How Experts Overlooked Authoritarians on the Left

The Atlantic reports on a new study that measures anti-democratic attitudes on the left, which academics have been slow to identify. Here are the article’s highlights:

1. New approach. The new study is by Thomas Costello and five colleagues, and it finds 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.”

2. Academic blinders. A major reason why left-wing authoritarianism has barely shown up in social-psychology research is that most academic experts in the field are based at institutions where prevailing attitudes are far to the left of society as a whole. Scholars who personally support the left’s social vision may simply be slow to identify authoritarianism among people with similar goals.

3. Obsolete models. Another problem is that the traditional (Altemeyer) scale for measuring authoritarian, while intended to smoke out all kinds of authoritarianism, in effect tends to only identify the right-wing variety. Altemeyer erroneously assumed that left-wing authoritarianism would be identical to the right-wing variety, and that’s why his scale barely identified any subjects. He had either misgauged the threshold or was measuring the wrong attitudes.

4. Left-wing litmus. Costello and his colleagues started afresh, developing what eventually became a list of 39 statements capturing sentiments such as:

(a) “We need to replace the established order by any means necessary.” (Critical Race Theory and other Postmodern agendas)

(b) “I should have the right not to be exposed to offensive views.” (as 58% of college undergrads polled in 2017 maintained)

(c) “If I could remake society, I would put people who currently have the most privilege at the bottom.”

(d) “Getting rid of inequality is more important than protecting the so-called ‘right’ to free speech” (thus advocating top-down censorship)

(e) “I cannot imagine myself becoming friends with a political conservative.”


5. The results. The authoritarian mentality — whether on the left or right — exerts “powerful pressures to maintain discipline among members, advocate aggressive and censorious means of stifling opposition, and believe in top-down absolutist leadership.”

The Costello team’s preliminary work shows the ratio of right-wing to left-wing authoritarians is about the same if you average it across the globe, but in the U.S., currently, the right-wing authoritarians outnumber left-wing ones by roughly 3:1.

Hopefully Costello’s study will help redress the imbalance of authoritarian studies in academia.


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