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Why Scott Walker is a Classic Authoritarian

by JOHN DEAN

In my last column, I asked if Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker might be a conservative without conscience. Stated a bit differently, my question is whether the Governor is what social science describes as a “double high authoritarian,” an outlook that has proven itself not to be particularly well-suited for governing in a democratic fashion. I raised this question because Walker is facing a recall vote, in which voters will decide whether to remove him from office, on June 5.

Below, I have set forth in summary form what I discovered about Scott Walker after using Lexis-Nexis, ProQuest, Google and similar search tools and putting my findings in the context of the relevant social-science studies.  Moreover, many people responded to my Twitter solicitation of information about Walker.  Surprisingly, to date, no one has written a truly in-depth biographical profile of Walker, so I suspect that Wisconsin voters really do not know much about their governor.

Typologies have their problems.  But based on what I found, there is little doubt in my mind that Scott Walker is a classic authoritarian.

Walker’s Social-Dominance Disposition     

In my prior column, drawing on the work of Bob Altemeyer and others, I listed traits that are consistently revealed by social dominators, or authoritarian leaders.  To earn this label, a person must show four key traits:  (1) they seek to dominate others, (2) they oppose equality, (3) they are desirous of personal power, and (4) they are amoral.  News accounts of Scott Walker reveal that he possesses all four of these defining traits, not to mention others in the longer list I set forth in my prior column.  Here, however, I will merely note the evidence for Walker’s having a defining social-dominating disposition.

(1) Domination. Authoritarian leaders seek to control others; in short, they are social dominators. This is the story of Scott Walker’s life.  By age 7, Walker had formed a “Jesus USA” club, which was a mix of his father’s Baptist ministry and his attraction to patriotism.  By age 8, he had undertaken a door-to-door fundraising campaign to take charge of purchasing a flag for the village hall of his small Iowa town. As a teen, Walker sought leadership posts, which provide some control, in Boys State and Boys Nation, and became an Eagle Scout.  He attended Marquette University (but has no college degree from there or any other school).  At Marquette, he was elected to the student senate, and twice sought but failed to get elected president of the student body.  He ran for the Wisconsin State Assembly the same year that he lost his bid to be student president at Marquette, losing the Assembly race as well.

Since then, Walker has never stopped running.  In 1993, he was elected to the State Assembly, where he remained until 2002. In 2002, he sought the post of Milwaukee County Executive, and he held that post until he was elected Governor in 2010.  This is the behavior, writ large, of a dominator.

(2) Opposition To Equality.  The Oxford Handbook of Political Psychology(which is searchable) further defines social dominators as “hard, tough, ruthless, and unfeeling toward others, as opposed to compassionate, generous, caring, and altruistic.”

There are many examples of Walker’s harsh and uncaring treatment of those whom he does not believe to be entitled to equality.  None is more glaring than his intolerance of gays and lesbians.  For example, as Governor, he has worked to end Wisconsin’s recognition of the rights of same-sex couples. He fired the law firmdefending the state’s domestic-partnership law.  And he appointed a woman to the state’s Labor and Industry Review Commission who believes that gays can be harassed in the workplace.

One attorney familiar with Walker’s thinking states, “Governor Walker is ideologically opposed to equal rights for gay and lesbian and transgendered people as is everyone in his administration as far as I can tell and they will probably want to take steps to ensure that gay and lesbian and transgendered people do not have equal rights. Everything that Governor Walker is doing is ideological; I don’t see that his administration has any particular respect for the law per se.”        

(3) Desirous Of Personal Power. Scott Walker has been seeking personal power his entire life, and has never stopped reaching for it.  Note how Walker has worked not merely to reach higher offices, but also to enhance his power in these offices when he occupied them.  For example, as governor, Walker sought to remove civil service jobs, in order to make them political appointments, and thus subject to his control.  Most strikingly, he has sought to undercut the public-employee unions so that he would not have to deal with them, thus increasing his power.

Often overlooked in Walker’s infamous union-busting “budget-repair bill“ is the power grab to fill three dozen civil-service jobs with political appointees.  For instance, the bill politicized and placed under Walker’s control functions like open-records requests, the selection of general counsels for key
agencies, and the selection of communications spokespeople in key departments.  He has increased his personal power over some fifteen state agencies, and I suspect that he is (or was, depending on the recall vote) just getting started.

Walker’s move to break public employee unions is his most notorious personal power play.  To try to prevent the union-busting law’s passage, Democratic state senators left Wisconsin, so that the GOP-controlled legislature could not do Walker’s bidding and ram it through. But nevertheless, using dubious parliamentary ploys, the bill was passed by the Senate, making it a done deal. Walker’s push to get this legislation, known as Act 10, passed into law was done in about as authoritarian a fashion as you will ever see, outside of a dictatorship. Part of Act 10 has already been struck down by a federal judge, and, as I noted earlier, the wisdom of Walker’s power play will be tested in the June 5th recall election.

(4) Amorality. To be amoral, of course, is to be insensitive to moral matters.  A politician like Scott Walker will wrap himself in a cloak of morality, while, in fact, acting anything but morally.

Needless to say, Walker’s policies that attack poor women by cutting off funding to Planned Parenthood; his slashing of education budgets while giving tax breaks to wealthy corporations; and his pursuit of similar radical Republican actions all raise serious moral issues.  But different people have different moral standards and views of such activity, so I have excluded these matters from this discussion.

Similarly, I have set aside the fact that a growing number of Walker’s closest aides are being criminally investigated and several have been charged with, or pled guilty to, crimes stemming from actions that occurred during Walker’s tenure as Milwaukee County Executive. Walker has hired several high-powered criminal defense lawyers and is building a legal defense fund, but this, too, is not relevant at this time, for little is known of this secret “John Doe” grand jury proceeding. Walker has not been charged. The grand jury proceeding simply remains a dark cloud following him, and no conclusions can or should be drawn from it.

Nonetheless, Walker’s amorality is conspicuous.  It is found in his history of ethics violations and the record of his lying. A lengthy article could (and should) be written about both, but suffice it here to note that his ethics problems go back to his Marquette University days, when the college newspaper called him “unfit” for student office.

Later, in the Assembly (in 2005), Walker would earn the distinction of receiving the second-highest fine for an ethics violation in Wisconsin history.  His lying is notorious. Politifacts Wisconsin (which I am told is more reliable than most of these sites) finds Walker to be an accomplished falsifier. With respect to 44 statements that Politifacts examined, Walker was found to have been truthful only on six occasions.  The fact that 38 statements were pants-on-fire false, false, mostly false, or half-truths is stark evidence of amorality.

I watched a video of a Walker speech at the Goldwater Institute.  He’s slick: Fast-talking, confident, and dishonest—I watched him distort facts with which I was familiar.  He spoke in mostly half-truths, and certainly not with the kind of candor that the late Senator Goldwater expected from political figures.

Clearly, Walker has all the traits of a social dominator and authoritarian leader. More strikingly, it is also clear that he is, in fact, what social scientists term a “double high authoritarian.”

Scott Walker Also Has Traits of Authoritarian Followers   

As I mentioned in Part One in this series of columns, to fit the definition of a double high authoritarian, a person must score highly as both a dominator/leader, and ironically, also as an authoritarian follower (because such people see themselves running the world, and believe that others should always follow leaders, like themselves).

Again, I listed all the traits of those who follow authoritarian leaders in that prior column.  The key and defining characteristics of such people are (1) their willingness to submit to established authority, (2) their aggressiveness on behalf of that authority, and (3) their conventionality.  Scott Walker has long shown that he possesses these traits, conspicuously so, and thus he would likely score high on such a test.

(1) Submissive To Authority. Authority figures are parents (throughout childhood); religious officials; government officials such as police officers, judges, and government leaders; and employers—to list a few of the more common such positions.  Authoritarian followers easily submit to such figures –which is not to say that they will submit to any authority, but rather only those they consider to be good and compatible with their own worldviews.  News accounts reveal that Scott Walker was a “good boy” growing up.  Clearly, he worked to please his parents, and his Boy Scout and Eagle Scout superiors, and he accepted the authority of his church elders.  Since becoming involved in politics, he has accepted the leaders of the Republican Party, particularly those with the most right-wing of views, as he has worked his way up through the ranks.  While Scott Walker plays by the rules of the authorities he accepts, because he is a dominator, it is not surprising that his resume shows that he has constantly sought to become an authority himself.

(2) Aggressiveness On Behalf Of Authority.  The aggression in authoritarian followers is largely fueled by fear, but it is also emboldened by the abundance of self-righteousness that such people possess.

Authoritarian aggressiveness is often revealed by efforts to control others, with a recurring example the decision to be an overly strict parent. While little has been written about Walker’s relationship with his two sons, from watching videos of the Walker family, it appears to me that these are very obedient boys who dare not tangle with their authoritarian father.

Another classic example of authoritarian aggressiveness is the public official who is always calling for greater punishment for perceived and real criminals. And indeed, the most striking and telling example of Walker’s aggressiveness on behalf of radical right wing Republican philosophy are his views on crime and punishment.

As a member of the Wisconsin Assembly, in 1996 Walker was the moving force behind the building of a 500-bed “Supermax” prison, which he claimed worked better than normal facilities; others had doubts.  Also, when state officials sought a 200-bed unit, Walker insisted on more than doubling the request.

Another instance of Walker’s punitive aggressiveness can be found in an examplefrom 1997, when Walker pushed legislation that eliminated all parole, while increasing maximum criminal sentences by fifty percent.  Walker also pushed for draconian legislation that would send juvenile offenders to adult prisons at age 15, although his colleagues in the Assembly rejected this excessively harsh approach. These, too, are examples of classic authoritarian behavior at work.

Conventionality.  Authoritarian followers act in the tradition of society’s norms and customs. They never stand out; indeed, they are the polar opposite of rebels like the iconic long-haired hippie.  The authoritarian follower is most comfortable with a fundamentalist religion, and as a member of an organization, he or she is most comfortable where the organization draws clear lines dividing right from wrong.  Authoritarian followers believe in “family values” and follow the “straight and narrow” in dress and behavior.  Scott Walker is Mr. Conventional.  He has long been an active member of a fundamentalist church. He wears conservative, off-the-rack clothing. His hair is always closely trimmed, and his manner polite and pleasant. And he keeps company with like-acting and like-thinking people.  (I cannot find a single radical right-wing position that Walker rejects.)

Wisconsin’s Double High Authoritarian Governor

I have merely summarized, in the broadest of terms, the work of social science in exploring the authoritarian disposition at work in government and politics.  Similarly, I have only sketched in digest terms the reporting I found on Scott Walker’s political career.  To me, it is clear that Wisconsin has a double high authoritarian governor, a conservative without conscience.  If I lived in Wisconsin, I would be uncomfortable with this man, whom I find more Nixonian than even Richard Nixon himself (the authoritarian leader with whom I was, and am, so very familiar).

Please understand that these authoritarian leaders and their followers are not necessarily bad people.  To the contrary, I have many friends who fall into this group, who are wonderful people.  But none of my double high authoritarian friends are suited to serve as President of the United States, or as governor of any state—posts which have never worked well when an authoritarian has taken charge.  Democracy and democratic institutions do not function well with dogmatic, unbending authoritarian leaders.  Authoritarians are great as dictators, and even at times benevolent.  They are often outstanding at running businesses, and when serving as high-ranking officers in the military, not to mention law enforcement.  But they are failures as presidents and governors, and as Bob Altemeyer’s work has shown, they can be dangerous to democracy.

Hopefully, one or more social scientists or political psychologists in Wisconsin, where there are many, will step forward and tell the people of Wisconsin more about what they have on their hands, with Scott Walker as their governor.  In fact, the June 5, 2012 election is a true opportunity to discourage another leader who is a conservative without conscience, for these leaders always have a healthy following.  Altemeyer estimates that about twenty-five percent of the population has, in varying degrees, the disposition to follow a double high authoritarian, many blindly or simply because it assuages their fears.  And, of course, these are aggressive followers who can attract others who are unaware of the nature of the person they are electing, thus enabling an authoritarian leader like Walker to gain ever-growing control.

Good luck, Wisconsin.

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.

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