[Paleopsych] CHE: 'The Authoritarian Personality' Revisited

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'The Authoritarian Personality' Revisited
The Chronicle of Higher Education, 5.10.7


    When it first appeared in 1950, The Authoritarian Personality was
    primed for classic status. It ran to just under 1,000 pages. Its
    publisher, Harper & Brothers, had brought out Gunnar Myrdal's An
    American Dilemma six years earlier and drew explicit parallels between
    the one book and the other. Its authors were, or would soon become,
    famous. Theodor Adorno, the senior author, was a member of the
    influential Frankfurt school of "critical theory," a Marxist-inspired
    effort to diagnose the cultural deformities of late capitalism. R.
    Nevitt Sanford was a distinguished psychologist at the University of
    California at Berkeley who, in the year the book was published, would
    be dismissed from his professorship for refusing to sign a loyalty
    oath. Else Frenkel-Brunswick had been trained at Freud's University of
    Vienna and was a practicing lay analyst in Northern California.
    Twenty-three years old at the time the study began, Daniel J. Levinson
    would become famous for his 1978 The Seasons of a Man's Life (Knopf),
    which popularized the notion of a "midlife crisis."

    Then there was the subject matter. The Authoritarian Personality
    addressed itself to the question of whether the United States might
    harbor significant numbers of people with a "potentially fascistic"
    disposition. It did so with methods that claimed to represent the
    cutting edge in social science -- and that's where the book got in
    trouble with scholars of its day. But in today's political climate, it
    might be time to revisit its thesis.

    Before anyone was talking about the radical right in America -- the
    John Birch Society, the most notorious of the new conservative groups
    to develop in the postwar period, wasn't founded until 1958 -- The
    Authoritarian Personality seemed to anticipate the fervent crusades
    against communism and the attacks on Chief Justice Earl Warren, the
    United Nations, and even fluoridation that would characterize postwar
    politics in the United States. The fact that the radical right has
    transformed itself from a marginal movement to an influential sector
    of the contemporary Republican Party makes the book's choice of
    subject matter all the more prescient.

    Finally, the book was filled with data, including its famous "F
    scale." Based on how respondents answered a series of questions, the F
    scale identified nine key dimensions of a protofascist personality:
    conventionality, submissiveness, aggression, subjectivity,
    superstitiousness, toughness, cynicism, the tendency to project
    unconscious emotional responses onto the world, and heightened
    concerns about sex.

    For example, subjects were asked how much they disagreed or agreed
    with such statements as:

    "Obedience and respect for authority are the most important virtues
    children should learn." (Submissiveness.)

    "Homosexuality is a particularly rotten form of delinquency and ought
    to be severely punished." (Aggression and sex.)

    "No insult to our honor should ever go unpunished." (Toughness and

    "No matter how they act on the surface, men are interested in women
    for only one reason." (Sex and cynicism.)

    The F scale was only one of the research methods featured in The
    Authoritarian Personality. The authors also measured ethnocentrism;
    administered Thematic Appreciation Tests, presenting subjects with
    pictures and asking them to tell a story about them; and relied upon
    clinical interviews resembling psychoanalytic sessions. Rarely, if
    ever, have social scientists probed ordinary human beings in as much
    detail as did the book's authors.

    Indeed, participating in this study was so demanding for subjects that
    the authors made no effort to engage in random sampling. They first
    tried their methods out on college students, the usual captive
    audience, before getting the cooperation of the leaders of various
    organizations to survey their groups -- unions, the merchant marine,
    employment-service veterans, prison inmates, psychology-clinic
    patients, and PTA's.

    Unlike much postwar social science, The Authoritarian Personality did
    not present data showing the correlations between authoritarianism and
    a variety of variables such as social class, religion, or political
    affiliation. Instead the authors tried to draw a composite picture of
    people with authoritarian leanings: Perhaps their most interesting
    finding was that such people identify with the strong and are
    contemptuous of the weak. Extensive case studies of particular
    individuals were meant to convey the message that people who seemed
    exceptionally conventional on the outside could be harboring radically
    intolerant thoughts on the inside.

    D espite its bulk, prestigious authors, and seeming relevance,
    however, The Authoritarian Personality never did achieve its status as
    a classic. Four years after its publication, it was subject to strong
    criticism in Studies in the Scope and Method of "The Authoritarian
    Personality" (Free Press, 1954), edited by the psychologists Richard
    Christie and Marie Jahoda. Two criticisms were especially devastating,
    one political, the other methodological.

    How, the University of Chicago sociologist Edward A. Shils wanted to
    know, could one write about authoritarianism by focusing only on the
    political right? In line with other works of the 1950s, such as Hannah
    Arendt's Origins of Totalitarianism (Harcourt, Brace, 1951), Shils
    pointed out that "Fascism and Bolshevism, only a few decades ago
    thought of as worlds apart, have now been recognized increasingly as
    sharing many very important features." The United States had its fair
    share of fellow travelers and Stalinists, Shils argued, and they too
    worshiped power and denigrated weakness. Any analysis that did not
    recognize that the extremes of left and right were similar in their
    authoritarianism was inherently flawed.

    Herbert H. Hyman and Paul B. Sheatsley, survey-research specialists,
    scrutinized every aspect of The Authoritarian Personality's
    methodology and found each wanting. Sampling was all but nonexistent.
    The wording of the questionnaire was flawed. The long, open-ended
    interviews were coded too subjectively. No method existed for
    determining what caused what. Whatever the subjects said about
    themselves could not be verified. The F scale lacked coherence.

    It is true that, social science being what it is, fault can be found
    with any methodology. But the critique by Hyman and Sheatsley in some
    ways became more famous than the study it analyzed; when I attended
    graduate school in the 1960s, The Authoritarian Personality was
    treated as a social-science version of the Edsel, a case study of how
    to do everything wrong.

    Perhaps Adorno had all that coming. Along with Max Horkheimer, who
    played an instrumental role in the research that went into the book,
    Adorno had published Dialektik der Aufklärung (Dialectic of
    Enlightenment) in Amsterdam in 1947. Among its other attacks on the
    technical rationality of advanced capitalism, that book dismissed
    "positivism," the effort to model the social sciences on the natural
    ones. The significant flaws of The Authoritarian Personality allowed
    quantitative social scientists to return the favor and dismiss
    critical theory.

    Yet despite its flaws, The Authoritarian Personality deserves a
    re-evaluation. In many ways, it is more relevant now than it was in

    Certainly the criticisms of Edward Shils seem misplaced 50 years on.
    Communism really did have some of the authoritarian characteristics of
    fascism, yet Communism is gone from the Soviet Union and without any
    influence in the United States. Many writers inspired by Shils, like
    Jeane J. Kirkpatrick, who would become the U.S. ambassador to the
    United Nations, held that totalitarian regimes, unlike authoritarian
    ones, were not reformable from within. Yet the Soviet Union collapsed
    as a result of domestic upheaval. Totalitarianism still exists in a
    country like North Korea, but in the U.S.S.R. it never was quite as
    "total" in its control over most of its populations as many postwar
    scholars maintained. When it collapsed, so did many of the theories
    that once sought to explain it.

    Even more significant than the collapse of left-wing authoritarianism
    has been the success of right-wing authoritarianism. Perhaps the
    authors of The Authoritarian Personality were on to something when
    they made questions about sexuality in general, and homosexuality in
    particular, so central to diagnosing authoritarianism.

    In the June 19, 2005, issue of The New York Times Magazine, the
    journalist Russell Shorto interviewed activists against gay marriage
    and concluded that they were motivated not by a defense of traditional
    marriage, but by hatred of homosexuality itself. "Their passion,"
    Shorto wrote, "comes from their conviction that homosexuality is a
    sin, is immoral, harms children and spreads disease. Not only that,
    but they see homosexuality itself as a kind of disease, one that
    afflicts not only individuals but also society at large and that
    shares one of the prominent features of a disease: It seeks to spread
    itself." It is not difficult to conclude where those people would have
    stood on the F scale.

    Not all opponents of gay marriage, of course, are incipient fascists;
    the left, to its discredit, frequently dismisses the views of
    conservative opponents on, for example, abortion, church-state
    separation, or feminism as irrational bigotry, when the conclusions of
    most people who hold such views stem from deeply held, and morally
    reasoned, religious convictions. At the same time, many of the
    prominent politicians successful in today's conservative political
    environment adhere to a distinct style of politics that the authors of
    The Authoritarian Personality anticipated. Public figures, in fact,
    make good subjects for the kinds of analysis upon which the book
    relied; visible, talkative, passionate, they reveal their
    personalities to us, allowing us to evaluate them.

    Consider the case of John R. Bolton, now our ambassador to the United
    Nations. While testifying about Bolton's often contentious
    personality, Carl Ford Jr., a former head of intelligence within the
    U.S. State Department, called him a "a quintessential kiss-up,
    kick-down sort of guy." Surely, in one pithy sentence, that perfectly
    summarizes the characteristics of those who identify with strength and
    disparage weakness. Everything Americans have learned about Bolton
    -- his temper tantrums, intolerance of dissent, and black-and-white
    view of the world -- step right out of the clinical material assembled
    by the authors of The Authoritarian Personality.

    And Bolton is by no means alone. Sen. John Cornyn, Republican of
    Texas, last spring said that violent attacks on judges, who cannot be
    held accountable, were understandable. He might well have scored
    highly on his response to this item from the F scale: "There are some
    activities so flagrantly un-American that, when responsible officials
    won't take the proper steps, the wide-awake citizen should take the
    law into his own hands." House Majority Leader Tom DeLay is in
    difficulty for his close ties to lobbyists like Jack Abramoff. Would
    those men agree with the statement, "When you come right down to it,
    it's human nature never to do anything without an eye to one's own

    One item on the F scale, in particular, seems to capture in just a few
    words the way that many Christian-right politicians view the world in
    an age of terror: "Too many people today are living in an unnatural,
    soft way; we should return to the fundamentals, to a more red-blooded,
    active way of life."

    If one could find contemporary "authoritarians of the left" to match
    those on the right, the authors of The Authoritarian Personality could
    rightly be criticized for their exclusive focus on fascism. Yet there
    are few, if any, such examples; while Republicans have been moving
    toward the right, Democrats are shifting to the center. No liberal
    close to the leaders of the Democratic Party has called for the
    assassination of a foreign head of state; only a true authoritarian
    like Pat Robertson, who has helped the Republicans achieve power, has
    done that.

    The authors of The Authoritarian Personality hoped that a clinical
    account of the tendency would enable democracy to protect itself
    better against political extremism. That could not be done, they
    concluded, by changing the personality structure of incipient
    authoritarians, since their beliefs were too ingrained to be altered
    and the techniques of psychology, in any case, were too weak to alter
    them. Authoritarian tendencies, they concluded, "are products of the
    total organization of society and are to be changed only as that
    society is changed."

    The United States did change in the years after their book was
    published, but those changes revealed what might have been the biggest
    mistake the authors made: They looked for subjects among students and
    union members when they should have been looking in the corridors of

    Alan Wolfe is director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American
    Public Life and professor of political science at Boston College. He
    is writing a book on whether democracy in America still works.

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