Article written in 1991 for the academic journals but not accepted for publication


John J. Ray

University of N.S.W., Australia


The recent work on Right-wing authoritarianism by Altemeyer has met with great approval among psychologists so would seem to be a useful pointer to what psychologists see as good political psychology. It is shown, however, that Altemeyer adheres to the old view that Right- wingers are, by definition, conservatives. It is pointed out that conservatism (rejection of change) is essentially irrelevant to the present-day Right-Left divide and that studies of Rightism which define it as opposition to change are therefore irrelevant to current politics. The real nature of Rightism is discussed from both a historical and a psychological research perspective

What is meant by "Right-wing"?

There are various ways in which one could investigate the current state of psychological thinking on a particular topic. In the case of the present paper, the aim is to look at what psychologists and many others think is "right-wing" and then to argue that the evidence does not support such a conception. Accomplishing the first part of this aim is greatly facilitated by the fact that a book on the topic has recently won the behavioral sciences prize awarded by the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Although this is not totally conclusive evidence of anything, the award surely at least points strongly towards what psychologists see as first-class thinking on the topic. I am referring, of course, to Altemeyer's books (1981 & 1988) on Right-wing authoritarianism. I note also the swathe of laudatory book reviews this work has elicited (e.g. Dion, 1990; Goldberg, 1982).

The view that Altemeyer's view of what is "right-wing" is current wisdom among psychologists is reinforced by the fact that Altemeyer himself devotes only a few words (literally) to saying what he means by "right-wing" or "conservative". He apparently sees it as "obvious" or a matter of consensus what such terms mean. He certainly saw no need to make an argument either way. The fact that Altemeyer's work has been received with some acclaim does, therefore surely speak volumes for there being such a consensus. The consensus seems to be that conservatism is at its most basic a resistance to change and that conservatism and Rightism are essentially synonymous. Let us look some evidence on this, however.

I am sure that anyone with any awareness of contemporary politics would know that Leftists generally advocate an increased role for the government in society (by way of higher taxes, increased regulation and control of business and more welfare programs) for the supposed benefit of the poor and disadvantaged while Rightists want to limit or reduce such government activities on the grounds that they interfere with individual liberties and do not in the long run help the poor and disadvantaged anyway. So what Leftism and Rightism advocate, is not problematic: Leftists believe in big government as the way to maximize human welfare and Rightists believe in small government as the way to maximize human welfare.

Any number of quotations could be made from contemporary politicians to substantiate that generalization but two of the more notable ones that might be referred to are by the eminent British Conservative Prime-Minister Sir Winston Churchill and noted Conservative philosopher Michael Oakeshott (See Buck, 1975 p.139-141 and p. 154 as a convenient reference for the detailed texts of both statements). Although both statements were made long before the Reagan/Thatcher/Gorbachev era, both stress how important to Conservatism is the limiting of State power and activity. So, again, what Rightists advocate is anything but mysterious. It is why they advocate it that is the problem. What is the guiding rationale, instinct or philosophy behind such anti-State beliefs?

Altemeyer (1981 & 1988), however, seems oblivious to any such problem. He seems to adopt the conventional view that Rightists advocate what they do because they are conservatives (i.e. because they dislike change). I say "seems to" because, by his own admission (Altemeyer, 1990, p. 394), the only occasion on which he has indicated what he means by "Right-wing" consists of the sentence, "The construct I am advancing is called "right-wing" authoritarianism because the submission is to established authorities". "Established" seems to be the key word here. In other words, Right-wingers accept the existing order or the status quo. They are, in short, conservatives. The discussion on p.8, paragraph 3 of his 1988 book also seems to imply this. This view of Rightism is, however, not at all surprising and, as mentioned, he probably discusses the matter so little because he sees the equation of conservatism and Right-wing as self-evident and universal. Are not the major Rightist parties in Britain and Canada called Conservative parties? Party names, however, are not always very informative. What is one to make of the fact that the major Rightist party in Australia is called the Liberal party? And why is the Canadian party named the Progressive Conservatives? Is it not self- contradictory to call oneself both progressive and conservative? And why do prominent Right-wing intellectuals (Friedman & Friedman, 1984) describe the status quo as "tyranny"? Should they not be writing of it as the ideal?

I noted in my 1990 paper that Altemeyer (1981 & 1988) seemed unaware of the large literature on this problem. Altemeyer (1990) quite evidently did not know what to make of this observation but I was principally referring, of course, to the political history literature. In this literature a quest for common elements in Rightist politics over time is a topic of considerable and enduring interest and much scholarly enquiry. The commonest view seems to be that the only continuing theme in the policies of the British Conservative party over the many years of its existence is not opposition to change but rather some sort of pragmatism or practicality (Feiling, 1953; Gilmour, 1978; Norton & Aughey, 1981; Standish, 1990). In other words, these and other authors in effect conclude that British Conservatives (supporters of the Conservative party) are certainly Rightists but are generally not conservative (opposed to change)!

Some historians (e.g. Gilmour, 1978; Standish, 1990) therefore argue that Britain's Mrs Thatcher is a new type of Conservative. Rather than being a mere pragmatist, she is strongly ideological. This is, however, a neither a terribly well-informed view nor a wholly unbiased one. Mrs Thatcher would surely argue that her determination to reduce the role of government and government enterprises in the national life was highly pragmatic and practically beneficial in the light of the widely-acknowledged inefficiencies and insensitivities of government agencies and enterprises. Moreover, a wish to wind back the role of the government in the national life has in fact most notable precedents in the history of British Conservatism. As Roberts (1958) says in discussing the early days of that party:

"The principles of Tory paternalism do not lend themselves to effective legislation or improved administration. Coleridge, the most profound and influential of these theorists, looked to the moral regeneration of the individual, not to the reforming State, and he envisaged the Church of England as the head of a paternalistic society. He despised what he called "Act of Parliament reforms" and he exalted the Church as much as he feared the State".

Of a slightly later period we read in Roberts (1958):

"Only State aid to all voluntary schools could extend education, but the Tories would not tolerate State intervention in a sphere reserved for the Church. In a grandiloquent speech to the Commons, Disraeli played deftly on this deep jealousy of the State. He raised the spectre of a centralized despotism comparable to those that oppressed China, Persia and Austria, and sombrely warned that the grant would force a return "to the system of a barbarous age, the system of a paternal government."

So Mrs Thatcher is in fact well in tune with historic British Rightism (Toryism, Conservatism) and hence provides useful and timely information on what it is all about.

Like Ronald Reagan, the one thing she most clearly has not been is a conservative (opponent of change). If Ronald Reagan had opposed change and supported the status quo, he would have defended existing welfare programs and tax levels for the wealthy. Instead, he cut many welfare programs back and sponsored a slashing of the top tax rates.

So too, Mrs Thatcher was both a proponent and a practitioner of drastic change. Her short-lived "Community charge" (poll tax) was levied only on registered voters and could be avoided by not registering. She thus made it necessary to buy the opportunity to vote in Britain. A more startling break with tradition would be hard to imagine. And Mrs Thatcher was undoubtedly one of the world's most prominent and influential Right-wing political leaders. She is certainly a heroine in Eastern Europe for the lead she gave in privatization and winding back socialism.

Even the cause of her eventual downfall is instructive. Radical as she was, she was still too conservative for her party. She instinctively bridled at the idea of a common European currency as it would lead to the decline and abolition of the once supreme Pound Sterling (Britain's present currency). It was rather like an American president being confronted with a demand to abolish the Greenback in favour of a currency merged with that of Canada and Mexico. Since such small changes as the introduction of a $2 note have failed in the United States, one must appreciate what a wrenching demand for change this was. Mrs Thatcher could not stomach such a radical change. Her party (the "Conservative") party did want such a change, however, and she lost power as a result.

The poll-tax was also a background issue in her downfall but note that her party at no time raised ideological or in-principle objections to it. Only its very great electoral unpopularity (it applied a direct tax to many millions of voters who had not been directly taxed before) caused its eventual abolition -- well in line with traditional Tory pragmatism.

So what is going on? Why does everyone call Rightists conservatives when in fact they are so ready to change things and have obviously not the slightest respect for the status quo per se?

The answer really is very simple. For a hundred years or more, the direction of change in at least the English-speaking countries has generally been a Leftward one. Up until quite recently, governments steadily acquired more powers and raised more taxes in order to enable them to do more and more for various worthy causes. Anyone who opposed big government was therefore cast into the role of opposing change and advocating the status quo. For many years, Rightism was synonymous with support for the status quo.

Eventually, however, the ill effects of too much government intervention became so obvious that even Leftists began to lose faith in their policies -- with President Mikhail Sergeyovich Gorbachev being merely the most spectacular example of this. Once disillusion with government intervention became widespread, however, Rightists got the support for what they had always advocated (a minimal State) and promptly showed in the most obvious way that their support for the status quo was, as they had always argued, highly contingent and of only minor importance compared with their basic aim of achieving limitations on government interference in one's life.

Altemeyer seems to have missed all this, however, so his equation of Rightism with conservatism is quite simply uninformed and condemns him to studying something that is quite simply irrelevant to contemporary Rightism. Whether or not his books are about authoritarianism, they are not about anything Right-wing.

Altemeyer's (1990) only comment on Mrs Thatcher is: "As for Mrs Thatcher, others may disagree but I think she is a passable example of my definition of a conservative. I suspect I am viewing the status quo of British society in longer perspective than Ray is. As to whether she is a reformer, as he describes her, that probably depends upon one's point of view, and the meaning of the term." This passage contains little more than vague generalities so is rather hard to get a grip on but Altemeyer may be saying that Mrs Thatcher is a conservative because many of her changes have been inspired by the past and because she seeks to return to systems characteristic of the past. For instance, her radical cuts in income tax may in part have been inspired by the fact that income tax was essentially non-existent during most of Britain's Victorian era.

But if this is what Altemeyer is saying, he is doing a backflip. He initially implied that Right-wingers reject change. Now he appears to say that they accept change as long as it is change inspired by the past. So are Rightists in favour of the status quo or are they not? Or are they in favour of some specific earlier status quo? Are they conservatives or reactionaries? One would think that these were rather large questions but Altemeyer just closes his eyes to them.

What Altemeyer really found

Such intellectual recklessness did, however, have its just reward in one respect at least. Altemeyer (1988, p. 239) concluded from his research that "Right-wing authoritarians show little preference in general for any political party." And this is despite the fact that scores on Altemeyer's RWA scale are fairly normally distributed! In other words, what the RWA scale measures is widespread in the population (Is that what one would expect of Right-wing authoritarianism? Altemeyer mostly studied Canadian college students so is there some fashion for military dictators among Canadian college students that I am unaware of?) but has no current political relevance. Altemeyer's own research thus confirms all that has so far been said above about the only incidental relevance of conservatism to current Rightism/Leftism. Altemeyer's findings require him to conclude that many Right-wing authoritarians support Leftist parties (Altemeyer, 1988, p. 240). What sense does that make? Does it not lead us to suspect that Altemeyer may have made a mistake about what he was really studying? Putting it another way, Altemeyer's RWA scale is clearly not valid. Even Altemeyer's own research shows that it does not measure what it purports to measure.

Altemeyer (1990) himself concedes that his scale has had negligible validation as a predictor of behavior and I have also reviewed the evidence to that effect (Ray, 1987). What I did find was that the RWA scale correlated not at all with a behaviorally valid authoritarianism scale but correlated highly with scales of straight conservatism (Ray, 1985b). When I first saw the content of the RWA scale items, the scale struck me as just another conservatism scale. The evidence has now confirmed that view. Unfortunately for Altemeyer, conservatism (as distinct from Rightism) has little current political relevance or importance.

So what is Altemeyer's response to this evidence? In Altemeyer (1988), his principal objection to my finding of a high correlation between the RWA scale and conservatism scales appears to be that I was the one who put together the conservatism scales concerned. I might with equal coherence object to the RWA scale because Altemeyer devised it! If Altemeyer had attempted to show that the conservatism scales I used were in some way unusual, his defence might have had some substance but he in fact made no such attempt.

Altemeyer (1990) has also attempted to defend his scale on the grounds that highly politicized groups (such as groups of legislators) are reasonably differentiated by it. There is a long and varied literature on the differences between political followers and political leaders (e.g. Aydelotte, 1966) but that the two are different seems generally agreed. It seems no great mystery why they differ with respect to Altemeyer's scale. Political leaders surely become steeped in the traditions, history and thought of their political movement and Rightist politicians at least should fairly reliably be steeped in the traditions and thought of their party. Rightist politicians would thus be aware that what they stand for long had an intimate association with conservatism and would thus pay at least lip-service to conservative shibboleths. In so doing they earn high scores on scales of conservatism such as the RWA scale. This does not, however, mean that the RWA scale has any relevance to politics in the general population and Altemeyer's own work confirms that.

Since even journalists now refer to old-guard Communists in Eastern Europe and China as "conservatives", Altemeyer's unwitting demonstration that conservatism and rightism cannot be equated can only be useful in helping to bring psychologists up-to-date on this question. It is entirely contingent and empirically determinable whether opponents of change are from the Left or the Right. To equate opposition to change with one side of politics only is sheer dogmatism and quite blind to the events of the real world about us.


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