On the politics of the "authoritarianism" temptation (Author One-on-One: Rick Perlstein)

Rick Perlstein and John Dean on May 26, 2008

Perlstein_rick_300h John feels strongly about the scientific merit of the literature on the "authoritarian personality," whereas I'm agnostic, or at least heuristically suspicious. John's right: I'm not qualified to evaluate to evaluate this literature on scholarly terms. So let's grant John the arguments on the scientific merits. (At least one historian I greatly respect, however, Christopher Lasch, argued at length in this book that the concept collapsed back on itself, and was analytically useless.)

Even so, I'm pretty confident that labeling wide swaths of the American public as "authoritarian" is politically disadvantageous. How do I know? It's been tried, and backfired badly.

In 1966, new mayor John Lindsay promised to improve law and order in New York by installing a Civilian Complaint Review Board to oversee the police. The police were, after all, corrupt; a 1964 investigation had traced gambling graft all the way up to the department's elite 48-man "watchdog" group. Law-abiding ghetto residents became used to being forced to carry around the receipts for every possession they carried so they wouldn't be accused of stealing them. The cops had lost the confidence of the public, Lindsay said; restoring trust between the police and the community would make it easier to fight crime together--or so he reasoned.

In May his police chief handed down General Order No. 14, officially establishing the board. And the police went berserk. They immediately got 96,888 signatures to get a referendum on the November ballot to dissolve it. The law only required them to get 30,000. And their methods for gathering these signatures were not entirely un-authoritarian: if a policeman went up to you and forcefully presented you a petition to sign, how free would you feel to refuse? And the political campaign the Patrolman's Benevolent Association ran to secure the initiative's passage bore unmistakable authoritarian elements as well.

When a bill to cashier civilian review came up for consideration before the City Council the PBA saw to it a highly unorthodox call went out over all radio cars: "Everybody to City Hall!" They mustered 5,000 cops in their civies, a record quarter of their membership, many with signs around their necks: "Pressure Groups Want Control of the POLICE DEPARTMENT" (ironically or not, the PBA, a presure group, was also then demanding a civilian board to hear their labor grievances). And when the CCRB's membership was announced at a televised news conference, the PBA's president John Cassese snapped, "I am sick and tired of giving in to minority groups with their whims and their gripes and shouting." The New York branch of the American Civil Liberties Union denounced Cassese's "thinly veiled racism." Wilkins of the NAACP called his opposition "irrational"--unless he believed a policeman, unlike any other civil servant, was "above the law."

074324302101_mzzzzzzz_ Of course, the cops did believe themselves above the law. Ever seen Serpico? The man on whom it was based, Frank Serpico, whose story was told in a classic book by Peter Maas, was an idealistic young cop who, during riot duty, was handed, possibly mistakenly, an envelope with $300 cash in it by another cop. He asked a captain what he could do about it. He was told he had two choices: forget it happened, or end up "face down in the East River." The PBA talked about the CCRB fight as a battle over the soul of their profession, over "who's going to run the police in New York." They said they were prepared to spend their entire treasury of $1.5 million, culled from $2 monthly dues, to make sure it wasn't nosy do-gooders. No wonder, that: even the lowliest beat cop stood to preserve many times that each month by preserving the system of traffic bribes, shakedowns of neighborhood bodegas that wished to remain open in contravention of the city's labynthine Sabbath laws, in free meals and "flutes"--Coke bottles topped off with liquor--from their precincts' restaurants and bars. (Then there were the especially sought-after assignments: the Youth Squad, which made for easy graft from establishments that relied on the custom of underage carousers; plainclothes divisions, where each officer might make a monthly "pad" in the four figures in payoffs from numbers runners, pimps, and drug dealers.) Civilian review queered their sale.

That wasn't what they said, of course, when they launched their political campaign at an American Legion luncheon with the cry that, "Communism and Communists are mixed up in this fight. If we wind up with a review board, we'll have done Russia a great service.... The doctrine of the Communist Party is to knock out religion and break the spirit, as well as create confusion in the police department, cause chaos, and interrupt the public function."

The people fighting to keep the Civilian Complaint Review Board presumed they had a can't-miss electoral strategy: they called their opponents authoritarians. "A crusade against the Civilian Review Board is being waged by a coalition of right-wing groups--the Conservative Party, the fascist National Renaissance Party, the John Birch society, and the American Legion allied with the PBA against the forces of reason an civic leadership in this city," a press release stated. "Don't Be a 'Yes' Man for Bigotry, Vote 'No,'" their billboards read. "Do New Yorkers Want a Police State?" A pro-review spokesman proclaimed, "Before this campaign is over people will feel ashamed to do anything but vote against this referendum."

Long story short: they didn't. Civilian review was crushed by 26 points; even Jews, supposedly liberal, opposed it 55 percent to 40.

I offer this more as allegory than argument. Perhaps John will find it irrelevant to his larger point. The point is not that the cops, in this campaign, and in many cities at that time, didn't exhibit profound authoritarian tendencies (in fact I document in Nixonland that policing in 1960s in America was badly broken, fatally rife with authoritarian tendencies; a new police chief in Chicago, in 1967, shut down a Ku Klux Klan cell operating within the force, with its own arsenal of firearms and hand grenades; in Oakland, on Friday, nights officers lay in wait outside the bars that served as the ghetto's de facto banks. A factory worker would emerge, find himself arrested for drunkness, and be robbed of his week's wages on the way to the precinct house.

This is, by any measure, authoritarian behavior—worse, I think, than anything anyone can pin on David Frum.

I'm just not sure of the political utility of labeling it thus. Cops are much better now; I'm not sure why; it's something I'd like to research historically myself. How did that happen? I don't know. I know how it doesn't happen: you don't achieve social change by accusing the people you'd like to convert of being crypto-Nazis. New York's cops were authoritarian; but to defeat their authoritarianism took something more than patiently explaining this via intellectual arguments.

How do you defeat right-wing abusers of power? How do you call to account genuine evil, when it's invested in the authority of the state, within a democracy? That is a very, very tough question. It's one I look forward to debating with John for years to come. But not with labels; of that I'm pretty confident. --Rick Perlstein

Lists + Reviews

Best Books Literature + Fiction Nonfiction Kids + Young Adult Mystery, Thriller + Suspense Science Fiction + Fantasy Comics + Graphic Novels Romance Eating + Drinking


Interviews Guest Essays Celebrity Picks

News + Features

News Features Awards


Omnivoracious, The Amazon Book Review

Feeds Facebook Twitter YouTube