“1/4 of Americans Qualify as Highly ‘Right-Wing Authoritarian’ New Poll Finds,” runs a recent headline from Business Insider. This shocking headline is only one of many similar articles reporting on a recent study.
If the headline’s implications are true, this is certainly terrifying news. But before we start checking under our bed for fascists every night, we might want to look a bit deeper into how the researchers behind this poll came to this number.
The “Right-Wing Authoritarianism Scale” was constructed by Canadian psychologist Bob Altemeyer, and it gained notoriety after Altemeyer and John Dean used it in their book Authoritarian Nightmare, published in August. Altemeyer’s scale has been around since long before the Trump presidency, and he explains how he created it in his 2006 digital book The Authoritarians.
The first thing one might notice about Altemeyer’s scale is that it is not designed to identify authoritarian tendencies independently of left-right beliefs. It simply scores people on a spectrum for how “right-wing authoritarian” they are. Scores range between 20 and 180, and respondents who score as low as possible are classified as “low right-wing authoritarians.”
Essentially, the premise of the study is that we’re all at least a little bit right-wing authoritarian. After surveying one thousand libertarians, for instance, the average score was a 90. But don’t worry, Altemeyer assures us, this score is “below the mid-point of the scale, which is 100,” so we “are not authoritarian followers in absolute terms.”
With this foundation, Altemeyer can only group people by degrees of right-wing authoritarianism. So how does he designate “high” and “low” right-wing authoritarianism? He explains this in a footnote:
What is a “high RWA”? When I am writing a scientific report of my research I call the 25% of a sample who scored highest on the RWA scale “High RWAs.”
In other words, his study doesn’t find that 25 percent of Americans are “High RWA”; it classifies 25 percent of the population as “High RWA” by default. Whether or not you find yourself in this category depends on how you score relative to other respondents, but there will always be 25 percent.
The more recent study making headlines currently does modify this approach somewhat, polling several Western countries and classifying the top 15 percent of respondents as “High RWA.” Then, when the data is disaggregated by country, 25.6 percent of American respondents fall into this category.
For some perspective, the new study uses the same scale as Altemeyer, so the absolute values of the score translate relatively well (the researchers replaced some of the questions relating to religious beliefs with ones regarding social views, but this had little effect on the overall results). It also asked people how they self-identified politically. Remembering that libertarians averaged a 90 on the Altemeyer scale, one might be surprised to find that of French respondents who self-identified as ideologically left, the average score was an 85.16. Self-identifying conservative Americans averaged a 109.3. This is less than a thirty-point difference., but again, we’re classifying as “High RWA” the highest relative scores, regardless of their absolute values, so even if the differences are marginal, a given number of people are always going to fall into this category.
So does this show that Americans are more authoritarian than other countries, or just more conservative? The survey itself offers some interesting insights. Respondents are given twenty statements, and scores are measured on a nine-point scale ranging from “very strongly disagree” to “very strongly agree.” The statements included reveal two glaring problems.
The first problem is that several of the statements are simply geared to assessing whether or not somebody is conservative, with nothing to indicate authoritarian tendencies. For some example statements:
There is absolutely nothing wrong with nudist camps.
Atheists and others who have rebelled against the established religions are no doubt every bit as good and virtuous as those who attend church regularly.
The “old-fashioned ways” and the “old-fashioned values” still show the best way to live.
If the survey were scoring separately whether someone was left or right wing, this might not be a problem. But if you “very strongly agree,” for instance, that “[t]he ‘old-fashioned ways’ and the ‘old-fashioned values’ still show the best way to live,” then congratulations! You just earned nine right-wing authoritarianism points!
The second problem is found in the statements that deal with multiple positions. Examples:
You have to admire those who challenged the law and the majority’s view by protesting for women’s abortion rights, for animal rights, or to abolish school prayer.
Some of the best people in our country are those who are challenging our government, criticizing religion, and ignoring the “normal way things are supposed to be done.”
God’s laws about abortion, pornography and marriage must be strictly followed before it is too late, and those who break them must be strongly punished.
Taking this last statement, how do you respond if you agree that “god’s laws about abortion, pornography and marriage must be strictly followed,” but only as personal views, disagreeing with the assertion that “those who break them must be strongly punished”?
Put differently, what do you do if you’re conservative, but not authoritarian? Altemeyer gives simple instructions: “When this happens, please combine your reactions, and write down how you feel on balance.” This may seem acceptable on the surface—you don’t get full authoritarian points for this answer . . . they just interpret some of your personal conservatism as political authoritarianism.
Seeing how this scale deliberately treats “right-wing” and “authoritarian” as essentially inseparable, you might be wondering how left-wing authoritarians would score. Well, good news! Altemeyer provides an answer for that, as well:
Authoritarian followers usually support the established authorities in their society, such as government officials and traditional religious leaders. Such people have historically been the “proper” authorities in life, the time-honored, entitled, customary leaders, and that means a lot to most authoritarians. Psychologically these followers have personalities featuring:
1) a high degree of submission to the established, legitimate authorities in their society;
2) high levels of aggression in the name of their authorities; and
3) a high level of conventionalism.
Because the submission occurs to traditional authority, I call these followers right-wing authoritarians.
To clarify, he offers this example:
[S]omeone who lived in a country long ruled by Communists and who ardently supported the Communist Party would also be one of my psychological right-wing authoritarians even though we would also say he was a political left-winger.
Not to leave it only to abstract hypotheticals, he claims in another footnote that “High RWAs in the USSR turned out to be mainly members of the Communist Party.”
So there’s the rub. To be a “high right-wing authoritarian,” you merely have to be right wing or authoritarian, but you need not be both. But given the statements included in the survey, being right wing carries a great deal more weight than being merely authoritarian. After all, conservatives get full authoritarian credit for agreeing that “old-fashioned values” are good for society, but the survey includes no statements of generic authoritarianism—the statements invariably include some suggestion of recognizably conservative values.
Given how transparently this survey was designed to engineer results showing high degrees of right-wing authoritarianism, it’s actually a bit shocking that conservative respondents only averaged a score of 110 on a 160-point scale.
But the cognitive dissonance of American academia and journalism is on full display in this survey. In reporting on the study, Morning Consult unironically said that the study “illustrate[s] the challenges involved in de-escalating the right-left tension in American society.” Indeed it does. As long as we have to overcome the kind of junk science and sensationalist, fear-mongering reporting that we find in this study, right-left tensions are bound to escalate.