Did academics finally discover left-wing authoritarianism?

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A team of researchers believe that they have finally found left-wing authoritarianism, long referred to as “the Loch Ness Monster” of social psychology. At least, that’s what they’re claiming. And in the rich tradition of poorly communicated science, instead of an analysis meant to convey the information in the paper to a broader audience, it is first put through an ideological blender.

Here’s the short version: this team of researchers used a different definition of authoritarianism and found that it exists on “both sides.” (Yes, there’s a lot of “both sides” in the article and the popular press articles. That alone might tell you enough…)

The value of exploring definitions

Before I get into the article’s substance, I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with exploring how definitions of concepts create biases. In fact, good science relies on thoughtful definitions. However, there is no such thing as a definition without a bias. Definitions are explicitly biased. That’s the point.

Let me show you what I mean: I use the definition of the term “cat” to differentiate between my sweet Lorelei from, say, a Mack truck. My definition, when I’m searching for my cat, biases me to look for small furry things instead of metallic diesel-powered behemoths. Does that mean that Mack trucks are the “Loch Ness Monster” of cats? Because if I changed my definition enough, I could indeed fit them both into the same category of “cat.”

LOOK AT THIS VOID ANGEL

If it isn’t obvious, I’m using hyperbole to make a point. The authors of this flawed study didn’t do anything quite so outrageous but they did make some choices that undermine the findings and study. And the study certainly does not live up to the popular press reporting on it.

Because the vast majority of people will get to this study through the popular press, I’m going to start there and might do a more serious analysis of the journal article itself if there’s interest.

How the popular press talks about this study

Images

The article in The Atlantic, titled “How Experts Overlooked Authoritarians on the Left” is my case study. Right away, we see an attention-grabbing image:

Inside you there are two wolves… (Getty Images/The Atlantic)

The large, bared fangs of an obligate carnivore and its snarling muzzle are in this person’s brain. This is an animal about to attack. So before we read anything at all about the study, we are primed to fear (and thus hate) whatever we read about, because we have been signaled about danger. Now, I’m not opposed to using images to help tell a story. But what story are we telling?

Just for fun, compare this to another Atlantic article about a journalists’ experience of being embedded in the Alt-Right for four years:

Inside you is an obvious bias against the Left… (The Atlantic)

Right, got it. Left-wing authoritarianism is super dangerous and scary–so scary that it took academics 70 years to (maybe) find it. It deserves a scary image!

The Alt-Right, a prominent hate movement in the US, gets an oblique reference to their symbols. The Alt-Right is a major force in our society, with nuanced and monied propaganda machines to recruit more people. They got a President elected, and have a firm grip on the Federal government.

Anyway.

Who wrote the article?

Who wrote the article for the Atlantic? Was it someone trained in reading and interpreting social science–maybe even a social scientist?

No, it was written by a psychiatrist who works for a right-wing think-tank. The think-tank credited as being the seat of neoconservatism. They’re also pals/long time co-authors with one of the authors on this paper. They have a personal stake in this, and we can also infer (to some extent) the politics of the authors of the scholarly article too. I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t go out of my way to further the career of someone in a think-tank that I’m ideologically opposed to…

Does this sound like an unbiased source? On top of it all, a psychiatrist is a clinical role and not a research role. They’re more like engineers than scientists. I don’t mean this disparagingly–when I need medical help, I need someone trained to help me!

Psychiatrists are skilled in diagnosing and prescribing medications, not reading and interpreting the nuances of statistics and research methodology. I’m not saying you need a degree to be able to read research papers but since we don’t know the author personally, all we can go on are their credentials and what they write.

So far, we know they are obviously biased and not formally trained in interpreting scientific research. We can’t throw away what they’ve written, but we do need to read it with a healthy dose of skepticism. So, what did they write?

The Atlantic’s analysis of the study

They give a brief overview of the history of study of authoritarianism, claiming that it’s unfairly biased to pick on people on the right. Satel (the author of The Atlantic piece) specifically name drops a scholar named Adorno.

“In the 1950 book The Authoritarian Personality, […] the German-born scholar Theodor W. Adorno and three other psychologists measured people along dimensions such as conformity to societal norms, rigid thinking, and sexual repression.”

– Satel

Why do we need to know Adorno was born in Germany? Why do we need to know HIS name and not the others’? These are allusions to tired right-wing talking points: Adorno is the boogeyman, and he was German and alive during WWII and the Nazis were socialists (just so we’re clear: they most definitely were not), blah blah blah. It’s a canard to “The Frankfurt School.” You know, the conspiracy theory about how “the Jews” via the Frankfurt School pushed their “postmodern cultural Marxism” to control the world. Think of it as an easter egg for neonazis. So, we’re off to a good start.

But note the dimensions: conformity to social norms, rigid thinking, and sexual repression. Sounds like typical right-wing talking points. They’re proud of their conformity, their rigid thinking, and sexual repression. There are a lot of other dimensions that Adorno, Frenkel-Brunswik, Levinson, and Sanford identified but they did indeed include the ones Satel mentioned.

What is the original conceptualization of “authoritarianism”?

Here’s what was actually examined in The Authoritarian Personality:

  • Conventionalism: Adherence to conventional values.
  • Authoritarian Submission: Towards in-group authority figures.
  • Authoritarian Aggression: Against people who violate conventional values.
  • Anti-Intraception: Opposition to subjectivity and imagination.
  • Superstition and Stereotypy: Belief in individual fate; thinking in rigid categories.
  • Power and Toughness: Concerned with submission and domination; assertion of strength.
  • Destructiveness and Cynicism: hostility against human nature.
  • Projectivity: Perception of the world as dangerous; tendency to project unconscious impulses.
  • Sex: Overly concerned with modern sexual practices.

(Thank you, wikipedia, for that handy bulleted list.)

The researchers also discuss the relationship between the above list of things with anti-semitism, ethnocentrism, and conservatism. Spoiler alert: they’re ALL highly correlated. People prone to the exhibit high amounts of the above dimensions are also very likely to be anti-semitic, ethnocentric, and conservative.

This, of course, is very upsetting to conservatives who refuse to acknowledge the consequences and implications of their belief systems. It’s also not perfect research, and the researchers had their own biases and ideas. But in short, they are saying that people that score high on these measures are the kinds of people that are also likely to vehemently support fascists like Donald J Trump or Joe Biden.

Drowning in false equivalency

“The Trump era likely deepened psychology’s conventional wisdom that authoritarians are almost always conservatives; the insurrection at the Capitol earlier this year showed the urgency of understanding the phenomenon. And yet calls to de-platform controversial speakers and online campaigns to get people fired for heterodox views suggest that a commitment to open democratic norms is eroding, at least in some quarters, on the left.”

– Satel

An armed group of people storming the Capitol with clear intention to kill or at least capture elected officials is the same thing as people not wanting to listen to someone spreading obvious lies. Great take on that one!

Satel paints a quaint picture, too. Getting people fired for heterodox views is a funny way to put it when the views in question are, say, “we should run over protestors with our cars,” or “women are biologically inferior to men,” or “trans people are all pedophiles and sex pests.” Not every view deserves a platform, and it’s awfully funny to see how upset conservatives get when The Free Market doesn’t reward them. No one’s buying what these people are selling.

Dogma over analysis

Satel repeats the tired old line here, about universities being “far to the left,” which is something I’ve written about already and you can read here. Universities are run by conservatives, and staffed by conservative faculty, carry out conservative agendas in pursuit of conservative goals. True, many faculty in some departments will Vote Blue No Matter Who. That means they support candidates that do the exact same terrible things the Bad Orange Man did, but also do it more. Is conservatism defined purely by the color-coding on the candidate? I don’t think so, but this is what Satel seems to be purporting.

Scholars who personally support the left’s social vision—such as redistributing income, countering racism, and more—may simply be slow to identify authoritarianism among people with similar goals.

– Satel, emphasis added. Always interesting when conservatives tell on themselves.

Enough table-setting, what does the new research say?

Costello and his colleagues [authors of the new research] started fresh. They developed what eventually became a list of 39 statements capturing sentiments such as “We need to replace the established order by any means necessary” and “I should have the right not to be exposed to offensive views.” Subjects were asked to score the statements on a scale of 1 to 7.

– Satel

These sound like radical statements! And to a degree, they are. Replacing the established order of fascism/capitalism is crucial to the survival of humanity. A case in point is the struggle to combat climate change. We might already be past the tipping point, too, because of the failures of capitalism despite the incalculable amount of work put in by activists historically and presently.

Self-Defense

Our society enshrines the right of self-defense, which means it’s legally acceptable to even kill someone if they’re a real threat to you. (In practice, it often means it’s legal for people with power to kill whomever they want of lesser power, as long as they can come up with a half-assed cover story.)

If we’re allowed to protect ourselves… what’s so wrong about the desire to protect ourselves? It’s radical, sure, but it’s not without reason. By removing these beliefs from context, they appear to be just as irrational as people that think we need to “preserve the white race.”

I find Satel’s analysis offensive

What are these offensive views that “The Left” wants protection from? Are they things like “Wow, I’m so glad that Chris Pratt is going to play Mario,” or are they more like “[incoherent transphobic drivel]”? The latter is dangerous. That’s the kind of offensive views I don’t want to hear. It’s not because they’re offensive, it’s because they’re violent and false.

The authoritarianism is coming from inside the house

Furthermore, Satel conveniently ignores all of the illiberal and authoritarian ideals within neoconservatism. Controlling what people do with their bodies is not very freedom-loving, for example, and it is a consistent interest of neoconservatives: the war on drugs, the war on women and reproductive rights, and the systematic/systemic oppression of Black and other people of color.

Surely there’s more to it…?

Other measures include:

  • “Getting rid of inequality is more important than protecting the so-called ‘right’ to free speech.” (Labeled as “top-down censorship” be the researchers, and interesting leap in logic.)
  • “If I could remake society, I would put people who currently have the most privilege at the bottom.” (Again, shaky phrasing here. Feels like a gotcha. It is coded in a way to allow conservatives to connect “privilege” to “white privilege” and there we have it: evidence that The Left hates white people; when the respondent may be talking about wealth, political power, etc.)
  • “I cannot imagine myself becoming friends with a political conservative.” (Labeled as “anti-conventionalism,” another interesting leap without any consideration as to why that might be. Satel and the authors’ presumption is that conservative viewpoints are inherently valid by virtue of being conservative.)

By measuring things this way, without paying any attention to the why is how the researchers and Satel create misleading narratives. I would have a hard time being friends with someone that hates who I am or thinks we need a white ethno-state, for example. That’s not exactly “anti-conventionalism.”

Who owns convention in the 21st century?

This also shows how conservatives believe they are the true vanguards of our society and convention. They’ve got The Truth and we don’t. There’s a rich tradition in America of defying convention. In fact, that’s where neoconservatism comes from.

Neoconservatives defied the conventions of conservatives that came before them to set new standards (while pretending their new standards are very old). George Bush Senior went on record to support abortion rights, for example, when he was a senator. (His father, however, tried to do a fascist coup in America. Oops!) This was before Nixon realized he could galvanize the base with the issue.

So, who exactly “owns” conventionalism? Maybe no one party or ideology does, since they all have their own conventions. America is not, and never has been, a monolith. Except maybe about capitalism. But of course, that’s not what they’re talking about here. Mustn’t question capitalism!

So what are the actual findings?

The authoritarian mentality, whether on the far left or far right, the authors conclude, exerts “powerful pressures to maintain discipline among members, advocate aggressive and censorious means of stifling opposition, [and] believe in top-down absolutist leadership.”

– Satel

But what is their opposition trying to do? You can’t just claim these are equivalent without examining that. And pointing a finger at the left’s attempts at self-defense while ignoring whom or from what they’re defending against is just bad faith.

At the very least, Satel is honest enough to acknowledge that left-wing authoritarianism is not prevalent in the US (while right-wing authoritarianism is), and right-wing authoritarianism is far more dangerous. Credit where credit is due, I suppose.

What is to be done?

Satel has a very helpful idea:

If academic psychology had more viewpoint diversity, the political biases that distort researchers’ work would all counterbalance one another.

– Satel

Ah yes, if we just get more ethno-state fascists into psychology, that’ll help things.

More scholars producing half-assed ideological hitjobs like the one discussed here would not improve the state of discourse. It’s like saying we need a debate about race in America between Dr. Cornell West and David Duke to really get the full picture. For people that decry the ills of postmodernity, they sure love postmodernity. Truth? Reality? Reason? Who cares! As long as we believe it hard enough, it’s true and real.

I’m exhausted

There’s more I could talk about in Satel’s article in The Atlantic but my brain is melting. Did researchers find left-wing authoritarianism? Sure, if you accept their fundamentally changed the definition of authoritarianism that removes any and all context.

I’ll leave you with this nugget:

[E]ducation has become ever more highly correlated with political ideology.

– Satel

Sometimes they say the quiet part out loud.

And this is why we need major reform in education, to make it more accessible. Education (and I don’t mean specifically through universities) is our only known tool to de-radicalize people and reduce hate.