Monday, September 12, 2011

Politics as Personality

There is an interesting new study on the personality of Teabaggers called Cultures of the Tea Party, written by Andrew Perrin of University of North Carolina, Steven Tepper of Vanderbilt University, and others. It's posted at TPM (that's Talking Point Memo, not Tea Party Movement).  It is basically a personality inventory of persons who identify with the so-called Tea Party.

The study identifies four primary cultural dispositions: authoritarianism, ontological insecurity (fear of change), nativism, and libertarianism. None of these strike me as dispositions I would personally want to have; they are sub-clinical conditions that most of us would want to address or suppress.

Libertarianism, you might say, is different. Isn't it all about freedom, rugged individualism, and equality in a free, unregulated market, where we are all unfailingly rational in our pursuit of maximum utility?  Isn't that just the stuff the Founding Fathers wanted?

That's what true believers would say. Many respondents, and especially teabaggers, have some idea what libertarianism means. I don't believe they have actually thought about it that much, but they like the idea of libertarianism, at least the version preached on Fox News and talk radio. As with many other philosophical concepts whittled down to talking points, proponents embrace it without necessarily understanding it. They identify with the concept of libertarianism, but not necessarily with nativism or fear of change, two traits that many of us have not thought much about, and may not feel comfortable acknowledging.

The authors' definition of libertarianism is questionable. In their survey they asked respondents whether they favored more rules restricting personal expression, such as public dress codes, content (censorship) on TV and the Internet. Tea Partiers scored a bit higher than average on this.

Is that really getting at libertarianism? Are questions about personal expression and Internet censorship acceptable proxies for libertarian ideas of free markets and free enterprise? High scorers would as likely be progressives as Ayn Rand acolytes.

Nativism focused on attitudes on immigration and immigrants. Negative or anti-immigrant scores indicated high levels of nativism. Now that's got teabagger written all over it.

Ontological insecurity measured attitudes towards social and cultural change. Previous studies on right-wing attitudes have shown hostility to change and preference for tradition, so no surprise here, either.

This leaves us with authoritarianism, what I believe is the most important of the four cultural dispositions, in part because of its troubling implications. The authors measured authoritarianism by attitudes towards child-rearing. The study replicated previous studies which show that authoritarian parents demand high levels of obedience from children, and are less willing to allow them to decide, and think for, themselves. Authoritarians show a strong "father knows best" attitude.

The authors did not elaborate much on the implications of their findings except to argue that the Tea Party Movement cannot be fully appreciated without understanding the significance of the four cultural dispositions, especially in the way they coalesce. However, one can see why teabaggers are so intolerant of outsiders and why they like to see themselves as the "real America," not those blue state big city elitists who vote for communists  Democrats. It has less do with an understanding of policy and more to do with personality.

Nice study, but by far the single best source on authoritarian personality has been Bob Altemeyer. But there are others that are getting some deserved airtime, including George Lakoff, and Karen Stenner.

Altemeyer has repeatedly found that authoritarian personalities have high levels of ethnocentrism, high levels of submission to "legitimate" authority, and high preference for what one could call tribalism, an us-vs-them world view that is intolerant of those outside of their experience. That includes different skin color, religion, creed, and sexual orientation. I'll say right here that Altemeyer makes clear that authoritarianism really means right-wing authoritarianism, or RWA. While not all conservatives are authoritarians, those with right-wing sentiments will generally show elevated authoritarian traits. And those who score high on authoritarianism are invariably right wing. Left-wing authoritarianism is practically a oxymoron.

RWA's also show a marked preference for absolute or simplistic interpretations of complex events. They often accuse others of ethical or moral relativism.

Altemeyer stresses that authoritarian behavior reflects genuine personality traits, and not policy preferences. This helps explain the constant moralizing of authoritarians, and why many of their policy preferences seem so incoherent and contradictory to the rest of us. As George Lakoff has argued, the authoritarians moral sense is fundamentally different than others and has given rise to fundamentally different political views. 

I am just scratching the surface on this; there is so much more already in the literature and I'm guessing more to come. That's cool, but I know that most people do not read academic literature. The problem is that the implications of the role of RWA are anything but academic. They are pervasive and troubling. 

I'll explain why in future posts.

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