The Authoritarian Voter (updated again)

March 21, 2011

NOVEMBER 13, 2013 update: Columnist Francis Russell has revisited the material in a crisp and elegant article at

A commenter on the Globe site offered a condensed version of this argument from another source (see below).  This idea of the authoritarian personality as the basis of blue conservatism seems to be gaining traction.  Rod


This week I found The Authoritarians, a book about the behaviour of followers.  The author draws upon studies in obedience done at North American universities in the seventies (electric shocks, memory tests, orders to inflict pain) to construct a personality index of attitudes toward authority, conformity, and the desire to punish others. “Right-wing authoritarianism (RWA) is a personality trait, like being characteristically bashful or happy or grumpy or dopey” rather than a political position.

An Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of Manitoba, Dr. Robert Altemeyer has written many books on the subject, and was the source to which Watergate Investigator John Dean went for his 2006 book on the Nixon years in the White House.

The book is online and an easy download.  As part of the book Altemeyer devised a quiz which enables a reader to determine where on the authoritarianism-spectrum he or she sits, from low-RWA to high-RWA.  High-RWAs have a deep need to obey the rules.  Altemeyer explains that the left and right wings are identical when it comes to authoritarianism, so he has dropped the left for reasons of simplicity.  The spread is from low to high dependence upon authority.

Authoritarian Submission.  Everybody submits to authority to some degree…. But some people go way beyond the norm and submit to authority even when it is dishonest, corrupt, unfair and evil. We would expect authoritarian followers especially to submit to corrupt authorities in their lives: to believe them when there is little reason to do so, to trust them when huge grounds for suspicion exist, and to hold them blameless when they do something wrong. p. 15

In this context, if the Conservative base is made up of high-RWA submissives, it’s easy to understand why Stephen Harper’s approval numbers have shot up in the face of the wave of scandals and accusations of bad government in the last week.  High-RWAs won’t blame their leader if he does something wrong.

Altemeyer takes pains to point out that the authoritarian follower takes this position out of an inner need.  We can’t blame the leader for the followers’ ardent submission, but it’s the followers who do great damage in the name of the leader, and of course they respond well to opportunities to inflict punishment upon those against whom they harbour grudges or prejudices, so toughening sentencing laws and building prisons, blocking immigration, buying weapons, capital punishment, all play solidly to the insecurities and need to punish of this high-RWA base.

It is also no surprise that current polls show that Canadians mistrust Michael Ignatieff.  Stephen Harper’s attack ads have provided a licensed outlet for the hostility seething inside high-RWA Canadians, feelings which are normally suppressed by the rules of multiculturalism, bilingualism, political correctness and good manners.  Harper has brought back George Orwell’s “Two minutes of hate” in his attack ads against Michael Ignatieff.

The attack ads tell us it’s O.K. to revile this man in a world where hatred is almost universally frowned upon.  In the minds of high-RWAs Stephen Harper has made Michael Ignatieff the scapegoat for everything that ails Canada, and perversely blames his opponent for the very defects which limit Harper’s own success:  the inability to relate to people, selfishness, lack of empathy, Americanism, a catalogue of rash statements, flip-flops, connections to crooks, questionable family.

Harper has shouted “sick’em” to his pack of authoritarian supporters, and because the leader wants it, they are prepared to countenance even attacks upon the Ignatieff family, attacks they would normally shun out of politeness, because the vast majority of high-RWA people, Altemeyer will tell you, are fine, happy citizens, good neighbours, and loyal friends.  It’s only in their willingness to follow orders and ignore the basic foundation of democracy, a single standard of behaviour for everyone, that they become a threat to democracy.

Altermeyer suggests argument will accomplish nothing with a high-RWA person,  but studies in the obedience lab showed that while high-RWA candidates were all willing to administer painful jolts of electricity to test subjects as punishment when ordered by the test administrator, even though it tore them up emotionally to do so, they lost their bloody-mindedness if another team member refused.  Peer influence immediately returned the test subjects to their normal levels of empathy.

So is peer influence the way to negate the poisonous effect of attack ads and a negative campaign?  Perhaps candidates’ lawn signs are more important than I thought.

According to Altermeyer the high-RWA personality’s desire is to run with the pack, and he or she will take care not to get lost in case the group changes direction.  Highly visible examples of alternative opinions might help.

So I’m going to stand up here and say it. The current Conservative attack ads are unfairly torturing a man and his family.  Stephen Harper may want to turn his base against Michael Ignatieff, but enough people saying, “NO!” may have an effect.  Lynch mobs are wrong.

This election will be fought between the high-RWA’s and the low-RWA’s, the group of voters currently declaring, “A plague on all your houses!” when the pollsters call.

Merely to avoid the political process is not enough.  It is up to us independently-minded citizens to stand up for democracy and put an end to attack ads and the corruption which they bring to the government and even the citizens of our country.  We need to get out the low-RWA vote.

UPDATE:  April 15

This comment turned up on the Globe and Mail website:

Read this please.

Why Conservatives Will Always Vote Conservative.

(Adorno, Frenkel-Brunswik, Levinson, & Sanford, 1950)

“Authoritarianism…happens when the followers submit too much to the leaders, trust them too much, and give them too much leeway to do whatever they want–which often is something undemocratic, tyrannical and brutal.” (Altemeyer, 2006, p. 2)

The Authoritarian Personality
An Authoritarian is “someone who, because of his personality, submits by leaps and bows to his authorities.” (p. 8)
“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.” (p. 9)

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 (believing that everybody should have to follow the norms and customs that your authorities have decreed ).(Altemeyer, 1981, 1988, 2006)

High authoritarians are extremely self-righteous individuals who maintain a strong acceptance of traditional (i.e. Religious) values and norms, possess a general willingness to submit to legitimate authority, and display a general tendency to aggress against others (especially those who threaten their conventional values and norms). They see their own aggressive behaviour as righteous rather than hurtful. (Haddock, Zanna, & Esses, 1993)

Authoritarians believe in traditional gender roles, racial prejudice, negative attitudes toward homosexuals, conservative (fundamental or orthodox) religious values, and are low on openness to experience.

They Are Also Extra-Punitive Toward Law Breakers

*Assign longer jail times for any law breaker (no matter how small the crime)

*They think the crimes are more serious than most people do, and they find “common criminals”
to be highly disgusting and repulsive – it makes them feel glad to be able to punish a perpetrator

*But they go easy on authorities who commit crimes

UPDATE: What I did not expect was for someone to come up with the same argument from another source. Apparently your political orientation has to do with how your brain is wired.


2 Responses to “The Authoritarian Voter (updated again)”

  1. Rush Cahall Says:

    Fascinating! As a gringo I was reading that but relating it all the U.S. politics. I am relating it to my belief that some Americans want a king as president… someone who they believe is superior to them and who is infallible.

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