Wednesday, 26 May 2010

Right-Wing Authoritarianism: How Sarah Palin is Wired

Guest post by sunnyjane

Please note that this is a considerably shortened version of sunnyjane's post. You can download the full post HERE.

During a recent trip to my local library I picked up an audio book titled Conservatives Without Conscience by John Dean, Counsel to President Nixon during the Watergate scandal. Dean’s initial purpose in writing the book was to try to understand how the Conservative Party had moved so far to the right during the thirty or so years he had been out of the political mainstream.

conservatives without conscience

What he discovered was that an entirely new breed of conservatives – the right-wing authoritarians – had taken over the Republican Party, and that they were completely without principles, ethics, honor and scruples, those traits that make up the human conscience.

In the preface Dean writes, “Contemporary conservatives have become extremely contentious, confrontational, and aggressive in nearly every area of politics and governing. Today they have a tough-guy (and, in a few instances, a tough-gal) attitude, an arrogant and antagonistic style, along with a narrow outlook intolerant of those who challenge their extreme thinking. Incivility is now their norm.”

He goes on to say that “the right-wing presidency of George W. Bush and Richard B. Cheney took positions that were in open defiance of international treaties or blatant violations of domestic laws, while pushing the limits of presidential power beyond the parameters of the Constitution, aided and abetted by a conservative Republican Congress that refused to check or balance the president.”


At Palingates we have all tried to label Palin’s character, from the serious (sociopath) to the mocking (whack job). John Dean names GOP political leaders who are very familiar to us (Rove, Gingrich, DeLay, Chaney, etc.) as those who fit the right-wing authoritarian profile.

However, when his book was published in January 2006, Sarah Palin was virtually unknown below the 60th Parallel, and was only then gearing up to run for governor of Alaska. And yet, it is obvious that the profile of a right-wing authoritarian fits her so perfectly that it is shocking and very unsettling. At last, we get some insight into Sarah Palin’s personality and its associated behavior.

And it ain’t pretty.

Understanding Authoritarianism

In Conservatives Without Conscience, Dean relied heavily on the work of Dr. Robert Altemeyer, an Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of Manitoba. Dr. Altemeyer has studied authoritarianism for more than forty years, has written extensively on the subject, and has refined the theory into the concept – and clinical measure – of Right-Wing Authoritarianism.

+++You can download Dr. Altemeyer's complete book

"The Authoritarians" for free HERE+++

According to Dr. Altemeyer, authoritarianism is a situation authoritarian followers and authoritarian leaders plot between themselves. It 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.

“In my day,” he states, “authoritarian fascist and authoritarian communist dictatorships posed the biggest threats to democracies, and eventually lost to them in wars both hot and cold. But authoritarianism itself has not disappeared.” And he goes on to present the case that “…the greatest threat to American democracy today arises from a militant authoritarianism that has become a cancer upon the nation.”

Some understanding and insight into why they act the way they do, which is often mind-boggling:

- They revere those who give their lives defending freedom and then support moves to take that freedom away.
- They go on believing things that have been disproved over and over again, and disbelieve things that are well established.
- They think they are the best people in the world, when so much of what they do should show them they are not.
- Their leaders so often turn out to be crooks and hypocrites.
- Both the followers and the leaders are so aggressive that hostility is practically their trademark.


Is a picture of Sarah beginning to emerge here?

Why We Need to Understand Right-Wing Authoritarianism

Dr. Altemeyer believes that if we are concerned about what has happened in America since a radical right-wing segment of the population began taking control of the government in 1994, we will find a lot that says our fears are well founded. The concept of a constitutional democracy has been under attack – by the American government, no less. The mid-term elections of 2006 gave hope that the best values and traditions of the country will ultimately prevail. But it could prove a huge mistake to think that the enemies of freedom and equality have lost the war just because they were rebuffed at the polls.

Dr. Altemeyer: “I’ll be very much surprised if [the right-wing] leaders don’t frame the [2006] setback as a test of the followers’ faith, causing them to redouble their efforts. They came so close to getting what they want, they’re not likely to pack up and go away without an all-out drive. But even if their leaders cannot find an acceptable presidential candidate for 2008, even if authoritarians play a much diminished role in the next election, even if they temporarily fade from view, they will still be there, aching for a dictatorship that will force their views on everyone. And they will surely be energized again, as they were in 1994, if a new administration infuriates them while carrying out its mandate. The country is not out of danger.”

Authoritarian Leaders…

Right-wing authoritarian leaders, also referred to as individuals with social dominance orientation, are take-charge types who want to be submitted to. As John Dean notes, they “…appear to be best positioned to become leaders of right-wing movements and undertakings, a group Altemeyer describes as ‘scary’.”


Additional research I did on this subject revealed what some researchers call "The Personal Power, Meanness and Dominance Scale". Briefly, it outlines statements authoritarian leaders would agree with:

It’s a mistake to interfere with the “law of the jungle.” Some people were meant to dominate others.

Winning is not the first thing; it’s the only thing.

If I have power in a situation, I should use it however I have to, to get my way.

I would be cold-blooded and vengeful, if that’s what it took to reach my goals.

Money, wealth, and luxuries mean a lot to me.

It’s a dog-eat-dog world where you have to be ruthless at times.

It would not bother me if other people thought I was mean and pitiless.

I enjoy having the power to hurt people when they anger or disappoint me.

I will do my best to destroy anyone who deliberately blocks my plans and goals.

I like other people to be afraid of me.

Social dominance scores correlate very strongly with these answers to the Power Mad scale. High scorers are inclined to be intimidating, ruthless, and vengeful. They scorn such noble acts as helping others, and being kind, charitable, and forgiving. Instead they would rather be feared than loved, and be viewed as mean, pitiless, and vengeful. They love power, including the power to hurt in their drive to the top.

Typical traits that distinguish a right-wing authoritarian leader are:

  • typically men
  • dominating
  • opposes equality
  • desirous of personal power
  • amoral (unprincipled, unethical, dishonorable and unscrupulous)
  • intimidating and bullying
  • faintly hedonistic (self-indulgent)
  • vengeful
  • pitiless
  • exploitive
  • manipulative
  • dishonest
  • cheats to win
  • highly prejudiced (racist, sexist, homophobic)
  • mean-spirited
  • militant
  • nationalistic
  • tells others what they want to hear
  • takes advantage of "suckers"
  • specializes in creating false images to sell self
  • may or may not be religious
  • usually politically and economically conservative/Republican


Again, it is easy to see that Sarah Palin possesses all of these traits except the first, “typically men.”

…and Their Followers

Altemeyer reminds us that an authoritarian leader must have authoritarian followers.

Psychologically, these people have personalities that are highly submissive to established authorities in their society; are highly aggressive in the name of their authorities; and are highly conventional, i.e. conservative.

“We shall probably always have individuals lurking among us who yearn to play tyrant. Some of them will be dumber than two bags of broken hammers, and some will be very bright. Many will start so far down in society that they have little chance of amassing power; others will have easy access to money and influence all their lives.

On the national scene some will be frustrated by prosperity, internal tranquility, and international peace – all of which significantly dim the prospects for a demagogue-in-waiting. Others will benefit from historical crises that automatically drop increased power into a leader’s lap. But ultimately, in a democracy, a wannabe tyrant is just a comical figure on a soapbox unless a huge wave of supporters lifts him [or, in this case, her] to high office. That’s how Adolf Hitler destroyed the Weimar Republic and became the Führer.”

As Altemeyer points out, we need to understand the people out there doing “the wave.” Because, ultimately, the problem is the followers.

Altemeyer characterizes right-wing authoritarians as “especially submissive to establish authority”; as showing “general aggressiveness” toward others when such behavior is perceived to be sanctioned by established authorities; and as highly compliant with social convention endorsed by society and established authorities.

They are submissive to authority, aggressively support authority, and are conservative in matters ranging from religious, in their dress and behavior, and believe themselves the country’s true patriots.

Traits affirmed to be those of authoritarian followers include:

- They travel in tight circles of like-minded people.

- Their thinking is more likely based on what authorities have told them rather than on their own critical judgment, which results in their beliefs being filled with inconsistencies.

- They harbor numerous double standards and hypocrisies.

- The are hostile toward so many minorities they seem to be equal-opportunity bigots, yet they are generally unaware of their prejudices.

- They see the world as a dangerous place, with society teetering on the brink of self-destruction from evil and violence, and when their fear conflates with their self-righteousness, they appoint themselves guardians of public morality, or God’s Designated Hitters.

- They think of themselves as far more moral and upstanding than other – and self-deception aided by their religiosity (many are “born again”) and their ability to “evaporate guilt.”

Altemeyer goes on to say, “Authoritarian followers, who have always been there but were usually uninterested or unorganized, are now mightily active and highly organized in American politics. They claim to be the “real Americans,” but the America they yearn to create seems quite antithetical to the nation envisioned by the founding fathers. Far from seeing the wisdom of separating church and state, for example, they want a particular religious point of view to control government and be spread and enforced by the government. Furthermore, if research of abolishing the Bill of Rights and tolerance for government injustices is to be believed, authoritarian followers frankly don’t give a damn about democratic freedoms.”

Typical traits that distinguish a right-wing authoritarian follower are:

· men and woman

· submissive to authority

· aggressive on behalf of authority

· conventional

· highly religious

· moderate to little education

· trust untrustworthy authorities

· prejudiced (particularly against homosexuals, women, and followers of religions other than their own)

· mean-spirited

· narrow-minded

· intolerant

· bulling

· zealous

· dogmatic

· uncritical toward chosen authority

· hypocritical

· inconsistent and contradictory

· prone to panic easily

· highly self-righteous

· moralistic

· strict disciplinarian

· severely punitive

· demands loyalty and returns it

· little self-awareness

· usually politically and economically conservative/Republican

Evangelical Conservatives, the Founding Fathers, and the Constitution: An Unholy Mess

“Whether the issue is divorce, materialism, sexual promiscuity, racism, physical abuse in marriage, or neglect of a biblical world view,” wrote evangelical theologian Ronald J. Sider in The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience, “the polling data point to widespread, blatant disobedience of clear biblical moral demands on the part of people who allegedly are evangelical, born-again Christians. The statistics are devastating.”

Dr. Altemeyer offers an explanation to this paradox by telling us that right-wing authoritarians employ “a number of psychological tricks and defenses that enable them to act fairly beastly, all the while thinking they are the good people. For instance, they do not realize they are more prejudiced and hostile than most people. In fact, they do not realize any of the many undesirable things that research has discovered about them.”

He goes on to say, “Right-wing authoritarians shed their guilt very efficiently when they do something wrong. Typically they turn to God for forgiveness, and as a result feel completely forgiven afterwards. Catholics, for example, use confession. Fundamentalist Protestants use a somewhat different mechanism. Many who are ‘born-again’ believe that if you confess your sins and accept Jesus as your personal savior you will go to heaven – no matter what else you do afterwards. (This is called ‘cheap grace’ by those within fundamentalism who hold its members to higher standards.)”

In brief, Altemeyer says, “When a great deal of misbehavior is engaged in by born-again Christians it troubles their fundamentalist consciences very little, for after all, they are the Saved. So by using their religious beliefs effectively, right-wing authoritarians have high moral standards in many regards, but pretty ineffective consciences.”


This works out very nicely for all right-wing politicians, but especially so for Sarah Palin. We are all too familiar with her penchant for deceit and hypocrisy, but in her case I believe she moves ‘cheap grace’ into the realm of a premium-free sinner’s policy issued by the Get Saved, We Gotcha Covered Christian Insurance Agency.

In all my research on Sarah Palin and her religious zealotry, I believe Micah J. Stone, freelance writer for the Portland Humanist Examiner, summed up the issue most effectively in his article, Sarah Palin: Religion as a political tool, dated December 5, 2009:

“Sarah Palin demonstrates mastery of the Christian vernacular, deftly wielding the language of religion as a political tool. In a recently released interview, Palin urged the United States to dedicate itself to seeking God’s will, arguing a humble spirit could help leaders get more answers on issues such as health care, energy and national security.

If Sarah Palin has a secret weapon, it is religion. Palin can talk the talk, and the Christian right can't get enough of it. Palin is not embarrassed to make the feeble minded intellectual claims required of a Christian fundamentalist."

Sarah Palin, the GOP attack dog (she proudly said it herself: a pit bull with lipstick) is responsible for the negative reaction to President Obama’s election. Single-handedly, she stoked the base fears and hatreds of America’s right-wing followers. With her “pallin’ around with terrorists” and “we love comin’ to these small towns where real Americans live,” Palin provided the duct tape that has permanently bound the out-of-power right-wing leaders to their uneducated, incurious, non-discerning, obedient minions.

Now, with expanded opportunities to stir the fear-and-hatred pot with her highly paid verbal Keystone Kops rants, she intensifies the polarization of a nation that began with John McCain’s announcement of his vice-presidential running mate on August 29, 2008. In my mind, that was a day of national disgrace.


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