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I recently re-discovered the blog called Orcinus, and within it a series of articles by Sara Robinson about authoritarianism. She begins the series (click here) with a summary and review of John Dean's book, Conservatives Without Conscience. I was very much intrigued by this re-discovery, for several reasons. First, I did not realize that John Dean (who was made (in)famous by Watergate, and who is not a relative of mine, so far as I know), wrote about authoritarianism; second, I have not read anything within the academic literature about authoritarianism (see Dr. Robert Altemeyer) for years, probably not since I was in grad school; and, third, I am struck, again, by the very significant overlap between the construct of authoritarianism and the construct of psychopathy (which is an area in which I am quite interested in, click here).

I also am reminded of the phenomenon now known as workplace bullying, and especially the situation in which there is a supervisor who regularly targets others for mistreatment (click here for some of my previous writing about this). I have usually viewed that situation through the lens of the professional literatures about psychopathy and narcissism; but it is clear that the social psychology literature about authoritarianism is also very applicable. Here are excerpts from the first part of this series by Sara Robinson:
Authoritarians come in two flavors: leaders and followers. The two tiers are driven by very different motivations; and understanding these differences is the first key to understanding how authoritarian social structures work.

Leaders form just a small fraction of the group. Social scientists refer to this group as having a high social dominance orientation (SDO)... "These are people who seize every opportunity to lead, and who enjoy having power over others," says Dean -- and they have absolutely no qualms about objectifying people and breaking rules to advance their own ambitions. High-SDO personalities tend to emerge very early in life (which suggests at least some genetic predisposition): you probably remember a few from your own sandbox days, and almost certainly have known a few who've made your adult life a living hell as well.

High-SDO people are characterized by four core traits: they are dominating, opposed to equality, committed to expanding their own personal power, and amoral. These are usually accompanied by other unsavory traits, [as well]... High-SDO people are drawn to power, and will seek it ruthlessly and relentlessly, regardless of the consequences to others... [In modern America], we celebrate our most powerful social dominants, pay them obscene salaries, turn them into media stars, and hand over the keys to the empire to them almost gratefully. They have free rein to pursue their ambitions unchecked, with no cultural brakes on their rapacity. They will do whatever they can get away with; and we'll not only let them, but often cheer them on...

While the high-SDO leaders are defined by Dean as dominating, opposed to equality, desirous of personal power, and amoral, right-wing authoritarian followers have a different but very complementary set of motivations. The three core traits that define them are:

1. Submission to authority. "These people accept almost without question the statements and actions of established authorities, and comply with such instructions without further ado" writes Dean. "[They] are intolerant of criticism of their authorities, because they believe the authority is unassailably correct. Rather than feeling vulnerable in the presence of powerful authorities, they feel safer. For example, they are not troubled by government surveillance of citizens because they think only wrongdoers need to be concerned by such intrusions... "

2. Aggressive support of authority. Right-wing followers do not hesitate to inflict physical, psychological, financial, social, or other forms of harm on those they see as threatening the legitimacy of their belief system and their chosen authority figure. This includes anyone they see as being too different from their norm (like gays or racial minorities). It's also what drives their extremely punitive attitude toward discipline and justice...

3. Conventionality. Right-wing authoritarian followers prefer to see the world in stark black-and-white. They conform closely with the rules defined for them by their authorities, and do not stray far from their own communities. This extreme, unquestioning conformity makes them insular, fearful, hostile to new information, uncritical of received wisdom, and able to accept vast contradictions without perceiving the inherent hypocrisy... Conformity also feeds their sense of themselves as more moral and righteous than others...
Anyone who looks at our contemporary culture, and the various parts of that culture, can see these characteristics and dynamics in full swing. They are readily apparent in government and big corporate environments, but they can also be seen in operation in smaller systems (closer to home, for most of us): in our work environments, in religious communities, certainly in the military, and of course within families. And I would submit that, although this set of dynamics might be over-represented among politically conservative (right-wing) groups and individuals, it is not their sole property; I have personally observed amazingly authoritarian types who identify themselves as politically liberal, and they are perfectly capable of garnering followers who may well also see themselves as politically left-wing. But this description of the personality, cognitive, and behavioral dynamics of authoritarian leaders and their followers, is right on target, regardless of political leanings.