.” Sic est cum authoritarians. Don’t try to reason with them. You’ll just make them mad.

We all have the authoritarian streak in us, and when pushed/threatened/cornered enough, even those who score at the low end of the RWA scale will go postal. It’s just that different people default to different places along the scale. We know how high RWAs think and how they behave. Even in their ground state high RWAs are already redlined and they’re locked and loaded. We all, Republicans, Democrats, Libertarians, Independents, Greens . . . have to decide whether or not we want to live in a high RWA world. If not, it is incumbent on those of us who do not to manage our political environment in such a way as to make it unsupportive of the authoritarian way of doing things.

I’m afraid that, in the short run, we’re in for a rough ride. But I do believe that if we are serious, we can salvage the situation and create a social and political environment that everyone can live with. Given the inertia that Hetherington and Weiler see, this polarization will only get worse if left unattended. 6,000 years of human history tells us that. With serious work, the problem can be fixed, but only if we really want to.

Is there any hope for a non-nuclear solution? There is, but as Albert Einstein said:

The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them.

There are solutions, but to do them justice requires another post. For now, I’ll just list some resources from which to draw ideas:

Mann and Ornstein offer many insightful suggestions on how to modify some of the processes and mechanics of our political system to fix the nasty problems that exist right now.

In his book, David Frum has a chapter “Deliverance” in which he gently but eloquently discusses some of the mistakes the GOP has made, but also points to alternative political strategies that would be more productive. He ends the chapter with this thought:

To be a patriot is to love your country as it is. Those who seem to despise half of America will never be trusted to govern any of it. Those who cherish only the country’s past will not be entrusted with its future.

Here endeth the lesson.

Altemeyer’s research was on the behavior patterns and environmental triggers of authoritarians, so he spends the last chapter of his book offering concrete suggestions on how to narrow the perceived gap between authoritarians and nonauthortarians. Kind of a cookbook on how to “defuse the bomb.” Though he addressed the problem in the general sense, the techniques are applicable to political problems.

Where Altemeyer looked at the behavior of authoritarians and the environmental events that affect authoritarians’ behavior, Haidt “looked under the hood” and studied the morals and value systems of authoritarians and nonauthoritarians. Altemeyer asked “What do authoritarians do . . . how do they behave?” Haidt asks “How is it and why is it that we think and respond the way we do?”

The answers are fascinating. He makes three contributions to the solutions. First, he shows why liberals and conservatives think differently. Understanding why somebody does something is the first step in bridging the gap. Secondly, he makes specific suggestions about things that we can do the bridge the divide. Thirdly, the technique he uses in leading the reader through a series of steps from talking about things that have no emotional valence for the reader to where he wants the reader to be with respect to accepting ideas that might challenge the “status quo” is a perfect example of the approach he recommends. The reader gets to see firsthand that it works . . .

(I cannot recommend his book highly enough. If one could choose only one book on how and why it is that liberals and conservatives seem to have different priorities and values and motivations, this would be the one. In developing his argument, Haidt undertakes a synthesis of moral philosophy, cultural anthropology, moral psychology, cognitive neuroscience with a dash of political neuroscience and dual process theory thrown in.

There is a lot of information in it and it is so well written and the narrative flows so smoothly that it is very easy to read right past a “tidbit” that later turns out to be a cornerstone. It is truly a gift that keeps on giving. This is not the venue for a book review, so the only thing else I’m going to say is this: If one is interested in how we go about making values-based decisions and why we do it in the way we do, this book should go to the top of your reading list).

So, hopefully now, we are aware of the problem and we understand that there are strategies to deal with it. The big question is whether the GOP leadership has the will, the discipline, the patience and the juice to take it on. I won’t speculate on that, but I will say that if I were a strategist for the Democrats, I’d be working as hard as I could to figure out how the party could become more attractive to right-of-center moderates and independents as opposed to drifting even farther to the left. Given what we know about authoritarians, it is wishful thinking to believe that they would relinquish their position without a major food fight. Right now, they have no incentive at all to change . . . matter of fact, the last election gives them every reason to hunker down and take a hard line. The next few years are going to be interesting times.

Hetherington and Weiler introduce a perspective on the evolution of the political environment in the United States that is beyond the purview of the pundits and political scientists. Anyone who is concerned about the current state of our political system would do themselves a favor to read their book. Anyone who is not, would do themselves a great favor by reading it. It is our two-by-four upside the head.

Toto, we’re not in Kansas any more . . .


In this post, I have attempted to connect the dots among several disciplines and levels of analysis so I have had to take the “mile-wide-inch-deep” approach. Nuance has suffered at the cost of brevity . . . to the point that in a couple of cases, a single sentence has alluded to a whole body of research. There were instances in which assertions were made without benefit of rationale. To have developed the argument that would have supported the assertions would have ended up taking more time and space than I was willing to ask the reader to put up with. However, to the best of my knowledge, every assertion is backed up by a reference. I just hope that haven’t pared things down to the point that I have under- or misrepresented my sources.

This is a particularly robust phenomenon. Evidence in support of it appears in research done from many different perspectives and levels of analysis. There is every reason to believe that the polarization that we are experiencing now will get worse before it gets better, and it will only get better if active steps are taken to defuse the situation. This is not going to go away on its own.


Updated 12/4/2012 to incorporate input from commenters.

Update 12/13/2012 – This just in: An OpEd by E. J. Dionne on the Washington Post web site titled “Which path for the right?” Without using the terms nonauthoritarian and authoritarian, he has nailed the differences in the two groups and has pointed out some of the issues that will define the coming food fight . . . It is an excellent read.

Update 12/16/2012 – Let the games begin! . . . Washington Post: “Conservative activists tell GOP: Don’t make a deal

Update 12/16/2012 – No more after this one . . . Washington Post: “As Republicans ponder 2012 defeat, party’s philosophy hangs in the balance

Update 12/21/2012 – Sorry, I lied. I hadn’t expected things to hit the fan as quickly as they did. Boehner’s failure to get his caucus to back “Plan B” was the dimming of the house lights. Grab a bowl of popcorn and lean back in the recliner. The show’s about to start:

Washington Post: “Tax fight sends GOP into chaos.”

Update 12/26/2012 – Hope the recliner has a seat belt . . . Here we go . . . Looks like the Rauthoritarians are making the first move . . .

Breitbart: “House Republicans Circulate Plan to Ouster Boehner from Speakership. “Boehner Freezes Out Conservatives At His Peril.”

Washington Post/AP: “Tea party activists: Go over ‘fiscal cliff’ instead of agree to Obama tax-increase compromise.”

Update 1/22/2013: Haidt December 2012 TED Talk “How common threats can make common (political) ground.” In this talk, Haidt makes specific recommendations about how to deal with this issue and invites people to get involved. He references a new Web site that he has set up: This entry was originally posted on lartwielder at Daily Kos.




[3] Mann, T. & Ornstein, N. (2012). It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism. New York, NY: Perseus Books Group.

[4] Hetherington, M, & Weiler, J. (2012). Authoritarianism and Polarization in American Politics. New York, NY: The Cambridge University Press

[5] Stenner, K. (2009). Three Kinds of “Conservatism.” Psychological Inquiry, 20, 142-159, also at:

[6] Altemeyer, R. (2007). The Authoritarians. available on his page on Authoritarianism at

[7] Mooney, C. (2012). The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science – and Reality. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley and Sons.

[8] Sidanius, J. & Pratto, F. (1999). Social Dominance: An Intergroup Theory of Social Hierarchy and Oppression. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press

[9] Dean, J. (2006). Conservatives Without Conscience. New York, NY: Viking Penguin

[10] Hitchens, C. (2001). The Trial of Henry Kissinger. New York, NY: Hatchette Book Group

[11] Jarecki, E. (2002). The Trials of Henry Kissinger. Director: Eugene Jarecki, Studio: First Run Pictures. Amazon, IMDb

[12] Shankbone, D. (2007). Vanity Fair contributing editor Craig Unger on the Bush family feud, neoconservatives and the Christian right. online.

[13] Kuszewski, A. (2011). Your Brain on Politics: The Cognitive Neuroscience of Liberals and Conservatives. Discover Magazine online.

[14] Haidt, J. (2012). The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. New York, NY: Pantheon Books.

[15] Haidt, Jonathan. 2008 “The Moral Roots of Liberals and Conservatives.”

[16] Zeleny, Jeff. 2012 “Republican Governors Say Party Needs to Rebuild.” New York Times online.

[17] Frum, D. (2012). Why Romney Lost. A Newsweek eBook

[18] Reality Bubbles. (2012). Two Realities online.

[19] Reality Distortion Field (RDF). (2012). Wikipedia.

[20] Kane, P. & Helderman, R. (2012). Conservative Republicans fight back after Romney loss. Washington Post online.

[21] Hainey, M. (2012). All Eyez on Him. GQ online.

[22] Levy, P. & McMorris-Santoro, E. (2012). Creationism Controversies The Norm Among Potential Republican 2016 Contenders. Talking Points Memo online.

[23] Land, R. (2012). Don’t Ignore Social Conservatives. New York Times online.

[24] Miller, J. (2012). Mourdock: Compromise is Democrats Agreeing With Republicans. National Journal online.

[25] Salisbury, H. (1971). The Many Americas Shall Be One. New York, NY: W. W. Norton

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