Monday, October 3

'The Authoritarian Personality' Revisited


When it first appeared in 1950, The Authoritarian Personality was primed for classic status. It ran to just under 1,000 pages. Its publisher, Harper & Brothers, had brought out Gunnar Myrdal's An American Dilemma six years earlier and drew explicit parallels between the one book and the other. Its authors were, or would soon become, famous. Theodor Adorno, the senior author, was a member of the influential Frankfurt school of "critical theory," a Marxist-inspired effort to diagnose the cultural deformities of late capitalism. R. Nevitt Sanford was a distinguished psychologist at the University of California at Berkeley who, in the year the book was published, would be dismissed from his professorship for refusing to sign a loyalty oath. Else Frenkel-Brunswick had been trained at Freud's University of Vienna and was a practicing lay analyst in Northern California. Twenty-three years old at the time the study began, Daniel J. Levinson would become famous for his 1978 The Seasons of a Man's Life (Knopf), which popularized the notion of a "midlife crisis."

Then there was the subject matter. The Authoritarian Personality addressed itself to the question of whether the United States might harbor significant numbers of people with a "potentially fascistic" disposition. It did so with methods that claimed to represent the cutting edge in social science -- and that's where the book got in trouble with scholars of its day. But in today's political climate, it might be time to revisit its thesis.

Before anyone was talking about the radical right in America -- the John Birch Society, the most notorious of the new conservative groups to develop in the postwar period, wasn't founded until 1958 -- The Authoritarian Personality seemed to anticipate the fervent crusades against communism and the attacks on Chief Justice Earl Warren, the United Nations, and even fluoridation that would characterize postwar politics in the United States. The fact that the radical right has transformed itself from a marginal movement to an influential sector of the contemporary Republican Party makes the book's choice of subject matter all the more prescient.

Finally, the book was filled with data, including its famous "F scale." Based on how respondents answered a series of questions, the F scale identified nine key dimensions of a protofascist personality: conventionality, submissiveness, aggression, subjectivity, superstitiousness, toughness, cynicism, the tendency to project unconscious emotional responses onto the world, and heightened concerns about sex.

For example, subjects were asked how much they disagreed or agreed with such statements as:

"Obedience and respect for authority are the most important virtues children should learn." (Submissiveness.)

"Homosexuality is a particularly rotten form of delinquency and ought to be severely punished." (Aggression and sex.)

"No insult to our honor should ever go unpunished." (Toughness and aggression.)

"No matter how they act on the surface, men are interested in women for only one reason." (Sex and cynicism.)

The F scale was only one of the research methods featured in The Authoritarian Personality. The authors also measured ethnocentrism; administered Thematic Appreciation Tests, presenting subjects with pictures and asking them to tell a story about them; and relied upon clinical interviews resembling psychoanalytic sessions. Rarely, if ever, have social scientists probed ordinary human beings in as much detail as did the book's authors.

Indeed, participating in this study was so demanding for subjects that the authors made no effort to engage in random sampling. They first tried their methods out on college students, the usual captive audience, before getting the cooperation of the leaders of various organizations to survey their groups -- unions, the merchant marine, employment-service veterans, prison inmates, psychology-clinic patients, and PTA's.

Unlike much postwar social science, The Authoritarian Personality did not present data showing the correlations between authoritarianism and a variety of variables such as social class, religion, or political affiliation. Instead the authors tried to draw a composite picture of people with authoritarian leanings: Perhaps their most interesting finding was that such people identify with the strong and are contemptuous of the weak. Extensive case studies of particular individuals were meant to convey the message that people who seemed exceptionally conventional on the outside could be harboring radically intolerant thoughts on the inside.

D espite its bulk, prestigious authors, and seeming relevance, however, The Authoritarian Personality never did achieve its status as a classic. Four years after its publication, it was subject to strong criticism in Studies in the Scope and Method of "The Authoritarian Personality" (Free Press, 1954), edited by the psychologists Richard Christie and Marie Jahoda. Two criticisms were especially devastating, one political, the other methodological.

How, the University of Chicago sociologist Edward A. Shils wanted to know, could one write about authoritarianism by focusing only on the political right? In line with other works of the 1950s, such as Hannah Arendt's Origins of Totalitarianism (Harcourt, Brace, 1951), Shils pointed out that "Fascism and Bolshevism, only a few decades ago thought of as worlds apart, have now been recognized increasingly as sharing many very important features." The United States had its fair share of fellow travelers and Stalinists, Shils argued, and they too worshiped power and denigrated weakness. Any analysis that did not recognize that the extremes of left and right were similar in their authoritarianism was inherently flawed.

Herbert H. Hyman and Paul B. Sheatsley, survey-research specialists, scrutinized every aspect of The Authoritarian Personality's methodology and found each wanting. Sampling was all but nonexistent. The wording of the questionnaire was flawed. The long, open-ended interviews were coded too subjectively. No method existed for determining what caused what. Whatever the subjects said about themselves could not be verified. The F scale lacked coherence.

It is true that, social science being what it is, fault can be found with any methodology. But the critique by Hyman and Sheatsley in some ways became more famous than the study it analyzed; when I attended graduate school in the 1960s, The Authoritarian Personality was treated as a social-science version of the Edsel, a case study of how to do everything wrong.

Perhaps Adorno had all that coming. Along with Max Horkheimer, who played an instrumental role in the research that went into the book, Adorno had published Dialektik der Aufklärung (Dialectic of Enlightenment) in Amsterdam in 1947. Among its other attacks on the technical rationality of advanced capitalism, that book dismissed "positivism," the effort to model the social sciences on the natural ones. The significant flaws of The Authoritarian Personality allowed quantitative social scientists to return the favor and dismiss critical theory.

Yet despite its flaws, The Authoritarian Personality deserves a re-evaluation. In many ways, it is more relevant now than it was in 1950.

Certainly the criticisms of Edward Shils seem misplaced 50 years on. Communism really did have some of the authoritarian characteristics of fascism, yet Communism is gone from the Soviet Union and without any influence in the United States. Many writers inspired by Shils, like Jeane J. Kirkpatrick, who would become the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, held that totalitarian regimes, unlike authoritarian ones, were not reformable from within. Yet the Soviet Union collapsed as a result of domestic upheaval. Totalitarianism still exists in a country like North Korea, but in the U.S.S.R. it never was quite as "total" in its control over most of its populations as many postwar scholars maintained. When it collapsed, so did many of the theories that once sought to explain it.

Even more significant than the collapse of left-wing authoritarianism has been the success of right-wing authoritarianism. Perhaps the authors of The Authoritarian Personality were on to something when they made questions about sexuality in general, and homosexuality in particular, so central to diagnosing authoritarianism.

In the June 19, 2005, issue of The New York Times Magazine, the journalist Russell Shorto interviewed activists against gay marriage and concluded that they were motivated not by a defense of traditional marriage, but by hatred of homosexuality itself. "Their passion," Shorto wrote, "comes from their conviction that homosexuality is a sin, is immoral, harms children and spreads disease. Not only that, but they see homosexuality itself as a kind of disease, one that afflicts not only individuals but also society at large and that shares one of the prominent features of a disease: It seeks to spread itself." It is not difficult to conclude where those people would have stood on the F scale.

Not all opponents of gay marriage, of course, are incipient fascists; the left, to its discredit, frequently dismisses the views of conservative opponents on, for example, abortion, church-state separation, or feminism as irrational bigotry, when the conclusions of most people who hold such views stem from deeply held, and morally reasoned, religious convictions. At the same time, many of the prominent politicians successful in today's conservative political environment adhere to a distinct style of politics that the authors of The Authoritarian Personality anticipated. Public figures, in fact, make good subjects for the kinds of analysis upon which the book relied; visible, talkative, passionate, they reveal their personalities to us, allowing us to evaluate them.

Consider the case of John R. Bolton, now our ambassador to the United Nations. While testifying about Bolton's often contentious personality, Carl Ford Jr., a former head of intelligence within the U.S. State Department, called him a "a quintessential kiss-up, kick-down sort of guy." Surely, in one pithy sentence, that perfectly summarizes the characteristics of those who identify with strength and disparage weakness. Everything Americans have learned about Bolton -- his temper tantrums, intolerance of dissent, and black-and-white view of the world -- step right out of the clinical material assembled by the authors of The Authoritarian Personality.

And Bolton is by no means alone. Sen. John Cornyn, Republican of Texas, last spring said that violent attacks on judges, who cannot be held accountable, were understandable. He might well have scored highly on his response to this item from the F scale: "There are some activities so flagrantly un-American that, when responsible officials won't take the proper steps, the wide-awake citizen should take the law into his own hands." House Majority Leader Tom DeLay is in difficulty for his close ties to lobbyists like Jack Abramoff. Would those men agree with the statement, "When you come right down to it, it's human nature never to do anything without an eye to one's own profit"?

One item on the F scale, in particular, seems to capture in just a few words the way that many Christian-right politicians view the world in an age of terror: "Too many people today are living in an unnatural, soft way; we should return to the fundamentals, to a more red-blooded, active way of life."

If one could find contemporary "authoritarians of the left" to match those on the right, the authors of The Authoritarian Personality could rightly be criticized for their exclusive focus on fascism. Yet there are few, if any, such examples; while Republicans have been moving toward the right, Democrats are shifting to the center. No liberal close to the leaders of the Democratic Party has called for the assassination of a foreign head of state; only a true authoritarian like Pat Robertson, who has helped the Republicans achieve power, has done that.

The authors of The Authoritarian Personality hoped that a clinical account of the tendency would enable democracy to protect itself better against political extremism. That could not be done, they concluded, by changing the personality structure of incipient authoritarians, since their beliefs were too ingrained to be altered and the techniques of psychology, in any case, were too weak to alter them. Authoritarian tendencies, they concluded, "are products of the total organization of society and are to be changed only as that society is changed."

The United States did change in the years after their book was published, but those changes revealed what might have been the biggest mistake the authors made: They looked for subjects among students and union members when they should have been looking in the corridors of power.

Alan Wolfe is director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life and professor of political science at Boston College. He is writing a book on whether democracy in America still works.

Section: The Chronicle Review
Volume 52, Issue 7, Page B12