Sunday, March 27, 2011

Influential Books on the Conservative Personality

One of the books that influenced me greatly and led me to a better psychological understanding of the Conservative Movement in it's most recent incarnation was "Conservatives Without Conscience," by former White House counsel to Richard Nixon, John Dean

In addition to differentiating neoconservatism (more properly "Straussianism", after the late Leo Strauss of the University of Chicago) from traditional Goldwater conservativism, Dean cited the work of Robert Altemeyer, a social psychologist at the University of Manitoba who is doing ongoing research in the area of the authoritarian personality. Naturally, that led me to investigate the work of Robert Altemeyer.

Altemeyer's scientific research, published in "The Authoritarian Specter," uncovered a cluster of personality traits typical of conservatives who make up the grass roots of the conservative movement. He found that 51% of the North American population is what he labeled "right-wing authoritarian followers".

In general, the personality of the "RWA" includes:
A lower IQ than liberals/progressives,
An anti-intellectual attitude,

Average to lower education levels,
Lack of social skills,
A tendency toward prejudice and discrimination (racism, sexism, homophobia, etc.),

A tendency toward violence (assault, domestic abuse),

Higher levels of child abuse in all categories,

A greater tendency to abuse alcohol, higher divorce rates,

Diminished skills in abstract thinking, coupled with the more restrictive cognitive tendency toward concrete thinking (including literalism),

A lowered capacity to deal with ambiguity,

An avoidance of the cognitive dissonance necessary to deal with changing beliefs,

An unrealistic need for control,

Higher levels of anxiety concerning changing social conditions,

And a tendency to belong to conservative social groups and religious denominations.
As I said, these are general characteristics that are spread in varying degrees and frequency across the authoritarian spectrum; but there are three characteristics that are near universal among right-wing authoritarian followers:
(1) Right-wing authoritarian followers commit themselves to the received social conventions (traditional family values, etc.) carried over from the previous era.

(2) They look to authoritarian leaders (particularly "authoritarian personalities"), depending on them to interpret and reinforce the conventional, as well as to validate them and provide them with a sense of belonging.

(3) Right-wing authoritarian followers are committed to enforce received social conventions upon others, usually through peer pressure in varying degrees of aggressiveness, including the use of violence, in the name of their authoritarian leaders.
The book that best helped me to understand neoconservatism (Straussianism), it's classic aristocratic Platonism, its classism, it's preference for secrecy and expediency over democracy, its use of Machiavellian manipulation and the "noble lie", it's economic and social dependence on war, its unabashed Zionism -- in short, its utter nihilistic authoritarianism -- was "Leo Strauss and the American Right", by Shadia B. Drury.

Another work that impressed me, more in the category of journalism, was Max Blumenthal's book on the history of the religious-right, "Republican Gomorrah", in which he cited the psychologist Erik Erikson in his discussion of the right-wing conservative religious personality.  

Following his opening remarks on Erikson, Blumenthal discusses, among others, the seminal influences of Francis Schaeffer, his son Frank Schaeffer, John Rushdoony, Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, James Dobson, Tony Perkins, Ralph Reed, Christian Reconstructionism, Dominionism, a brothel-full of "family values" Republicans such as Newt Gingrich, Dick Armey and Tom DeLay, and even the influence upon Christian conservatives of the noise makers Rush Limbaugh, Bill O'Reilly and Glenn Beck. Karl Rove, George W. Bush and Richard B. Cheney get their fair share of print as well.

I emailed Blumenthal and asked him why he didn't use the more recent work of Altemeyer. He wrote back and said that, given his audience, he wanted to avoid the empirical research and statistical analysis that characterized Altemeyer's work, so he went with Erikson, who is much more theoretical and classically psychological.  Erikson is of the Freudian Psychoanalytic School and is noted for his theory of social development.

Note: The Grit TV interviews of Blumenthal predate the Tea Party Movement.

Please, if you have any recommendations for further reading, post them in the comments section below.  Thanks in advance.