Tracking Down the Elusive Left-Wing Authoritarian

PoliticallyCorrectIconThemoderncanvasDreamstimeIn The Authoritarian Specter, the Harvard social scientist Robert Altemeyer asked, "Is the 'authoritarian on the left' like the Loch Ness Monster: an occasional shadow, but no monster?"

Altemeyer is the man who in 1981 devised the Right-Wing Authoritarianism (RWA) scale, a test widely used to measure this personality and ideological variable. Social scientists generally report that right-wing authoritarians are conformists who obey established authorities, adhere to conventional social norms, and are hostile to people who flout both. Using such tests, they have argued that conservatives have a higher need for structure, lower attributional complexity, lower openness to experience, and higher perceptions of threat than do liberals—basically, that conservatives are mentally and socially rigid.

Now a new study in the journal Political Psychology claims that left-wing authoritarianism is no mere shadow. "I became interested in left-wing authoritarianism in particular because some people have said it isn't a very real or likely phenomenon—and yet I know people I would describe as left-wing authoritarians," the study's lead author, University of Montana social psychologist Lucian Conway, tells PsyPost. "So I was curious to figure that out." The researchers set out to test the authoritarianism symmetry hypothesis, which "suggests that the same processes that create authoritarianism in right-wing persons also operate in left-wing persons in essentially equal degrees."

Conway and his colleagues created a Left-Wing Authoritarianism (LWA) scale by rewriting the RWA to be targeted toward acceptance of liberal authoritarian leaders. For example, an item from the standard RWA scale reads: "It's always better to trust the judgment of the proper authorities in government and religion than to listen to the noisy rabble-rousers in our society who are trying to create doubts in people's minds." In the LWA scale, this was adapted to read: "It's always better to trust the judgment of the proper authorities in science with respect to issues like global warming and evolution than to listen to the noisy rabble-rousers in our society who are trying to create doubts in people's minds."

The researchers then administered their new LWA scale to several hundred college students and to several hundred other people recruited via Mechanical Turk. Participants filled out questionnaires on their political and ideological predilections, measuring among other things their prejudices about religious and racial minorities, their tendency toward dogmatism, and the strength of their convictions.

Once all of the numbers were crunched, the researchers' results were consistent with the authoritarianism symmetry hypothesis. In fact, after sorting participants into conservatives and liberals based on whether they scored in the top or bottom half of a 10-point conservatism scale, the researchers found that "the highest score for authoritarianism was for liberals on LWA."

"Our data suggest that average Americans on the political left are just as likely to be dogmatic authoritarians as those on the political right. And those left-wing authoritarians can be just as prejudiced, dogmatic, and extremist as right-wing authoritarians," Conway tells PsyPost.

What is surprising is that these results are apparently so surprising to many social scientists. After all, what is political correctness other than conforming to established authorities and adhering to conventional social norms with respect to issues like racial, gender, and income inequality, environmental problems, abortion, hate speech, and gun rights, while exhibiting hostility to folks who flout them?

For more background for Conway's earlier research, see my article, "Liberals Are Simple-Minded."