Sociologist Theodor Adorno created the “F scale” in a 1950 seminal work entitled The Authoritarian Personality, in order to rank the level of predilection to fascism in an individual, which became desirable both during and shortly after World War II. According to Adorno and his cohort, the defining authoritarian personality traits of the Platonic fascist (or the ur-Fascist as Umberto Eco would later call them) include the following:
- conventionalism — following the rules; “this is how we’ve always done things”; fundamentalist thinking; dogmatic philosophy; intolerance of ambiguity (and intolerance in general)
- authoritarian submission — follow the Ruler; the Ruler is always right, no matter how obvious the lie or big the myth. only ingroup authority figures matter, though.
- authoritarian aggression — “send in the troops,” “when the looting starts the shooting starts,” “dominate the streets”
- anti-intellectualism — distrust of experts; paranoid politics; intellectualism is unmasculine
- anti-intraception — a dislike of subjectivity and imagination: “the fact is…”; black and white thinking; dislike of flamboyant self-expression; monoculture
- superstition — conspiracy theory; anti-vaxxers; QAnon
- stereotypy — racism, sexism, classism, ageism, all the isms; bigotry, homophobia, Islamophobia, transphobia, all the phobias
- power and “toughness” — obsessed with dominance and submission; rigidly pro-hierarchy; solves problems with violence; values physical strength
- destructiveness — dismantle the Federal government; remove environmental regulations; pull out of international alliances; weakening America’s place in the world, abandoning the EU, and kowtowing to dictators around the world
- cynicism — “both sides do it,” whataboutism, all politicians are bad, conscience (non)voters
- projectivity — everything is Obama’s fault, almost literally; claims Biden is corrupt; Hillary’s email server (though they all used and continue to use private email servers, every single one of them); claim that the Clinton campaign started the birther controversy; accuse everyone else of lying
- exaggerated concerns over sex — anti-abortion; homophobia; pedophilia; excessive taboos; excessive shame
We are seeing all of these traits today. We see the rise of authoritarianism — we see it in our leadership, we see it in our communities, and we see it surging around the world.
We see it in a much larger percentage of our populace than many of us might have imagined. Research by Karen Stenner and others shows that across populations in the developed world, about a third of a given population will be prone to authoritarian tendencies. People of good character far outnumber the Right-Wing Authoritarians, but they can be subjugated, emotionally manipulated, strong-armed, abused, intimidated, made cynical by the RWAs. And the RWA personality is driven to actively hate outgroups in many outrageously twisted and depraved ways, from pettiness to genocide.
Refined by professor of psychology Bob Altemeyer (The Authoritarians, et al) in 1981, the Right-Wing Authoritarianism scale (RWA) addresses some of the limitations of the F scale and exhibits more predictive power in identifying individuals exhibiting authoritarian personality.
The RWA personality is associated with all of the following traits, beliefs, actions, patterns, and signs of authoritarianism:
- extreme obedience
- unquestioning respect for and submission to a chosen authority
- forceful insistence on hierarchy
- striving for dominance in social hierarchies
- wolves vs. sheep worldview
- Manichaean struggle
- punitiveness; vengefulness; malignant envy
- subordination to the collective
- cult of personality
- less openness to experience
- aggression towards minority groups
- resistance to change
- justification(s) for social inequality
- police brutality
- psychological abuse; emotional predation
- magical thinking
- control freak
- mass surveillance
- a primary drive to achieve relief from uncertainty, even at the cost of individual freedom
Democracy vs. Authoritarianism
Maybe we could offer up the RWA test as a “good faith” gesture, if one is interested in participating in civic discourse with credibility and authenticity. It would help us identify those individuals who are going to be unlikely to play by the rules of the game or have no intention of behaving fairly. It would help us draw authoritarianism and totalitarianism out of the proverbial closet and into public discourse so we can refute it vehemently in a proper forum.
Although we have bot tests, we don’t really have great ways of measuring and identifying human beings with deceptive agendas to help us in this battle of democracy vs. autocracy. If we could screen people as authoritarians via “honorable challenge,” we could save so much time by not wasting it on the lost causes whose power trip runs so deep it can never be exposed. It could serve as a way to drag out into the light any number of intolerable, anti-democratic sentiments masquerading as “strict Constitutionalism.” We can pry open the doublespeak and arm ourselves with the secret decoder rings of understanding RWA dogwhistles.
And maybe we can finally change the conversation by more easily identifying friendlies from foes from the start, without having to wade through every minefield.