The Science of Authoritarianism (Author One-on-One: John Dean)

Rick Perlstein and John Dean on May 21, 2008
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Dean_john_300 It seems there is some misunderstanding in the Nixonland blog about "authoritarian conservatives," and I do not believe it is mine. Like most who examine the study of authoritarianism closely, and those familiar with my writings know, I have rejected the work of Adorno and his colleagues, for their work was highly subjective and based in Freudian psychology (with all its well known problems). The study of authoritarians left Adorno & Company behind decades ago. Authoritarianism is not about pathology, nor is it a pejorative, rather it is descriptive of a distinct personality type that has appeared over and over in five decades of empirical testing. Not all conservatives are authoritarian, but all authoritarians are in varying degree conservative--the more authoritarian the more conservative. Authoritarianism is, indeed, a disposition that can and has been tested, with tens upon tens of thousands of people participating. Not all social scientists in this field are partisans or liberals. To the contrary, I know many social scientists on both the political left and the right--more who are not political at all--who study authoritarianism, and all do so with remarkable detachment by relying on scientific methods.

My writing about authoritarian conservatives (and my mention of them in my prior post) draws from several years I spent reviewing five decades of empirical study identifying and testing these very clear personality types. Historians and political scientists have long recognized authoritarian conservatism, tracing it back to the French nobleman Joseph de Maistre. But social scientists have defined and developed sophisticated testing for both authoritarian leaders and followers. For example, the authoritarian leaders (who are few) are typically men, dominating personalities, they openly oppose equality, they desire power, and are usually amoral, exploitive, and vengeful--to mention only a few of the traits that recur in varying degrees. Authoritarian followers (the many and estimated to constitute about twenty-five percent of the American population) are submissive to authority, aggressive on behalf of the authority to which they submit, conventional, usually highly religious, often hypocritical and inconsistent in their beliefs--to name a few of the many traits that are revealed by testing. It is not a great leap in describing others who through their own words and deeds conspicuously fall within these defined types.

Since discovering this extensive body of work I have developed a far better understanding of conservatives and their behavior. To ignore this work, which has not been easily available for the general reader, is folly for these studies have much to teach us about ourselves and our politics – particularly conservatism. Rick's curt and critical dismissal of this field of study suggests a lack of knowledge about it, not to mention a conspicuous lack of understanding of my writing about this subject. For a quick (albeit incomplete) overview about the work by one of the leading social psychologists, I refer anyone interested to The Authoritarians by Bob Altemeyer. (He wrote this book at my request, after I had completed my work, and placed it online for free; also he wrote it at my request in a manner that does not require a PhD to understand it.)

140397741001_mzzzzzzz_ Rick's vigorous reaction (if not overreaction) to my reference to David Frum prompted me to look at his Acknowledgements, where I found David Frum resides as one of his "brilliant friends" who assisted him when writing Nixonland. He seems to feel that I am stepping on toes calling anyone an authoritarian but I do not believe this term is pejorative (indeed, many of my friends are just that and they admit it), nor did I offer Frum's "axis of evil" handiwork as an example of authoritarianism (rather I believe it the product of it). I have read all of David's books, and occasionally his other writings, and that was the basis of my statement and conclusion that he is an authoritarian conservative. I should add--as a long-time "Goldwater conservative," which places me left of center today--that we must all wish that more conservatives were like David, for he appears to believe in civility and intellectual honesty at a time when too many conservatives have abandoned both.   

I regret we went off on this tangent but authoritarian conservatism is very real, and not only has it corrupted the conservative movement but it is in the process of destroying the Republican Party. Frankly, I was surprised Rick so easily dismisses (and belittles) a half-century of solid science. While a post structural historian might find this science "analytically suspect," I assure you I can take these fifty years of science to a jury, but Rick's history book would be inadmissible for it is pure hearsay, many times removed. Studies of authoritarianism are primary information, and I have made a point of being certain that I can show with clear and convincing evidence, if not prove beyond a reasonable doubt, that those I say are authoritarian conservatives fall within the definitions of these empirical findings. Lawyers, it strikes me, have a bit higher standard of admissibility and proof than historians.

As for Nixonland--res ipsa loquitur! I enjoyed this work not because I agree with everything Rick has written or because he uncovered any new information, rather I liked it for the same reason I like impressionistic artists and writers (fiction and nonfiction) who can bring a subject to life, and provide added if not new perspective. While the book has a few factual flaws I thought George Will was being petty in making issue of them (and because he picked the wrong factual flaws, he left himself open.) Nixonland is not a reference book, rather an entertaining and engaging historical account that reflects the author's point of view and understanding. Nixonland successfully brings to life a dreadful place worth viewing from afar, a place worth remembering but a place no one should want to live. Let me close by thanking Rick for his good work and suggest before he further trashes five decades of empirical study relating to authoritarianism, he understand it better. --John Dean


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