It’s quiz time again! On a scale of one to seven, with one being strongly disagree, four being neutral, and seven being strongly agree, how do you rate the following statements:
- Rich people should be forced to give up virtually all of their wealth.
- The current system is beyond repair.
- Schools should be required by law to teach children about our country’s history of racism, classism, sexism, and homophobia.
- Anyone who opposes gay marriage must be homophobic.
- People [who] are truly worried about terrorism should shift their focus to the nutjobs on the far-right.
- It is important that we destroy the West’s nationalist, imperialist values.
- I try to expose myself to conservative news sources.
- Even books that contain racism or racial language should not be censored.
- I don’t support shutting down speakers with sexist, homophobic, or racist views.
- Neo-Nazis ought to have a legal right to their opinions.
Wonder how you did? I can’t really tell you.
What I can tell you is that these questions form part of a larger, first-of-its-kind survey developed by Emory University Ph.D. candidate Thomas H. Costello and several co-authors to measure left-wing authoritarianism (LWA).
LWA is much less studied than right-wing authoritarianism (RWA). The disparity could be the result of political uniformity within psychology’s academic community, as the American Enterprise Institute’s Sally Satel alleges in an article that brought Costello’s paper (still in press, but downloadable here; it’s the second item on the list) to my attention. But it could also be because in the places it’s studied, right-wing authoritarianism is more widespread and dangerous. Costello tells Satel that although LWA and RWA populations probably equal out across the globe, he estimates RWAs outnumber LWAs in the United States by three to one.
There’s a third possibility, which is that academic researchers have looked for LWA incorrectly: by assuming it’s identical to RWA. This is Costello’s thesis, and I’m inclined to agree. After forty years in Berkeley I’ve almost certainly encountered a statistically valid sample of Lenin wannabes, and what I’ve observed is that, aside from the occasional Bob Avakian worshipper, LWAs are not attached to leaders the way RWAs are. Instead, LWAs attach themselves to an ideology, movement, or cause — one that upends the hierarchy RWAs are just as determined to uphold.
Costello’s methodical research has uncovered even more differences. LWAs are “lower in dogmatism and cognitive rigidity, higher in negative emotionality [i.e. anxiety and depression], and expressed stronger support for a political system with substantial centralized state control” than RWAs. They’re also more open to new experiences and trust science.
Costello et al’s survey contains 39 statements, including the ten above. The first six are the pro-LWA survey statements I most agree with. Which is not to say I give them sevens; more like yes-but fives. The last four are presumably meant to detect anti-LWA sentiment, so agreeing with them means you’re less of an LWA.
Am I a left-wing authoritarian because I agree with some of the pro-LWA survey statements? Maybe. But everyone has an authoritarian streak; Robert Altemeyer, the eminence gris of authoritarian studies, considers it a personality trait, like anger or patience, that can vary with circumstance. We’re all authoritarian to a degree — we all stop at red lights, for instance. (At least I hope we do.) The real question is where we fall on the continuum. The people to worry about are those who, as Altemeyer says, “go way beyond the norm and submit to authority even when it is dishonest, corrupt, unfair and evil.”
My guess is I’m on the low end for LWA, just as I am for RWA. I base this on my disagreement with the other apparently pro-LWA statements in Costello et al’s survey. (Example: “I would prefer a far-left leader with absolute authority over a right-wing leader with limited power.”)
Perhaps after the paper is officially published, Costello and crew will post the test so we can all take it and learn where we fall on the LWA spectrum. I’m thinking that would be pretty useful.