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Understanding Authoritarian Dominators

Is Scott Walker a Conservative Without a Conscience?

by JOHN DEAN

By way of preface, a few years ago, when I wrote Conservatives Without Conscience (2006), I relied on a half-century of empirical studies by social scientists to better understand political figures who evidence little concern for anyone and anything other than themselves, their tribe, and their goal of imposing their worldview on others.  That science on authoritarianism remains valid and unchallenged.

Actually, when publishing my book, I hoped that the conservatives I targeted might explain how and why that science was wrong, if that was indeed the case.  Not one has done so.  On the other hand, many self-proclaimed conservatives, men and women who do appear to have consciences, have sought me out to thank me for this work because, for them, it helps explain the stances and personalities of some of their fellow conservatives with whom they have trouble identifying.

For those interested in this science, the leading expert whose work I relied upon, Professor Robert Altemeyer, has shared his work publicly and in non-scientific language. (Almost a half-million people have visited his website, which is wonderful, for this information also helps to explain the mindset of the Republicans who are dominating the political debate in this presidential election year, e.g., Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich.)

But my focus here is on Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, who strikes some who have written to me as a distinctively prototypical authoritarian politician; what social science has labeled as a “double high” authoritarian; and the type of person which I described in my book as a conservative without conscience.

Understanding Authoritarian Dominators and Followers

Most of the early empirical testing of authoritarian personalities explored why large numbers of people could (and still can) be taken in by likes of a Hitler or Mussolini, and why people submit to, and often willingly follow, such authoritarian leaders.  More recently, however, social scientists and political psychologists had been examining not merely those who follow authoritarian leaders, but also the types of people who seek to become leaders, with personalities that testing shows have a “social domination orientation.”

This testing reveals, in varying degrees, that social dominators (authoritarian leaders) have the following recurring traits: They’re typically men; they are dominating; they oppose equality; they are desirous of personal power; they are amoral, intimidating and bullying, faintly hedonistic, vengeful, pitiless, exploitive, manipulative, and dishonest; they will cheat to win; they are highly prejudiced (racist, sexist, and/or homophobic), mean-spirited, militant, and nationalistic; they tell others what they want to hear, take advantage of “suckers,” and specialize in creating false images to sell themselves.

They may or may not be religious, but usually they are both political and economic conservatives and/or Republicans.

In turn, recurring traits that, in varying degrees, are found in authoritarian followers—a group that includes both men and women—are as follows:  They are submissive to authority but aggressive on that authority’s behalf.  They are conventional and highly religious, with moderate to little education. They trust untrustworthy authorities, exhibit prejudice (particularly against homosexuals, women and followers of religions other than their own), and are mean-spirited, narrow-minded, intolerant, bullying, zealous, dogmatic, and uncritical toward chosen authority.  Moreover, they are hypocritical, inconsistent and contradictory, prone to panic easily, highly self-righteous, and moralistic.  They are strict disciplinarians, and are severely punitive; they demand loyalty and return it; they exhibit little self-awareness, and they, too, are usually political and economic conservatives and/or Republicans.

There is, however, another—and exceptional—type of authoritarian.  When testing social dominators, scientists noticed an incomparable situation: They occasionally found persons who garnered high scores for their cold, calculating dominance, yet also gained high scores on the tests for submissive followers.  How, it was asked, could the same person test high on both scales, since these traits are seemingly inconsistent?  Social scientists labeled these people “Double Highs” because of their high scores on both testing scales.

Altemeyer solved this conundrum when he found that these Double Highs relate to the questions regarding submission not by considering how they themselves submit to others, but rather how others submit to them.  They simply see the world as a place where they are always in charge.

Authoritarian Double Highs Are Scary People, Indeed

Double Highs are endowed with a host of negative personality traits, and, it seems such traits, in Double Highs, are always present in excess.  For example, Double Highs are not merely prejudiced, they are doubly so.  Their orders are to be followed, but not by them.  They are not merely dogmatic, but defiantly insistent upon their dogmas.  They are not only manipulative of others, but talented at their manipulation.  As you go through various authoritarian traits, if you view the trait in its more extreme form, then you are usually talking about a trait that is likely to be possessed by a Double High authoritarian.

Altemeyer, who has been testing and observing Double Highs’ behavior for decades, says that these people are truly scary.  On several occasions, Altemeyer has runGlobal Change Games with large groups of university students, whom he selected because they had all tested as authoritarians. He found that those students with Double High personalities took charge of their respective groups, while the others followed.  More striking, however, was the behavior of the Double Highs: They engaged in nuclear blackmail, made themselves wealthy by dubious means, provoked a worldwide crisis by destroying the ozone layer, allowed 1.9 billion people to die of starvation and disease, and cast the poor regions of the world asunder.  Not pretty.

Of course, simulations are not the real world, even when played seriously, and students who participate in such simulations are well aware of that.  Nonetheless, when you observe Double Highs in real-life situations, you will find that they are very disquieting people.  I worked for and with a number of Double Highs at the Nixon White House, from the president on down through his senior staff.  There is no doubt in my mind that it was the interplay of these Double High personalities that produced that power- abusing presidency.

Moreover, when writing Conservatives Without Conscience, I examined a number of prominent Double Highs in action in Washington during the years of the Bush II Administration: former Speaker Newt Gingrich, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, lobbyist Jack Abramoff, Senate Majority Leader William Frist, and Vice President Dick Cheney.  Strikingly, the damage done by these Double Highs was not too far from that found in Altemeyer’s student simulation.

Is Scott Walker a Conservative Without Conscience?

Because of my writings on this topic, I have received a number of inquiries asking whether I think that Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker is a Double High authoritarian, or as I describe these personalities in my book, a conservative without conscience.

Needless to say, no public official is going to submit to actual testing to determine his or her personality type.  But if you take the test questions, and match them to conspicuous conduct by a public official, the conclusion as to what personality type that official possesses is often conspicuously obvious.

I have had (and continue to have) conversations with a number of Wisconsinites, who have told me about the political chaos Walker has created with his radical conservative policies and union-busting laws, since becoming governor.  Others have told me about the tactics he is now employing to fight the recall election that he is confronting on June 5th, as a large number of voters have rejected him and his policies.  And I have been reading about how he is lawyering up to deal with a criminal investigation from his days as the Milwaukee Country Executive, as his present and former aides have been charged with criminal conduct.

For Wisconsin voters, the question whether Walker is one of these unique authoritarian personalities, is not an unimportant one, given the way those with such personalities characteristically govern.  So I’ve not rushed to judgment.  To the contrary, I continue to gather information, and I will devote a full column to my conclusion, and to any implications it may have for Wisconsin’s government.  Stay tuned.

This is the first of a two-part series of columns by Mr. Dean.  The second column in this series will appear here on April 6th.

John Dean served as Counsel to the President of the United States from July 1970 to April 1973.

This column originally appeared in Justia‘s Verdict.