The Spectacle Blog

Projecting Authoritarian Personality Onto Tea Partiers

By on 8.24.11 | 1:32PM

David N. Bass is perplexed by the recently released study titled "The Cultures of the Tea Party" led by Andrew Perrin of the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and Steven Tepper of Vanderbilt University. In the study, Perrin and company concluded that authoritarianism was one of the "primary cultural dispositions among those who feel positively toward the TPM."

Specifically, Bass is puzzled as to why Perrin et al would ask about parenting when it comes to measuring the alleged authoritarian tendencies of Tea Partiers. He writes:

In the political context of 2011 - where politicos are fighting a battle over the most significant piece of authoritarian legislation in years, ObamaCare - it's odd that researchers would select questions about parenting to ask. I mean, tea partiers aren't exactly rallying in the streets because children are obeying their parents, are they?

But the moment I heard the saw "authoritarianism" projected onto the Tea Party, Theodor Adorno came to mind. For those of you who are unfamiliar with Adorno, he was a German Marxist sociologist who managed to find greener pastures in the United States in the late 1930's before the Nazis started WWII. Adorno was a leading proponent of Critical Theory and his best known work was The Authoritarian Personality. Released in 1950, Adorno made the case that certain personality traits tended people towards supporting fascism. The most notable part of The Authoritarian Personality was the F-scale which was a series of thirty statements which depending on the extent to which how one strongly agreed or disagreed determined one's fascist inclinations. The very first of those statements reads:

Obedience and respect for authority are the most important virtues children should learn.

So when Perrin and his partners ask, "Would you say it is more important that a child obeys his parents, or that he is responsible for his own actions?", they are simply picking up where Adorno and his followers (i.e. Bob Altemeyer and his Right-Wing Authoritarian scale) left off. Indeed, Adorno wrote in The Authoritarian Personality:

Confronted with the rigidity of the adult...one turns naturally to the question of whether the prospects for heatlhy personality structure would not be greater if the proper influences were brought to bear earlier in the individual's life, and since the earlier the influence the more profound it will be, attention becomes focused upon child training.

Adorno also put forward this observation, "Whether the tolerant person is militant or pacifistic, he is very likely to be liberal in his political views."

Well, when liberals hear conservative views they demonstrate their "tolerance" by labeling those with whom they disagree as racist, mentally ill or, in this case, as authoritarian.

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