October 15, 2010

Who Said It? Bob Altemeyer.

Filed under: Global War On Terror — Russ @ 4:02 am


OK, I hope this was worth the guessing game and the wait, and that the discussion of what kind of person would write something like that was worthwhile.
The answer is Bob Altemeyer, author of The Authoritarians, available free online here. (I apologize for sticking the answer in the title. Even we filthy peasant rebels, if we’re bloggers, must bow to the dictates of the all-mighty search engine.)
The book is very interesting. It details and documents Altemeyer’s development of the Right Wing Authoritarian (RWA) scale. This is a measure of conformity to system “authority”. It’s not ideology-specific. Instead, Altemeyer defines “right wing” authoritarianism as submissiveness toward constituted structures and the willingness to be their active tool. He gives a good example – during the Cold War, the flag-waving American patriot and the Russian Communist party member were likely to be the same kind of right wing authoritarian type.
So what’s the most obvious example of this today? It’s clearly how Obama’s cultists are every bit as stupidly and aggressively tribal as Bush partisans were, and on behalf of the exact same policies, on democratic* political participation, the economy, banks, corporations, transparency, the wars, civil liberties, energy policy, and even liberal social issues like abortion and gay rights.
[*From here on I’m going to dispense with the “small-d” disclaimer and assume readers will understand what I mean based on whether or not I capitalize the word. I’ll be extra-vigilant to avoid typos there.]
What’s most amazing is how the liberals and “progressives” claim to support Obama and the Democrats based on a belief that he’s doing the opposite of what he obviously really is doing. Bush supporters may have supported very stupid things, but at least they were less often wrong on a basic factual level about what they were supporting. They wanted escalating war and got it. Obama supporters support a president who is also escalating the war, but claim to believe he’s winding it down, and many of them are probably ignorant enough that they do believe this. The RWA phenomenon doesn’t get more typical than this. (And how characteristic of liberals – most of those who are pro-war are too cowardly to openly want escalation, and those who in their moods are anti-war are still too cowardly to demand full immediate withdrawal, because of some unarticulated but implicitly horrible consequences which would allegedly ensue. No, they want a gradual winding down. That gives their RWA trait full room to range. If Obama says we withdraw now, that’s great. If he says it’ll take years, that’s great. If he says we’ll be there for a hundred years, which is in fact what he has implicitly been saying, that’s great too.)
So guess who is himself one of these RWA cultists? After all his decades of studying the phenomenon, Altemeyer himself is completely un-self-aware of how his entire world view is simply derived from Democrat and corporate propaganda, evidently going back to his student days.
I’ll reproduce the short exchange, which can be found here. (I think it runs onto the next page. I haven’t read the entire thread since then to see if anyone else challenges him on the same point.)
I saw how Altemeyer had written a note on the tea partiers as RWAs, which is insightful as usual because he’s talking about Republicans, his partisan enemy. So I asked if he was going to write a similar note on the Obama cultists. He starts out denying there’s such a thing as an Obama cult. (It’s also funny how he says, “I read two liberal blogs and two conservative blogs”, and names the Huffington Post.)
Knowing there was a problem, I expanded my question to include himself as a possible cultist.
Here’s the full exchange:

04/23/10 at 05:06 PM


Are you planning on also writing a note on the Democratic RWA followers who persist in believing Obama and the Democrats are “progressives” even as they continue and in most cases escalate Bush/Cheney policies on the Bailout, the war and war crimes, the assault on civil liberties, and corporatism in general, just to name a few?


Bob Altemeyer Email

05/11/10 at 11:46 AM

Hey, I got here in only three tries!

To Michael: Yes, putting the Global Change Game on-line would be wonderful, if it could be done right. But I doubt anyone is interested in investing the time and money it would take, and running the thing would probably be a beast.

To Russ: Well, if somebody shows me the studies that demonstrate the Democratic RWA followers supporting these things, while they condemned Bush/Cheney for doing the same things, I’ll write that note. But I read two conservative blogs and two liberal blogs each day, and both TPM and (especially) Huffington Post have been at least as persistent at pointing out when Obama continues Bush policies as Matt Drudge and Politico have been. Moreso, in fact. Which fits into my findings rather well. Anybody who expects liberals to march together to the same drum, compared to the way high RWAs insist on group loyalty, is probably going to be proved quite wrong.

(For the record, I personally supported TARP as necessary, and the war in Afghanistan. As my wife will tell you, I am not much of a progressive.)


05/20/10 at 10:01 AM

Bob says:

“For the record, I personally supported TARP as necessary, and the war in Afghanistan.”

Out of your own expertise, or because you were told so by your betters, and never mind the evidence?

Looks like you better retake the RWA follower test yourself.

How about assassinations?


Bob Altemeyer Email

05/20/10 at 03:12 PM


To Russ: Well, your comment’s a bit ad hominem, but I’ll answer it as best I can.

In a world of ever-advancing knowledge, one can’t know a lot about everything. So you do have to listen to those who have expertise. In some fields (economics would sure be one) the experts often disagree, and the wise non-expert makes sure he listens to the differing opinions.

Now as for TARP, I have some background in economics. I took two years of econ as an undergraduate business major, including a memorable semester of macroeconomic theory from an anti-Keynesian young turk. I also had a semester course in corporate finance. So I probably had some sort of a handle on the crisis that hit the American financial sector in the summer of 2008. I believed that the economy would plunge into a deep depression if the major banks failed and credit virtually disappeared. It was difficult to imagine where the dominoes would stop falling as one sector after another collapsed. And I haven’t heard anyone who has criticized TARP acknowledge what would have happened if the government had not stepped in.

In the case of TARP, I’ve only heard of one economist who said the government should not step in. The experts seemed virtually unanimous, and what they said made sense to me. It was also true that the Bush administration, including the secretary of the treasury, and the Democratic nominee, Barrack Obama, and his economic advisers agreed TARP had to happen. True, most of the Republicans in Congress voted against it, but their reasons seemed short-sighted to me. I didn’t like the idea of bailing out the banks any more than Sen. McConnell did. But I thought it was more important to keep the economy from collapsing.

I think you’ll find, by the way, that a lot of the TARP loans have already been paid back, and in one way or another, most of the government investment will return to the treasury.

As for Afghanistan, it was a rogue state under the Taliban that was the breeding ground for terrorist attacks around the world, including 9/11. I knew both the British and the Soviets had come to grief fighting wars in Afghanistan, and I knew the power of the war lords in the countryside and the refuges available in Pakistan would make the military mission difficult. But I believed the Taliban had to be defeated in their home base, and I still believe that today, although the problems with Karzai remind me more and more of Vietnam. I also feel we owe something to people in Afghanistan, especially the women there who have become educated,
to stay and see the mission to its close.)

You suggested that my beliefs came from “what I was told by my bettors, never mind the evidence.” I can’t even think whose opinion I cared about regarding Afghanistan. I mean, everybody knew where the terrorists were being trained, and where Osama bin Laden was based. You’ll have to tell me about the evidence I ignored.

I’ve told you why I thought as I did. Maybe you could tell me what and why you believe in these matters.

At that point I was frankly amazed and gave up on the exchange. It was a surprise to realize how unused I am to talking to total ignoramuses. I know how to discuss with fellow informed citizens, and how to argue with liars, but not how to tell it like it is to people who know it like it ain’t.
I should have sent the link to The Truth About the Bailout, although that doesn’t include stuff like the basics on the TARP being only one part of the Bailout and so on.
So I thought that was an interesting case study in how rampant and insidious the cult-think is, that even a commenter who is known specifically for analyzing this kind of tribalism is such a tribalist himself. (I meant to post this earlier but it kind of fell between the cushions and I forgot about it.)
So I hope people found this interesting.


  1. I did indeed find it interesting, even though I’m unfamiliar with that author.

    Comment by jimmy james — October 15, 2010 @ 11:59 am

    • Glad you did.

      You should check out the book (linked in the post) if you’d like insight into the authoritarian follower mindset.

      Though like I said, his scale is weighted toward what would normally be called “right wing” conformism, and is more scant on the liberal variety, like for example believing a hard-core corporatist is a public interest progressive just because a bunch of hacks say so.

      Comment by Russ — October 15, 2010 @ 1:20 pm

  2. Well, you stumped me, Russ!

    I do have one book by Altemeyer (“The Authoritarian Specter”), which I was led to by way of John Dean’s “Conservatives Without Conscience.” I recall not being all that impressed by it.

    You’ve made me want to go back and read through it again, though. Until now, I hadn’t made the connection between his RWA theory and the general propensity of all humans to use cognitive biases to make shortcuts in their thinking. Viewed from that angle, his RWA theory is actually something of a smear and demonstrates a stunning lack of self-awareness as to his own cognitive biases.

    Fascinating catch.

    Comment by Tao Jonesing — October 15, 2010 @ 2:05 pm

    • I guess it would be more ecumenical if he had called it “System Authoritarian follower” rather than used the term “right wing” in a technical way.

      BTW, I was imprecise in the post in not differentiating between the “RWA Follower” type, which is what we’re discussing here, and the “RWA Leader” type, which is somewhat different. (He’s less gullible and more cynical, among other things.)

      By contrast Altemeyer defined “Left Wing Authoritarian Follower” as someone similar but who simply believes anything and everything rebellious and against the system. Some conspiracy theorists may fit the bill. Sunstein sure thinks so. Indeed, I think I remember someone in that comment thread suggesting that in the tea partier note Altemeyer had wrongly called their birtherism and stuff “RWA” when it was really anti-system. That may be true of some things, but not of that example, because if someone could prove that e.g. Sarah Palin had actually been born in Timbuktu, the same people would refuse to believe it, or just not care, because she’s the part of the system they like.

      Comment by Russ — October 15, 2010 @ 2:49 pm

      • I haven’t read his book so perhaps I’m missing something but all this RWA and LWA really seems to miss the point. Most people in America just base their political decisions not on principles but on who they include in their “circle of inclusion”. In other words for those who they see as part of their “us” they will bend over backwards to defend. Alternatively, they will use any excuse to attack the “them” that are outside of this circle.

        The right does tend to like the wealthy which would appear to be favouring authority while the left certainly does tends to favour the poor, which I suppose could be considered rebellious. But most liberals will always side with the establishment interests of a wealthy member of their “us” club over say the working class interests of their “them” enemies. And conversely the right is the same way.

        So if either sides “us” is in power they will tend towards being authoritarian. If a “them” is in power they will be rebellious. The clearest example of this was on deficit spending. During the Bush time liberals were rebelling against it, while the right sided with authority. Now with Obama in office the left are for the authroity line while the Tea Party are taking a rebel stand. It would be far more interesting if someone developed principles as the when and where deficit spending should or should not be encouraged instead of just “going with the team.”

        The Obama birther brouhaha vs. the Fauxclosure scandal is another example. The liberals thought it was fine that original documents were not shown and that a bureaucrat just gave his word that all of Obama’s paper work was in order since the wingnuts were just trying to use technicalities to overthrow the verdict of the people. What will liberals think if that ends up to be the solution for all the forged title documents and won’t the same wingnuts, who last year were looking up Kenyan transit records, now be saying the liberals are trying to use technicalities to overthrow the verdict of the bankers?

        Let me know if you think Altemeyer’s book is worth getting.

        Comment by Kevin de Bruxelles — October 16, 2010 @ 7:26 am

      • In Altemeyer’s terminology “RWA” means conformity with anything the existing system says, regardless of its politics.

        “LWA” means conformity with anything against the existing system.

        Neither necessarily has anything to do with the system endorsing what we normally call a rightist or leftist ideology.

        I agreed with Tao above that the terminology is confusing and prone to be misleading to casual auditors, and that in retrospect Altemeyer’s choice of the term “right wing authoritarian” for system conformity as such seems to be in part the result of his anti-Republican, pro-Democrat partisanship. (Though certainly not any kind of “leftist” partisanship as we can see from his comments.)

        Part of the reason I want to wash my hands of these terms is that there’s clearly no way to have everyone use them correctly. Thus even you are still here saying “the left” supports Obama, when in fact almost no one truly on the left ever really supported Obama, while liberals are not in fact “left” by any historical standard.

        As for Rep and Dem partisanship, those are both system authoritarian phenomena. Just because each flips back and forth between bootlicking and a rebel pose depending upon which gang is in power doesn’t change that.

        You can check out The Authoritarians free online anytime you want, at the link above. I’ve read the whole thing, and it is interesting. You can also take the authoritarian test yourself, though I found it to be one of those badly written quizzes where my answer to half the questions is, “it depends on the context”.

        Comment by Russ — October 16, 2010 @ 8:32 am

  3. Russ,
    What scholarly research are you relying on for your claims?

    Comment by Greg — October 15, 2010 @ 5:03 pm

    • Which claims?

      Comment by Russ — October 15, 2010 @ 5:43 pm

  4. It’s clearly how Obama’s cultists are every bit as stupidly and aggressively tribal as Bush partisans were, and on behalf of the exact same policies, on democratic* political participation, the economy, banks, corporations, transparency, the wars, civil liberties, energy policy, and even liberal social issues like abortion and gay rights.

    What’s most amazing is how the liberals and “progressives” claim to support Obama and the Democrats based on a belief that he’s doing the opposite of what he obviously really is doing.

    Obama supporters support a president who is also escalating the war, but claim to believe he’s winding it down, and many of them are probably ignorant enough that they do believe this.

    (And how characteristic of liberals – most of those who are pro-war are too cowardly to openly want escalation, and those who in their moods are anti-war are still too cowardly to demand full immediate withdrawal, because of some unarticulated but implicitly horrible consequences which would allegedly ensue. No, they want a gradual winding down. That gives their RWA trait full room to range. If Obama says we withdraw now, that’s great. If he says it’ll take years, that’s great. If he says we’ll be there for a hundred years, which is in fact what he has implicitly been saying, that’s great too.)

    Comment by Greg — October 15, 2010 @ 6:18 pm

    • I’ve drawn those conclusions from empirical observation.

      Anyone who needs scholarly research to realize Obama’s a neoliberal corporatist and status quo elitist, or that “progressives” who still support him and the Dems in spite of this fact must be tribalists who are willfully in denial, has problems.

      Nevertheless, as per my original question to Altemeyer, I would’ve been interested in reading his take on the subject if he were capable of giving it. But evidently being such a tribalist himself, he’s not capable.

      (To this day I still love those “two liberal and two conservative blogs.” He runs the whole gamut from corporate A to corporate B!)

      Comment by Russ — October 16, 2010 @ 2:26 am

  5. Liberal, schmiberal. Wingnut, walnut. Altemeyer’s choosing of RWA might be merely appropriate study material: current, evident, growing, militant. But ‘authoritarianism’ is his point, plus chiding us to discover just which ‘persecution of the day’ we use to bully each other.

    Comment by Brian — October 15, 2010 @ 10:16 pm

    • True, but we need to recognize it everywhere we see it. As we see here, many refuse to recognize it among their own tribe.

      Comment by Russ — October 16, 2010 @ 3:26 am

  6. I have read Altemeyer quite a bit, including “The Authoritarians” and I do not recall any discussion of “LWA” , other than they do not exist as RWA is non-ideological, refers to a persons tendency to submit to authority. Be they Bush sycophants or Obama groupies.

    What page of the research did you find this statement-
    ” “LWA” means conformity with anything against the existing system.” Did you make that up?

    Russ did you read the research? you would know then that the term Social Dominator, SDO, is used to describe an authoritarian leader, and that there is only a 20% correlation between the RWA and the SDO, but that correlation is the key to how these two groups interact and behave.
    You would also recognize how fear of ambiguity is what motivates most Authoritarians, and how the RWA/SDO is more prone to name calling, and derogitory remarks about what they fear. I noticed your disdain for liberals, yet even though you admit Bush committed the same acts, you do seem to express a disproportional level of animosity toward the Left, and Obama.
    You also, alone, consider yourself the premier Authority in judging Dr. Altemeyers’ political motivations, more so than the man himself. That in itself suggests you have a hidden agenda, and RWA tendencies.

    I look forward to your 30 year study of Authoritarian behavior.

    Comment by Al B Tross — October 19, 2010 @ 3:25 pm

    • “Hidden agenda.” Yeah, I’m really a Satanist Bircher. Those posts are on a hidden page. The political philosophy I’ve been presenting to the public for a year and a half is my cover.

      Why is it such a secret? Ah, you think you believe in 11-dimensional chess. But I play in 111 dimensions.

      Seriously, if can you read even a little of what I’ve been writing here and think it sounds “RWA”, I think you’ll need a lot more than 30 years of study.

      (As for LWA, it’s briefly mentioned in the intro. I never said there was a prolonged discussion of it.)

      As for Obama and the corporate liberals, yes, I hate traitors more than the open enemy.

      And besides, um, they’re the ones currently, like, in power, you know?

      Though I know it’s part of the package of liberal lies to claim the Republicans have been in power all along. So I assume that’s what you’re getting at.

      (And of course if you know any history you’d know why an anarchist would have a special animosity toward elitist liberals. We’ve had dealings before.)

      If you studied as much as you claim, then you can understand the quotes for yourself. It’s ignorant tribal crap. He doesn’t know that the TARP is just a small part of the Bailout (a truly elementary concept, absolutely required in order to be qualified to have any sort of “pro-” opinion on the subject), nor does he have even the most basic understanding of what the Global War on Terror is about.

      But he’s darn well going to believe and conform, just like I pegged, the moment he denied that “progressive” Obama supporters were really just cultists.

      Comment by Russ — October 19, 2010 @ 3:47 pm

  7. It seems to me you are attacking the messenger, in order to discredit the message.
    Altemeyer is no economist, he is a sociologist, so lets keep the discussion to sociology, and RWA behavior.

    Lets look at you last statement, “But he’s darn well going to believe and conform, just like I pegged, the moment he denied that “progressive” Obama supporters were really just cultists.”

    YOU determine who is bad and good, according to YOUR terms. YOU determine Obama to be a traitor, and determine the level of severity of that perceived crime. Remember the discussion page 25 of the study, where RWAs were found to be much more likely to blame and “posse up” to go get THEM, and no matter who the THEM were. RWAs wanted to get them, even if it was themselves. RWAs display a higher level of “cognitive dissonance”, they cannot see their own contradictions.
    You display, quite obviously, this same behavior in all you posts. Ever since Reagan (and well before), the authoritarian Right has been influencing our political climate, to the detriment of our society, if not Democracy itself.(The Watergate break-ins, Iran Contra, S&L scandal #1, willful ignorance of the Al Quaida threat, deregulation of the finacial industry…)
    Yet you only focus on the black man in the presidency, and the weak congress that has held power for 4 years. Even if he were the leader of this secret Global Government you claim to exist, it could not happen, only in the last 4 years.

    I do believe there is tyrranny put upon us, but, in my opinion, it is coming to us the form of Corporate Facism, facilitated by Conservatism, whose members are almost all high RWA. Not all conservatives are RWA, but most RWAs are conservative. Altemeyers research proves this, regardless of what you think of the man himself.

    You claim to be an anarchist, can you give an example of a functioning, modern anarchist society?? Somalia? Afgahnistan?

    We have two basic choices, an Authoritarian dictatorship, be it from the political Right or Left, or an open Democracy, where we have to deal, and tolerate, each others idiocyncrcy, to form a Government that is open, honest and is truly beneficial to all mankind. For that you need rules, and an adherance to those rules, on both sides.

    Or is that notion “Liberal Elitism” to you?

    Comment by Al B Tross — October 21, 2010 @ 12:05 pm

    • I reiterate, I wasn’t writing about Altemeyer’s research but about how, when I asked him about Democratic party/liberal authoritarian tribalism, he denied it existed.

      I agree, Altemeyer is not an economist (in spite of those courses he proudly took in college), and clearly hasn’t studied the TARP, so why does he feel qualified to support it? By his own implicit standard (to which I of course do not subscribe), one must have system “credentials” to be qualified to have opinions.

      Your own intellectual poverty is revealed in your idiotic, racist reference to “a black man.”

      I assure you, a liberal racist like you is the one and only person reading this blog who cares about Obama’s race.

      And you’re either an idiot or a liar when you claim to think having 51 or more votes in a 100 vote chamber constitutes anything other than total strength if that bloc chooses to use it. The Democrats have chosen EXACTLY the policy they wanted.

      Since you mentioned years of study, how many years of remedial arithmetic do you liberals need?

      59 is greater than 41.

      60 is greater than 40.

      (You liberals claimed for years that for some incomprehensible reason you needed 60 votes to get “progressive” legislation, then when you had 60 you still couldn’t do it. It’s always some excuse, isn’t it?)

      Today 59 is still greater than 41.

      And of course you never needed 59 or 60 or 80 like Obama said was his dream figure.

      That’s because, hold on to your hat:

      51 is greater than 49.

      You never needed one vote more than 51 to enact the most radical, bleeding heart liberal agenda imaginable.

      So what went wrong??

      You show your brainwashed ignorance in your Somalia reference. Let me educate you. Somalia is not the result of a failed attempt at anarchism. Somalia is the result of your predatory capitalism cannibalizing itself and collapsing into chaos.

      Somalia is your dishonor, your shame, and that of all corporate liberals. It has nothing to do with anarchism.

      Afghanistan is similarly the victim of the struggle of authoritarian capitalism and authoritarian state capitalism, AKA communism.

      More recently, needless to say, it’s purely the victim of the vicious neoliberal assault. This infinite war crime is shared equally by both kleptocratic Washington gangs. Bush and Obama should sit side by side at the new Nuremburg tribunal humanity so desperately needs, to answer for the same crimes which were answered at the first Nuremburg.

      And that’s not even getting into the Bush and Obama’s Bailout, by far history’s worst robbery.

      I’ll close with your despicable slander of democracy. Democracy has nothing to do with your vile hijacking of notions like “elections” and such on behalf of a criminal elite.

      I can well believe that you liberals are too deficient and depraved to rule yourselves, and therefore you need “rules” dispensed from on high.

      But we the people can live with real openness, honesty, and beneficience through our own self-rule, in our own participatory democratic councils which are the centers of our own communities. We don’t need any “elites” whatsoever, and we certainly don’t need “liberals”.

      Since sovereignty by definition resides in the people, the only legitimate place for power to repose is at the level of direct democracy.

      Not only is this the only morally and politically legitimate world, it’s the only one which can work. We now know representative pseudo-democracy (the kind fraudulently exalted by conservatives and liberals) does not work. It goes onto the trash heap with communism, fascism, feudalism, and the rest of the dysfunctional elitist ideologies and arrangements.

      Positive democracy is not only the only moral option left, it’s the only one which we know does work in practice.

      If you could bring yourself to stop making armpit noises and Somalia jokes for a moment, perhaps you might consider the working example of the Spanish collectives, before they were destroyed by the combined violence of fascists, communists, and your liberals.

      I shudder to imagine what you probably think you know about the Spanish Civil War, but if you want to know the truth about it, you could start with these books:

      The Spanish Collectives, edited by Sam Dolgoff;

      Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell.

      In these books, participants describe Spanish anarchism in all its working vigor and moral aspiration, and are then harrowing in describing how the communists and liberals, out of their vicious elitist hate, consciously decided they’d rather see the fascists win than see anarchism work.

      As would all liberal elitists.

      Comment by Russ — October 21, 2010 @ 3:30 pm

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