Left Wing Authoritarianism Is Real And It Can Be Proven Scientifically

For the Atlantic, Sally Satel wrote about a surprising new study conducted by Thomas H. Costello and a team of fellow researchers at Emory University. Costello’s study has proven a phenomenon that was presumed by social psychologists to be nonexistent - the concept of left-wing authoritarianism. Specifically, Costello’s study found that 

“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.’”

That authoritarianism is not connected to one political ideology should not come as a surprise to anyone. From Pinochet to Pol Pot, authoritarianism runs across the entire spectrum of politics. To this day, debates still flare up over whether the Third Reich was a left-wing or right-wing authoritarian fascist movement. Over the past five years, accelerating rapidly over the past year, we’ve seen the rise of violent authoritarianism in both progressivism and conservatism. From Portland to DC, both left-wing and right-wing authoritarianism has become ascendant. 

And of course, I’d be remiss if I didn’t address the “softer” forms of authoritarianism being deployed by both progressives and conservatives -- opinion policing, ostracization, shaming, and rigid enforcement of ideology. While these forms of authoritarianism are not as violent as, say, setting a police station on fire or storming the Capitol building they are far more insidious and do far more damage to people individually. 

So how did it take this long for that concept to make it into academia? It starts with the original examination of authoritarianism and political ideology

“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. 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.”

In the research that led to The Authoritarian Personality, Adorno and his colleagues developed an ‘F-scale’ to measure fascist attitudes; Altemeyer later drew on that research to create a scale measuring right-wing authoritarianism by assessing certain personality traits—including feelings of aggression, willingness to submit to authority, and a quality that he called ‘conventionalism’—not strictly related to a subject’s political conservatism. Altemeyer’s right-wing authoritarian (RWA) scale remains ‘the gold standard for conceptualizing and evaluating all kinds of authoritarianism,’ Costello told me. But when Altemeyer later turned his attention to left-wing authoritarianism (LWA), he erroneously assumed it would be identical to the right-wing variety. His LWA scale barely identified any subjects. He either had set the threshold too high or was measuring the wrong attitudes.”

If you look closely you will see the flaw in this research -- in 1950 positive associations with concepts like societal norms, rigid thinking, and sexual repression would only be found in conservatives. It would seem that Adorno had already come to a conclusion about what sort of political ideology would embrace authoritarianism and then based his definitions of the concept around those conclusions. Nevertheless, Altemeyer and other psychologists adopted this definition of authoritarianism and who it most appeals to and by the 1990s the concept of left-wing authoritarianism was considered absurd. 

Costello and his team broadened their definition of authoritarianism both to address the flaws of the past research and to bring the concept more in line with modern topics and ideas. They developed a 39 question survey with statements such as “We need to replace the established order by any means necessary” and “Getting rid of inequality is more important than protecting the so-called ‘right’ to free speech” ranked on a scale of 1-7, the researchers found that by applying their new LWA scale they were able to identify the strains of authoritarian thought on the left. In comparing the results of their new LWA scale versus the old RWA scale, Costello’s team found that

“The authoritarian mentality, whether on the far left or far right, the authors conclude, exerts ‘powerful pressures to maintain discipline among members, advocate aggressive and censorious means of stifling opposition, [and] believe in top-down absolutist leadership.’”

Furthermore, Costello’s experiment found another truth those of us outside of academia have known for decades -- authoritarianism does not come out of political ideology, but in fact the process is the exact opposite. One is an authoritarian first and then seeks to implement their preferred political ideology through authoritarian means, not the other way around. Authoritarianism exists outside of political ideology, then gets introduced into political ideology by those who want to impose their political will. 

When one takes into account the distinct leftist tilt of researchers and academia, it’s easy to see why this phenomenon has gone under-discussed. As Satel points out

“Universities have long tilted to the left, but that tendency has deepened as education has become ever more highly correlated with political ideology. Whatever its origin, this political imbalance makes truth-seeking harder. Studies have repeatedly shown that investigators’ sociopolitical views influence the questions they ask. What’s more, ideologically concordant reviewers are more likely to rate abstracts and papers highly if the findings comport with their own beliefs, all else being equal.”

It’s true, critiquing your own movement is not a good way to make friends and get papers published. I want to take this idea a step farther -- it’s also a deeply uncomfortable position to put one’s self in. It means objectively looking at what is going on within your political movement and offering up criticism of people whose goals you agree with but not their tactics. You will lose friends, colleagues, and opportunities. In our current environment, you will be attacked on social media, usually viciously. Internally, it might make you question some of your beliefs and what you are personally comfortable associating yourself with. And after watching a few others go into the coliseum and get torn apart, it’s logical to ask yourself “is it really worth it to me to go fight this battle?” For the vast majority of people the answer to that question is “no”, I imagine for those who work in an industry that incentivizes avoiding certain sorts of critical thought the decision is a no brainer. 

It feels sad and bizarre to say this, but what Costello and his team did with this research was brave. It takes a lot of guts to go against the conventional wisdom of your environment, and I certainly hope he and his team receive more rewards than punishments for doing so. I also hope that this study can be the beginning of a movement that questions untrue orthodoxies in the social sciences and academia -- we cannot begin to address the problems we face in our society if we cannot speak truthfully on them.