Measuring Left-Wing Authoritarianism in America
In January of 2017, when the political controversy over Donald Trump’s perplexing win over Hillary Clinton in the 2016 national election was at its peak, my professor began his political psychology course by asking the lecture hall the following: “How many of you wish Hillary had won the election?” The question was voluntary, yet nearly every hand in the room shot up. “Okay, and how many of you supported Trump winning the election?” The room was quiet as not a single hand was raised, followed by a few chuckles. “Next, how many of you feel that liberals are safe walking across campus expressing their political views?” Every hand once again went into the air. “And how many of you feel that conservatives are safe to walk around campus expressing their political views?” The room filled with laughter as nobody raised their hand.
While most thought little of the exercise, this was one of the most frightening experiences I’ve had throughout my academic career. Here was an entire lecture hall of young adults laughing at the recognition of political suppression at a university founded on the principles of free thought and discourse.
Ironically, one of the main subjects of the course was authoritarianism: a personality largely characterized by psychologists in the post-World War II and early Cold War era as believing in absolute obedience to authority, and in administering that obedience through the oppression of one’s subordinates. The most obvious example is Adolf Hitler and the Nazi regime. They used their power to create a society of strict obedience and hierarchy while executing anyone who deviated from Hitler’s standards for the Aryan race. There are many aspects to authoritarianism, but the unifying component is authority. For this reason, when one thinks of an authoritarian, one typically thinks of a government or organization with a concrete authority figure, such as North Korea and Kim Jong-un, the Ku Klux Klan and William Simmons, or al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden.
In an attempt to quantitatively measure authoritarianism, Theodor Adorno -- one of the first psychologists in the field of political psychology -- created the F-Scale in 1947, a questionnaire that would give individuals a self-reported number that correlates to how authoritarian his or her personality is. With “F” standing for “fascism,” the questionnaire addresses nine characteristics, including:
(1) Conventionalism, or how adherent one is to conventional, middle-class values;
(2) Authoritarian aggression, meaning the tendency to reject, condemn, and punish those who violate the conventional norms;
(3) Destructiveness and Cynicism, that is, vilifying humans and holding a respective hostility; and
(4) Power and Toughness, meaning having a preoccupation with the dominance-submission mindframe and asserting an exaggerated degree of strength and toughness.
The problem with such an operant definition is that while it quite accurately captures the existential white supremacist -- that is, the individual who comprises the societal majority, subscribes to an in-group hierarchy, vilifies minorities, and seeks to attack outsiders for their societal non-conformity -- it entirely misses those who are fundamentally rebelling against the conventions and authorities of society.