“The Authoritarians”, A Book Review and Book”

Submitted by: Mike Spindell, guest blogger

This week I’m presenting something a little different as a blog. I’ve just read an incredibly interesting book that I was turned onto by either or both, Dredd and Anon Nurse. This book has added scientific clarity to a phenomenon that I’ve noticed for many years, with dismay. Why is it that some people, in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, doggedly hold onto beliefs that they can’t logically defend? We can all agree that there are some issues that simply do not lend themselves to being categorized into absolutes of right and wrong. However, I will let the reader catalog those issues mentally, since there will be some who would no doubt take umbrage from any examples I would personally present. Yet I assert that there are some issues where despite probable protests, are not open to rational dispute. One of these is the age of the Earth and the Universe. The Earth is far older than Creationists/Intelligent Design advocates would set at six or seven thousand years. This is proven fact. I note that there are many religious people who accept this scientific fact and yet still believe in a creator and while not by any means a fundamentalist, I do believe that there is a creative force that informs the Universe. Whatever that force may be, it did its thing multiple billions of years ago.

I presented the above to illustrate the difference between a proven fact and an as yet, if ever, provable belief. The book “The Authoritarians” was written by Bob Altemeyer, Associate Professor, Department of Psychology, University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, Canada. Professor Altemeyer has spent more than forty years doing research as a Social Psychologist into the parameters and root causes of authoritarian behavior in human beings. John Dean, of Watergate renown, made Bob semi-famous by using Bob’s work as a framework for his book “Conservatives Without Conscience”. I call Professor Altemeyer “Bob”, not out of personal familiarity, but because one of the joys of this book is that though it is a serious socio-psychological work, it is written by a man who doesn’t take himself too seriously, while presenting a very serious subject. My original intent in writing this piece was to present my conclusions, using the book as backup. However, the book, though well-documented, is only 262 pages and at the end of this piece will be a link that allows you to download it for free and read it. Bob presents this important topic far better than I could ever condense it. I’ll just give you a taste, hopefully whetting your appetite and then let you read it for yourself and draw your own conclusions.

This book was written before the 2008 elections and yet it is even more current today as we see the Republican Party in the hands of the most radically conservative factions of the last 80 years and the Democratic Party decidedly right of center. Bob writes this:

“But why should you even bother reading this book? I would offer three reasons. First, if you are concerned about what has happened in America since a radical right-wing segment of the population began taking control of the government about a dozen years ago, I think you’ll find a lot in this book that says your fears are well founded. As many have pointed out, the Republic is once again passing through perilous times. The concept of a constitutional democracy has been under attack–and by the American government no less!

The second reason I can offer for reading what follows is that it is not chock full of opinions, but experimental evidence.

The last reason why you might be interested in the hereafter is that you might want more than just facts about authoritarians, but understanding and insight into why they act the way they do. Which is often mind-boggling. How can they revere those who gave their lives defending freedom and then support moves to take that freedom away? How can they go on believing things that have been disproved over and over again, and disbelieve things that are well established? How can they think they are the best people in the world, when so much of what they do ought to show them they are not? Why do their leaders so often turn out to be crooks and hypocrites? Why are both the followers and the leaders so aggressive that hostility is practically their trademark?”

Though this book was written more than five years ago, how descriptive of the Campaign of 2012 is it? I think it sums up what we have been seeing politically and presents reasons for this phenomenon of seeming insanity that has overtake our politics. Incidentally, this book in describing the effect of the authoritarian personality on politics, does not limit the authoritarian personality to Republicans and/or Conservatives. An authoritarian personality is one that submits to authority in both thinking and actions. As we have seen in this past century communists, creatures of the far left, also share authoritarian personalities. I believe that a percentage of Democrats also have authoritarian personalities, but to a lesser degree than their political opposites.

“Authoritarian followers usually support the established authorities in their society, such as government officials and traditional religious leaders. Such people have historically been the “proper” authorities in life, the time-honored, entitled, customary leaders, and that means a lot to most authoritarians. Psychologically these followers have personalities featuring:

 1) a high degree of submission to the established, legitimate authorities in their society;

2) high levels of aggression in the name of their authorities; and

3) a high level of conventionalism.”

I can immediately see an objection raised in the minds of some readers regarding Authoritarians supporting established authorities including government officials. They might well think well the ultra-Conservative Movement is anti-government, so how could they be Authoritarian in personality? The answer is I think easy. ”Authoritarian followers usually support the established authorities in their society, such as government officials and traditional religious leaders.”  To many Authoritarians FOX News represents an established authority. The whole movement about Obama’s birth certificate was at base a means to reject the legitimacy of his authority as President. The power of fundamentalist religious leaders in Republican politics and politics in general is undisputed.

 “[A] right-wing authoritarian follower doesn’t necessarily have conservative political views. Instead he’s someone who readily submits to the established authorities in society, attacks others in their name, and is highly conventional. It’s an aspect of his personality, not a description of his politics. Rightwing authoritarianism is a personality trait, like being characteristically bashful or happy or grumpy or dopey. 

 You could have left-wing authoritarian followers as well, who support a revolutionary leader who wants to overthrow the establishment. I knew a few in the 1970s, Marxist university students who constantly spouted their chosen authorities, Lenin or Trotsky or Chairman Mao. Happily they spent most of their time fighting with each other”

Like Professor Altemeyer, in the 60’s and 70’s I was quite familiar with Left Wing Authoritarians of this sort. They were every bit as wrong and as exasperating as their counterparts on the Right. In fact should they ever gain control of a society, such as happened in the USSR and China, the results would be equally disastrous as anything produced on the Right. As to whether this book is a partisan screed I would submit that John Dean, is a lifelong Republican Conservative and Professor Altemeyer considers himself middle of the road. This is about the kind of submission to “authority” that has allowed unscrupulous leaders throughout human history to turn masses of people into pitiless killers.

 “Not only do authoritarian followers uncritically accept conclusions that support their religious beliefs, they have a problem with evidence in general. They are more likely than most people to think that, since airplane crashes sometimes occur when the pilots’ “biorhythms” are at a low point, this proves biorhythms affect our lives. They buy the argument that if skeptics have introduced controls against cheating in ESP experiments, and no ESP appears, that proves skepticism interferes with the ESP powers. They think that any time science cannot explain something, this proves mysterious supernatural forces are at work. True, they are less likely to believe in Bigfoot than in the Shroud of Turin. But they do not in general have a very critical outlook on anything unless the authorities in their lives have condemned it for them. Then they can be extremely critical.”

This book spends a good deal of time discussing the effects of religion onto Authoritarian Personality types. By accepting fully the preaching’s of their religious leaders, millions of people have been killed in the name of one God or another. Via documented experiments this book documents these tendencies and even supplies well grounded reasoning on how they begin in individuals. Bob links fundamentalist religious belief to ultra-conservative beliefs via persuasive studies. Most astounding of all his finding to him and to me is that perhaps 20% of the religious fundamentalists he’s studied have read their entire bible.

“The Most Amazing Discovery of All (to me, anyway). Isn’t there something profoundly strange about the fact that so many fundamentalists have apparently skipped over so much of the Bible? Wouldn’t you read the Bible, cover to cover, over and over, until the end of your days, if you really thought this was the revealed word of God? Let’s remember who that is: GOD, damn it all, the almighty, eternal, omnipresent–not to mention all-knowing–creator of the universe. What else could you read that would be as important as God’s message, if you believed that’s what the Bible is? What could be one-zillionth as important? What on earth is going on? Don’t the fundamentalists themselves believe what they preach to everyone else?”

Religious Authoritarians apparently don’t read their holy books for themselves but accept the words of their leaders and read only the passages that their leaders direct them to. It is so easy for many of us to decry the “insanity” of Islamic Fundamentalists following their Mullahs. Indeed, I would think that if Bob studied Muslim’s he would find equally that many have never fully read the Koran. To be Authoritarian is to unquestioningly accept the preaching of those one sees as their “legitimate leaders”.  The certainty that pervades their thinking, often is not eve backed up intellectually by a full familiarity with the holy books proclaimed as “God’s Truth”.

Two psychology professors Felicia Pratto of the University of Connecticut and Jim Sidanius at UCLA, developed the Social Dominance Orientation Scale in 1994. This was a test to measure which individuals tend to dominate in social situations, or who crave to dominate.  Sam McFarland at the University of Western Kentucky followed up using that scale and others to show the scales’ validity. Professor Altemeyer followed up on their work adding in the years of research he had done. It turs out that people who tend to dominate and lead those with authoritarian personalities are much less than “true believers”. They are in fact imbued with one basic belief and that is to get to the top of the pyramid.

“Persons who score highly on the Social Dominance scale do not usually have all the nooks and crannies, contradictions and lost files in their mental life that we find in high RWA’s [Rightwing Authoritarians]. Most of them do not show weak reasoning abilities, highly compartmentalized thinking, and certainly not a tendency to trust people who tell them what they want to hear. They’ve got their head together. Nor are most of them dogmatic or particularly zealous about any cause or philosophy. You have to believe in something to be dogmatic and zealous, and what social dominators apparently believe in most is not some creed or cause, but gaining power by any means fair or foul. The “soundness” of their thinking hardly means you can believe them, however”

If the above studies are valid, doesn’t America’s currently insane political situation begin to make some sense? In this respect can’t we see how Newt Gingrich could proclaim himself a champion of “family values” or in fact our President who ran on “change” having changed so little? Mitt Romney, a formerly “Centrist” governor, now proclaims himself the “true” conservative in the race for the nomination. And please don’t get me started on Ron Paul and Rick Santorum.

It’s my hope in this highly favorable “review”, more aptly exhortation, that you will click on the link below, download this book and read it. There are solutions offered and there is far more content condensed in this book than I could have done justice to in this rather long blog post. I believe that this book contains information vital to us all if our vision of America is to survive, along with our freedom and that of our descendants.


Submitted by: Mike Spindell, guest blogger.

37 thoughts on ““The Authoritarians”, A Book Review and Book””

  1. Thanks for the link and review Mike, I D/Led it and it’s in my ‘books to read’ file, Thanks all for the rest of the book recommendations.

  2. A few more items of interest:

    1. Them and Us: cult thinking and the terrorist threat -Deikman, Arthur
    2. A study from the Psychological Bulletin, “Political Conservatism as Motivated Social Cognition” by Jost, Glaser, Kruglanski, and Sulloway
    3. Raw Story had a post last spring on a British study that showed liberals and conservatives have, literally, different brain structures. Conservatives have larger amygdalas, which is the fear center of the brain. Liberals have larger anterior cingulate cortexes, which allows monitoring of uncertainty and conflicts.

  3. YES! This is a subject that has intrigued me since Nixon. May I recommend the following:
    1. The Authoritarian Spector – Altemeyer
    2. The Politics of Denial – Milburn, Micheal, and Conrad, Sheree*
    3. Fear: The history of a political idea – Robin, Corey
    4. Leaders and Their Followers ins Dangerous World: the psychology of political behavior – Post, Jerrold
    5. In the Wake of 9/11: the psychology of terror – Pyszczynski, Tom, etal.
    6. Escape from Freedom – Fromm, Erich
    7. The Allure of Toxic Leaders – Lipman-Blumen, Jean

    *The Milburn/Conrad book is excellent.

    Also, see the wikipedia entry on the stages of moral development by Lawrence Kohlberg. The studies by Jonathan Haidt on disgust are very revealing. The more things that disgust a person, the more likely they are conservative and fundamentalist.

    Rafflaw, Faux News is tailored precisely for RWAs.

    Sorry! Didn’t mean to take up so much space! The how and why of conservative thinking is fascinating. Unfortunately, none of the authors I’ve read ever explain how to combat and counteract authoritarianism.

  4. “We need humility in this area because it can be easily shown that we all many people fundamentally equate ‘knowledge’ and ‘belief’.”

    Scientific method is not a belief, but rather a way of thinking about and empirically interrogating the nature of reality through which objective, testable and verifiable knowledge is gained. The knowledge forming a base which changes over time based on new information as integrated. The net result is an ever building knowledge base of provable fact.

    Belief is not rational at all and requires no evidence whatsoever, just faith. Some beliefs are beneficial to individuals and/or society and some are not.

    For example, science tells me the emotion of love is an electro-chemical reaction and I know this to be true. I believe love is more important to us both personally and as a species than just the simple mechanics of its operation.

    Many people cannot make this distinction, but some can and do.

    I submit that the humility required is to understand that some people can make this distinction and some people cannot, not that nobody cannot make the distinction.

  5. Superbly written, Mike and accomplishes your intent to encourage others to read the book.

    Perhaps, in a month or two, after others have had the time to read it, you could revisit this subject and lead an in depth discussion on particular points within the book that most intrigued you.

  6. TalkinDog 1, January 21, 2012 at 2:01 pm

    There is science and then there is ….. belief based on beliefs.
    We need humility in this area because it can be easily shown that we all fundamentally equate “knowledge” and “belief”.

    The discipline of Social Epistemology has libraries of studies on this subject.

    We have to be followers, but we do not have to be authoritarians.

  7. Altemeyer references George Lakoff and his pioneering book, Moral Politics, which also contains important insight into “framing.”

  8. Dredd,

    Thank you for turning me on to it in the first place. The book contained much information that on the surface was counter-intuitive and yet made sense as Professor Altemeyer delved into the topics.


    Yes, Hoffer was as you’ve written before onto this a long time ago. I suspect that both you, I and many others here also had a notion as to this phenomenon. The beauty of this book is that it is well grounded in valid scientific studies proving the case.


    While they carry their bibles, it seems from the Professors research, they continually read only the passages selected and dictated to them by their Preachers, thus neglecting perhaps the nub of Jesus teachings.


    Prescient link as usual.


    One lives to be of service.

  9. Yes, why does Common Dreams along with the rest of the internet media refuse to accept much less discuss the information about the simple fact that 3 buildings in NYC, on 9-11-01, were destroyed using explosives. There are now 5+ simple proofs. 1) Free fall acceleration of WTC 7 for 2.3 seconds. 2) Random events can not produce a symmetrical event – The Random fires and Random damage and a Random structural elements of WTC 7 can not cause its symmetrical collaspe. 3) The POWDER itself ie called dust 4) the Powder’s production in less than 15 Seconds 5) the small rounded bones found on the top of the Bank months latter. All criminals make mistakes these are a few of them Peace Tom Spellman 414 403 1341

  10. Hmmm. You say
    I would think that if Bob studied Muslim’s he would find equally that many have never fully read the Koran.
    many…. fully read …
    Hard to prove this statement false.

    Would you say that most muslims know more about the Koran than christians know about the bible? I’m not sure how one would go about checking that, but as a first cut, I bet that the average self-identified muslim knows more verses of the Koran by heart than the average self-identified christian knows verses of the bible by heart. Not sure what the impact of that would be if true; that is not sure what that would mean.

  11. Mike,

    The big surprise to me, when I read the book, was that an “authoritarian” is a follower, and an unquestioning follower at that.

    The “obedient citizen” who does not question his government’s statements is the greatest danger to a free country.

    Most excellent post Mike!

  12. Good job as usual Mike. I will download and save the PDF for later reading. As I read your article, it brought to mind another little treatise written by a then unknown longshoreman in San Francisco more than a half century ago. This fellow scribbled his notes down during the two weeks he was on strike, and a publisher was interested in the little volume Eric Hoffer called, The True Believer.

  13. Nice quote:
    Wouldn’t you read the Bible, cover to cover, over and over, until the end of your days, if you really thought this was the revealed word of God? Let’s remember who that is: GOD, damn it all, the almighty, eternal, omnipresent–not to mention all-knowing–creator of the universe.

    Many protestants do carry their bibles and go to bible study, but the question remains, why only twice on Sunday?

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