Guest post: Linda Calhoun reviews “The Authoritarians”

October 21, 2013 • 5:01 am

A while back I asked reader Linda Grilli Calhoun, who had informed me about this book, to furnish me with a brief review for this site. Well, the goat-raising business is onerous, so it took a while, but here it is, with thanks to Linda from Professor Ceiling Cat.

The book is The Authoritarians, and is, as you’ll see, about the pathology of extreme conservativism.  One of the reviews on Amazon describes it as “a must-read book for liberals, moderates, and conservatives alike who are troubled by the extremism and corruption of modern neoconservatives.”  Although the book came out in 2007, it’s more timely than ever given the confluence of right-wing Christianity and politics in America, as well as the noisy irruptions of the Tea Party.

The Authoritarians, by Bob Altemeyer – A Review

by Linda Grilli Calhoun

Many of us who frequent this website have had the experience of encountering fundamentalist/evangelical/conservative people who, during what initially appears to be a basically civilized conversation, suddenly display jaw-dropping illogic, or unprovoked hostility, or paranoia, or sometimes all three.  They start in on what I have come to think of as The Rant, straight out of Limbaugh or one of his imitators.

The people who show this behavior often seem pretty normal until suddenly, they don’t.  As a retired shrink, I’m always interested in where this stuff comes from, especially given the abruptness with which it often appears, usually (but not always) as a complete non sequitur to the flow of conversation.

So, when I happened upon a link to Bob Altemeyer’s book The Authoritarians, I followed it.  I was not disappointed, and neither will you be.

Bob Altemeyer believes, based on his research, that the political right wing in its current incarnation poses a danger to our democracy.  He describes himself as a moderate (much to the consternation of his more liberal associates), but states that the makeup of that group as it stands right now does not provide a balance to more liberal views; rather, the right wing is a dogmatic threat which potentially limits our basic freedoms.  He wrote this book as a warning.

Altemeyer is a retired professor of psychology who taught for his entire career at the University of Manitoba.  He spent his research life studying the authoritarian personality, published many articles in journals as well as a couple of books aimed at fellow psychologists.  Because of his research, he was contacted by John Dean, who used Altemeyer’s findings extensively in his own book [JAC: yes, the White House Dean, who wrote Conservatives Without Conscience].  Dean encouraged Altemeyer to publish a lay version of his work, and The Authoritarians is the result.

For his research, Altemeyer developed and refined personality inventories to measure the traits he wanted to study.  Although this book doesn’t go into the specifics of that development, statistics wonks can find links to all of the underlying procedures on his website or in his other writings.  He does give a brief summary of his procedures in the chapter endnotes of The Authoritarians. I’m not as much of a statistics wonk as Altemeyer, but I was interested enough to follow several of his links, and the cleanliness of his research is impressive, to say the least.

The inventories focus on what he terms “Right Wing Authoritarianism” and “Social Dominance”.  He uses “right” initially as “correct”, rather than “politically right wing”, but it becomes obvious during his studies that the politically right-wing subjects see themselves, to a highly dogmatic level, as correct in their beliefs, even when evidence stands in contradiction.

Altemeyer describes the personality traits of high RWAs as submissiveness, fear, self-righteousness, hostility, lack of critical thinking, compartmentalized thinking, double standards, and feeling most empowered when in groups.  He describes the lack of logic in their thinking; when they like the conclusion, how that conclusion was arrived at is irrelevant.  When they like the behaver, the behavior is acceptable; when they dislike the behaver, the behavior is not.

He then goes on to describe high Social Dominators.  These people want power, and they don’t much care how they get it.  “The end justifies the means” is their guiding principle.

And then, the double whammy:  these two groups fit together beautifully, which, in Altemeyer’s opinion, is how we have arrived at our current political state of affairs.  High SDs have co-opted high RWAs, and the vast majority of moderates have gone about our lives until these groups are threatening to take over, even though they don’t represent anywhere close to a majority.

Throughout the book, Altemeyer is careful to point out that these descriptions do not fit the groups one hundred percent, that there are outlier datapoints, and exceptions to every conclusion.  But his levels of predictive validity are high, and his descriptions are not opinions but demonstrable facts.  His work has been replicated by other researchers, and he cites them in the book. (He is also secure enough to cite his critics, but their criticism is pretty lame.)

The end of the book contains strategies for combating the craziness that the right wing is currently promulgating.  If I have one criticism of the book, it is that I wish this section had been more extensive.  But if you want a great description of exactly what we’re up against, this is definitely it.

The Authoritarians, by Bob Altemeyer, is available as a free downloadable PDF at this site.

It is also available as an audio CD from  

52 thoughts on “Guest post: Linda Calhoun reviews “The Authoritarians”

    1. I’ve read about halt of The Authoritarians, I found it to be very good so far.

      And Bob Altemeyer addresses exactly your criticism in the opening pages. If I remember correctly his explanation is that his desire for a better society is more important than enhancing his financial position.

  1. An interesting idea. ISTM that states in Europe have varied more widely between “Social Dominance and Right Wing Authoritarianism” and “Social Dominance and Left Wing Collectivism”.

    I think the common factor, Social Dominance, explains more of the ‘do what I say, not do what I do’ which appears to be rife in most modern societies.

    1. Probably a result of the ‘you can’t have too many leaders’ phenomenon. There’s gotta be a wealth of followers for this social animal business to get off the ground.

    1. You’re right about opposition making them more intransigent. None of the books/articles I’ve read about RWA have suggested ways to counteract their psychology. Maybe it’s not possible?

  2. Agreed, I read it a couple of years ago and its both fascinating and highly readable.

    The results of some of his experiments are pretty scary, though.

  3. My favorite, which he managed to put into a peer review journal article:

    “They probably endorse submission on the RWA scale because they like the idea of others submitting to them. High SDO-high RWAs would win the gold medal in a Prejudice Olympics, having even stronger prejudices than ordinary high SDOs and ordinary high RWAs”

    It isn’t the most tightly controlled study, but fascinating nevertheless

  4. I found the book extremely compelling. I highly recommend taking the time to read the free pdf.

    I was especially interested in the “world leaders” game they set up, being able to predict catastrophes when selecting players based on certain psychology types that lend themselves to being extremely right wing. The result with the opposite tending liberal people was also very interesting. I don’t have anything close to the expertise to offer any scientific criticism or praise, but I did think it was very much worth reading. I have to be wary in that the book supports a lot of my preconceptions. Many thanks to Calhoun for looking in to the methods used, if the research is indeed sound there may yet be hope for us to understand and fix what our democracy is up against.

    1. Yep. Most interesting post, Brian. Seems to me the twist at the end might be a libertarian thing. It’s not intelligence, or education they lack, but empathy.

  5. The extreme right wing is fond of claiming our president is the “greatest danger to democracy the nation has encountered since slavery days”; “Obama will destroy the nation”; and so forth. Moderate Rebpublicans have remained silent about this mongering until lately. Shockingly, I find my own sentiments are not far different from these radicals except the danger is not our president but a small group of radical conservatives, the Tea Party. I guess the real villians of this situation are stupid and gullible voters who have been manipulated by the conservative press pundits and wealthy business men who seek personal gain and influence in politics.

    I find it difficult to maintain a reasonable and fair opinion under these extreme circumstances. I can and will vote, I contiue to donate to the cause, I speak out whenever I can, write letters to politicians, and try not to slip into the abyss of hate and ignorance as have the patriotic conservative, super American members of the Tea Party. I find it hard to understand their myoptic views on politics. I hope for the best.

    1. It also seems to me that the non- tea party repugs act mostly in support of the tea party even though they sometimes talk critically of them. The majority of the rest of the repugs either like the tea-bags or are afraid of them, either way, or for whatever reason, their votes generally support the tea-bagger agenda and that is really all that counts.

      1. Probably because if they separate from the Tea Party they divide their base, and then the Democrat wins. Esp. since there are actually fewer Republicans in the first place.

  6. Altemeyer is the go-to person for anyone wanting to understand RWAs. He has an earlier book, The Authoritarian Specter that is also a must-read. And, just to add to your reading list, here’s one that builds on Altemeyer’s work: Predisposed: Liberals, Conservatives, and the Biology of Political Differences by John Hibbing, Kevin Smith, and John Alford. In a nutshell: political affiliation has a genetic basis.

  7. Jerry mentions modern neocons. Are they different from older ones, say 1980 vintage? I thought the earlier neocons were former liberals who’d become conservative on some issues but not there’s, and weren’t particularly religious.

    Can someone clarify this for me please? I’ll look at the PDF in the next couple of days.

    1. As I understand it, many neocons were previously of the authoritarian left; not marxist but trotskyist. I think this also counts as religious, tho.

      Paleocons, OTOH, lean more as monarchist, aristocratics, feudalists.

  8. As a native Manitoban, I admire Altmeyer’s crucial work even more. Try substituting for right-wing, Islamist, Maoist or any other submissive-dominant authoritarian structure, and the result will be pretty much the same.

  9. I read this a few years ago, very good reading and an insight to the GOP as well as many power related fields such as law enforcement, the judiciary, the military, and political/religious figures.

    Once you read The Authoritarians, you start seeing authoritarians everywhere. Reminds me of a Dean Koontz book I read long ago…Twilight Eyes.

  10. I enjoyed his explanations for the test questions that he has in the book. And, of course, the RWA test/scale also works for the far left side of the political spectrum, including; anti-vaxers, anarchists, those that believe in crystals, homeopathy, telekinesis, etc. After I read the PDF, several years ago, I purchased a soft copy from

    1. I started with the paperback–like to curl up with a book.

      Yeah, one hears that the farthest out wing-nuts on both sides of the aisle have more in common with each other than the they do with the rest of their parties.

      I hope the answer isn’t that we have to organize our wingnuts! 😀

  11. Isn’t ‘modern neoconservatives’ a bit repetitive? The book looks like it could be well worth the time, though.

    1. it does sound like a redundancy, like ‘Postmodernism’ – how could there be anything more recent than Modernism? I don’t know much about the history of right-wing labels but I do know that lots and lots of folks were Neocons when Dubya was swaggering around that aircraft carrier in his flight suit, yet nobody seems to accept that label today, so it’s quite possible there have been several waves of Neocons.

  12. Thanks for reviewing this, Linda – I will be putting this on my too long to read list and maybe moving it up to the next thing to read. I find the concept of authoritarianism intriguing and I’m glad the stats and work has been verified since I always suspect that I’m guilty of some sort of confirmation bias when things turn out as I suspected they would.

    Loosely related to this, there is this political compass thing that you’ve all probably seen before and which I’m sure isn’t anywhere near the rigour of Altemeyer’s work. However, when I answered a bunch of questions to see where I fell, I was actually close to Ghandi so now I realize why no political party is really one that I totally like. 🙂

  13. JC: “If our minds can exert and be affected by something that’s not physical at all, there’s no evidence supporting such a claim. One might as well say that there are hamsters living in our head that control our behavior, and we can’t rule this out because “physics is not complete.” Maybe those hamsters are invisible, like Carl Sagan’s dragons.”

    LOL. Makes me think the reason we have to have free will (other than because God loved humans so much he gave us that priceless gift) is because to say our thoughts and actions are materialistic in origin is if anything MORE demeaning to us as a species than common ancestry with [other] apes!

    1. Please disregard the above comment. It was supposed to attach to JC’s post on free will! Sorry about that. Can one delete one’s own posts?

      1. Ceiling Cat is usually most helpful if you contact him (eddress available at one of the research links above-or try Google).

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