Tuesday, August 3, 2010

On Informed Political Opinion

Editor's Note: The following article was submitted to the Idaho State Journal for publication by a former colleague of mine in Pocatello. It was rejected. I hope to further elaborate on the points he has made here that I couldn't possibly agree more with. However, with a two-day trip back to Pocatello at the end of the week and my blogiversary tomorrow, I may not get to it right away. This column appears here with the permission of the author.

By Leonard Hitchcock

Most of us who write regularly about politics in these op-ed pages are amateurs. We are neither politicians, who possess first-hand knowledge of the political arena, nor are we professionally engaged in the study and elucidation of the subject. We are, instead, businesspersons, doctors, physics professors, artists and retired librarians. We are not, moreover, disinterested observers of the political scene. Quite the contrary: we are gladiators in the political arena. We step onto the battlefield armed with sets of firm, often unshakable, convictions, and a lively hostility to one or another political party. For many of us, those convictions are, to put it politely, rather remote from mainstream opinion. Consequently, we tend to produce opinion pieces that are, for some portion of the newspaper’s readers, outrageous.

One might well wonder, given that collectively we have no real credentials, and could be justifiably categorized as biased zealots, why it is that our writings are published. Why doesn’t the newspaper recruit, or pay for, columnists who can actually lay claim to some expertise and objectivity with regard to political issues? Why doesn’t it publish opinion pieces by political science professors, or professional journalists who have experience, expertise and inside knowledge of the political process? Is being opinionated and possessing a minimal competence in expressing those opinions all that is really wanted? I cannot answer that question. I’m just another combatant, albeit an uncomfortable one, in this op-ed’s Roman circus.

I can, however, try to justify my columns by reporting to you occasionally about what genuinely knowledgeable students of politics have discovered. In today’s column, I’d like to introduce you to Bob Altemeyer, a Canadian professor of psychology who has spent over thirty years studying a personality type that is known, to psychologists, as “authoritarian.” The term is, unfortunately, misleading, for it refers not to those who seek to gain authority over others, but rather those who readily follow the directives of those in authority. Study of this trait began after WWII, when the Holocaust was fresh in everyone’s minds and Eichmann was put on trial. The question was: What sort of person would obey orders unquestioningly when those orders entailed participating in genocide?

The seminal work on the subject was published in 1950, by a group of Berkeley professors. Its explanation of how such personalities come into being was based upon Freudian theory and proved to be unsupported by the evidence. Thirty years later, Altemeyer approached the subject from a different theoretical perspective and explored in great detail not only the authoritarian trait itself but the correlations of that trait with others. He has created numerous “scales”, as they are called, i.e. survey instruments that measure attitudes by asking people to respond with degrees of agreement or disagreement to a set of statements. Essentially, the scale he uses to distinguish authoritarians from non-authoritarians reveals that authoritarian types exhibit three characteristics: a disposition to obey those whom they regard as having legitimate authority; a tendency to be aggressively hostile toward minorities when that aggression is sanctioned by such authorities; and a dedication to conventional standards of morality and behavior.

When one compares this scale with others measuring other traits, such as religious beliefs, political convictions, and ethnocentrism (degrees of intolerance or prejudice), it turns out that it is probable that those who score high on the authoritarianism scale will also turn out to regard their religion as an important determinate of their identity, to belong to a Protestant sect, especially one that takes a fundamentalist viewpoint, to be highly confident of the truth of their religious and moral beliefs and their personal righteousness, to exhibit more than the usual level of prejudice, and to be politically conservative.

Altemeyer has also compared those who score high on the authoritarianism scale with those who score high on a scale that measures what we usually mean by “authoritarian”, i.e. the desire to be socially or politically dominant. It might seem, intuitively, that authoritarian personalities, who are submissive to authority, would not be inclined to seek power and authority over others. And that is largely the case. Most authoritarian types score very low on the social dominance scale. Yet there is a small percentage of people who score high on both scales. These “double highs”, as Altemeyer calls them, are an extraordinarily interesting personality type. They are also, in Altemeyer’s opinion, an extraordinarily dangerous one.

In my next column, I will take a closer and more detailed look at Altemeyer’s findings, especially those pertaining to “double highs.” My readers might find it diverting to make a list of past and present political figures who might qualify for membership in that elite group.

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