Civics: The Experts Somehow Overlooked Authoritarians on the Left

Sally Satel:

An ambitious new study on the subject by the Emory University researcher Thomas H. Costello and five colleagues should settle the question. It proposes a rigorous new measure of antidemocratic attitudes on the left. And, by drawing on a survey of 7,258 adults, Costello’s team firmly establishes that such attitudes exist on both sides of the American electorate. (One co-author on the paper, I should note, was Costello’s adviser, the late Scott Lilienfeld—with whom I wrote a 2013 book and numerous articles.) Intriguingly, the researchers found some common traits between left-wing and right-wing authoritarians, including a “preference for social uniformity, prejudice towards different others, willingness to wield group authority to coerce behavior, cognitive rigidity, aggression and punitiveness towards perceived enemies, outsized concern for hierarchy, and moral absolutism.”

Published last month in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, the Costello team’s paper is persuasive, to the point that you have to wonder: How could past researchers have overlooked left-wing authoritarianism for so long? “For 70 years, the lore in the social sciences has been that authoritarianism was to be found exclusively on the political right,” the Rutgers University social psychologist Lee Jussim, who wasn’t involved in the new study, told me in an email. In the 1950 book The Authoritarian Personality, an inquiry into the psychological makeup of people strongly drawn to autocratic rule and repressive politics, 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. And they concluded that “the authoritarian type of human”— the kind of person whose enthusiastic support allows someone like Hitler to exercise power—was found only among conservatives. In the mid-1990s, the influential Canadian psychologist Bob Altemeyer described left-wing authoritarianism as “the Loch Ness Monster of political psychology—an occasional shadow, but no monster. ” Subsequently, other psychologists reached the same conclusion.