Conscience Aside

Authoritarianism in the U.S. and Canada.

John W. Dean was White House counsel to U.S. president Richard Nixon from July 1970 until April 1973. Sensing he was being set up to become the Watergate scapegoat, he cooperated with investigators and implicated administration officials, including himself and the president. He pled guilty to the obstruction of justice and received a sentence later adjusted to time served cooperating with the Watergate special prosecutor and testifying in the trials of other conspirators. During his post-Watergate career as an investment banker, he authored two best-selling books about his experiences, Blind Ambition and Lost Honor. Since his retirement he has written several other political volumes.

The title of his most recent book, Conservatives Without Conscience, alludes to Barry Goldwater’s 1963 classic, The Conscience of a Conservative, which influenced a generation of American conservatives. In his later years, the libertarian-minded Goldwater became disillusioned with the influence of neoconservative intellectuals and the Christian right on the Republican Party. He became an outspoken critic of his own party on issues such as abortion and gay rights. Prior to his fatal illness, he planned to write a book with Dean on how the so-called conservatives without conscience had succeeded in displacing the age-old Republican emphasis on historical tradition, administrative checks and balances, and individual liberty with a blatant authoritarianism, strident religiosity and incivility that both Goldwater and Dean deplored. Dean quotes Goldwater as saying: “Goddamn it, John … the Republicans are selling their soul to win elections … Mark my word … if and when these preachers get control of the party, and they’re sure trying to do so, it’s going to be a terrible damn problem.” Dean describes his own experience with this brand of conservatism. He brought a defamation suit against G. Gordon Liddy, the chief operative of Nixon’s “plumbers unit” and mastermind of the Watergate break-in, and also sued St. Martin’s Press, publisher of a book that claimed Dean himself directed the Watergate break-ins to recover evidence implicating him and Maureen, his fiancée (and later wife), in a prostitution ring.

In his research for Conservatives Without Conscience, Dean reviewed a range of social science theories and findings bearing on the nature of conscience and the circumstances in which it is likely to be set aside. Oddly, he neglected the work of the distinguished American psychoanalyst Leo Rangell, whose 1980 book, The Mind of Watergate: An Exploration of the Compromise of Integrity, derived directly from Rangell’s observations of Nixon’s rise and fall. Rangell’s work is grounded in the Freudian notion that an individual’s conscience may become subordinated to that of a group or its leader. Dean highlights instead the empirical work of American experimental social psychologist Stanley Milgram, whose classic experiments demonstrate the Freudian thesis. These findings are well known. At the insistent request of an authoritative experimenter, 40 naive subjects, playing the role of teacher, were led to believe they were delivering increasing levels of electric shock to learners whenever these learners failed to answer questions correctly. All 40 teachers continued to deliver shocks after their learner started grunting; 34 of them went past the point where their learner loudly demanded to be set free; 25 continued to deliver what they believed were possibly lethal shocks after their learner first screamed and then fell silent. As Dean notes, “for a remarkable number of people, it is very difficult to disobey authority figures, but quite easy for them to set aside their conscience.”

Milgram’s findings help illuminate the behaviour of those who set aside their conscience in favour of directives from an authority figure, but they do not explain how authority figures set aside theirs, if they have a conscience to begin with. For that, Dean turns to the work of Bob Altemeyer, a social psychologist at the University of Manitoba who, for more than three decades, has researched right-wing authoritarian followers and, more recently, their leaders as well. His results have been published in a series of books. In his most recent, The Authoritarians, he contends that people who score high on his “right-wing authoritarianism” (RWA) scale show: “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.”

Altemeyer’s research shows that RWA scores correlate strongly, in both the U.S. and Canada, with scores on various measures of religious fundamentalism, ethnocentrism and prejudice against racial and ethnic minorities, women and homosexuals. The self-righteousness of authoritarian followers, he argues, is a means of releasing aggression. Any guilt they might feel over this aggression is assuaged either through the supposed grace provided by religious confession or by the assurance that those who are born again are saved despite any sins they may commit. Altemeyer draws attention to what he suggests are the defective thought processes of authoritarian followers: their penchant for “illogical thinking, compartmentalized minds, double standards, hypocrisy and dogmatism.” He also points to evidence that higher education reduces authoritarianism to some degree—most likely due to its promotion of critical rationality. One may be inclined to focus upon this somewhat hopeful finding in a body of research not otherwise noted for its optimism.

What are we to make of Altemeyer’s work? The science behind the construction of the RWA scale appears sophisticated and sound. Because Altemeyer is careful to describe low, moderate and high degrees of authoritarianism, his work avoids a reified concept of the authoritarian personality. He reminds his readers that they should take their individual scores on the RWA test with a grain of salt because, although such tests can be reliable regarding groups, they often err with respect to individuals. But his description of his scale as measuring right-wing authoritarianism is problematic. Authoritarian followers tend to support whichever authorities are in control. In the former Soviet Union, for example, these were politically left-wing. It would seem odd to refer to such people as right-wing left-wingers, but Altemeyer does exactly this, explaining that he is using the term “right-wing” in a psychological sense, not a political sense: “In North America people who submit to the established authorities to extraordinary degrees often turn out to be political conservatives, so you can call them ‘right-wingers’ both in my new-fangled psychological sense and in the usual political sense.” “I’m sure one can find left-wing authoritarians here and there,” he admits, “but they hardly exist in sufficient numbers now to threaten democracy in North America. However I have found bucketfuls of right-wing authoritarians in nearly every sample I have drawn in Canada and the United States for the past three decades.”

No doubt authoritarian followers are overwhelmingly to be found on the right in contemporary American and Canadian society. But this historically relative finding is insufficient to build a political concept into the very definition of authoritarian followership and to include it in the name of the scale designed to measure it. Political bias should not be allowed to creep into the way we formulate scientific constructs: we need to be more conscientious in our analysis of conscience and its corruption.

In recent years Altemeyer has begun employing a measure known as the social dominance scale, created by other researchers, to study dominators as well as followers. “If a dominator and a follower meet for the first time in a coffee shop,” he writes, “and chat about African-Americans, Hispanic-Americans, Jews, Arabs, homosexuals, women’s rights … and which political party to support in the next election, they are apt to find themselves in pleasant, virtual non-stop agreement … 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.”

Authoritarian followers, contends Altemeyer, submit to established power, tend to be religious and are hostile primarily out of fear of social chaos. Dominators are determined to exercise power, are religious only as a ruse to gain power and show aggression out of sheer love of power and control. “They already live in the jungle that authoritarian followers fear is coming, and they’re going to do the eating,” says Altemeyer, who also stresses the cunning and frequently high intelligence of these dominators, as opposed to the muddled logical thinking of their followers. “The ‘soundness’ of their thinking hardly means you can believe them,” he notes. “They are quite capable of saying whatever will get them ahead.”

Under one tenth of Altemeyer’s samples score high on both the RWA and the social dominance scales. Such Double Highs, as he names them, exhibit elevated levels of both prejudice and fundamentalism. Like other social dominators, Double Highs may fake their religiosity, but they know the drill and are therefore able to impress and attract authoritarian followers. In the words of Jimmy Carter, whom Altemeyer quotes: “Almost invariably, fundamentalist movements are led by authoritarian males who consider themselves to be superior to others and, within religious groups, have an overwhelming commitment to subjugate women and to dominate their fellow believers.”

Altemeyer detects “a whiff of the sociopath about the social dominator” and encourages research in this connection. One wonders why he has not pursued the matter himself, especially given that another Canadian psychologist, Robert Hare, is among the world’s leading experts on psychopathy and author of the most widely used instrument for measuring it. Altemeyer’s descriptions of social dominators, especially the Double Highs, sound very similar to Hare’s descriptions of subjects with high scores on his psychopathy scale. Many authors have observed that in our complex, bureaucratic, media-dominated, organizational society, pathological narcissism—of which psychopathy represents an extreme—may well be adaptive. In organizations that exhibit a psychopathic culture, it is therefore understandable to reward and promote the social dominators. Fortunately, as a number of authors have pointed out, the self-righteousness and grandiosity of such personalities often impair their judgement and in the long run contribute to their downfall.

So which personality types tend to succeed in North American politics? Altemeyer has surveyed politicians on both sides of the border—in Canada, his respondents included members of the Alberta legislature and the House of Commons—who answered questions tied to both the RWA and social dominance scales. “In Canada as well as in the United States,” he states, summarizing this research, “… when you’re talking about conservative members of legislatures, the data we have so far indicate you’re usually talking about those fine power-hungry, amoral, manipulative, deceitful, highly prejudiced, dogmatic folks … the Double Highs.”

Without the aid of survey results, however, it is not all that easy to identify individual politicians using either the RWA or social dominance scales. For example, Altemeyer and Dean appear to differ in their assessment of George W. Bush. Altemeyer has little doubt that he is a Double High, whereas Dean is inclined to see him more as an authoritarian follower under the dominating influence of Dick Cheney. Perhaps Altemeyer is more expert in these assessments, or it might be that Dean’s patriotism makes it difficult for him to view an incumbent president in such an entirely negative light.

While the conflicting assessments by Altemeyer and Dean of the most notable conservative politician at the moment, George W. Bush, might lead one to question the efficacy of Altemeyer’s theories, it must be remembered that the subject concerned did not complete the authoritarianism questionnaire and the assessments are therefore speculative. What about the Canadian situation? Any off-the-cuff assessment of Harper is similarly questionable, but detractors could see him either as a Double High (probably Altemeyer’s assessment) or as an authoritarian follower, with George W. as his immediate dominator. (The fact that Cheney might be Bush’s dominator, at least if one believes Dean, does not necessarily create a problem, given Altemeyer’s hierarchies of dominators.)

Given the political bias in Altemeyer’s theory, its one-sided association of authoritarianism with the right rather than the left, one may wonder about its chances of enduring after the current wave of neoconservatism dies out in the U.S. and probably also in Canada. If, on the other hand, the theory can transcend its historically bounded partisanship it might well represent an enduring contribution to political psychology.