TEA and “The Authoritarians”

Last week, the author at No More Mister Nice Blog mused about what the TEA Party would have likely remained without the careful guidance of their Republican handlers. He briefly noted that the TEA Party was largely financed and controlled by Republican PACs (Political Action Committees) like FreedomWorks and Americans for Prosperity. With their assistance, the extremist rhetoric, particularly as it related to racist roots, was toned down and hidden enough for the party to be viewed almost respectably by a large number of Americans. Given that the Democrats successfully retained their hold of the White House in last year’s Presidential election, the TEA Party has lost much of its reason for existing, and new Party supporters have had immense difficulty not only in obtaining cash, but in restricting their urge to blast the President for the audacity of being black.

It was a very short article, but within minutes, the comment section exploded with people claiming that there was no racist intent in TEA Party actions. It is rare that I read the comments on any site that does not espouse and discuss humanist values; I have long noted that the level of vitriol on other sites tends to quickly ramp up, and there is often a distinct lack of intellectual argumentation to be found. The claims against racism were quickly followed up with comments like “You liberals are brainless morons” and “I am racist against you stupid ass liberals, you are the most STUPID RACE in Existence.” … There are now over 600 comments, which I really have no intention of reading in full, and I see that No More Mister added a post a day later in which he snidely commented that he was honored by their attentions, and proudly displayed a Twitter post from a TEA Party member who told his followers to pile on the site. What followed was classic authoritarian behaviour. 

The TEA Party didn’t exist until the beginning of 2009, a month or so after President Obama took office, but that is not to say that many of their sentiments were not around. Any random, large population of people will have a segment who have authoritarian leanings, weak or strong, and a segment who are strong social dominators. The real trouble begins when a strongly authoritarian social dominator attains the power he/she seeks, most especially when in the ranks of government. As Robert Altemeyer, former Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of Manitoba, explains, the vast majority of TEA Party members score highly as RWAs, while their leaders score quite highly on both scales. No, they don’t follow the government of Barack Obama (which many Partiers claimed was illegitimate due to falsified birth records or electoral theft), but they put absolute faith in their chosen political and religious leaders. That is the essence of authoritarianism.

Altemeyer explains at length what he describes as the Right Wing Authoritarian (RWA) personality, the kind of person who quickly submits to and carries out the orders of their chosen authorities. By and large, RWAs are the ideal followers; they rarely question their leaders, and are enthusiastic in performing the tasks given them. Although RWAs in the USA are presently overrepresented among Republican voters and leadership, the personality itself operates irrespective of politics. The same type of person just as vociferously supports communist as fascist regimes when brought up in each respective system. It is important to them that they be viewed as being members of a group, and to have that group as clearly defined as possible.

In a followup paper, produced a year after the first rumblings of the TEA party in 2009, Altemeyer produced a comment on its naissance, and included a handy list of traits shared by RWA personalities. Numerous examples for each can easily be found by anyone with access to a computer.

  • Authoritarian submission
  • Fear
  • Self-righteousness
  • Hostility
  • Lack of critical thinking
  • Difficulty identifying the “biggest problem [facing America today]”
  • Compartmentalized thinking (i.e. able to maintain contradictory beliefs even after being shown the contradictions)
  • Double standards (No complaints about government spending when their chosen authority is in control, and all hell breaks loose when Another Team is at the helm and enacting the exact same policies)
  • Feeling empowered when in groups (Individual expression is viewed with suspicion)
  • Dogmatism (RWAs tend to be very highly religious, and tend, for better or worse, to form their worldviews through that lens)
  • Ethnocentrism
  • Prejudice

The other authoritarian type, by contrast, is that of the social dominator, the type of person who seeks to lead the RWAs (and, eventually, everyone else). But these leaders have a much different goal in mind; rather than group identification, the goal is personal power. Here, the strange bedfellows of Libertarians and Republicans are made. In “The Authoritarians”, Altemeyer asks social dominators to describe themselves, and some of their responses are quite chilling. Their primary goal is power, of course, and they are willing to do just about anything to attain that power. For them, honesty, empathy, kindness, charity and a sense of fair play are all weaknesses that bind their opponents, but not themselves. They are leaders in need of followers, whereas RWAs are followers in need of leaders.

The current divide in American politics, it seems, is less that of two competing political parties, each vying to represent the mythical “average” American in the best interests of the country, and more a competition to gather the most followers by whatever means necessary. The potential political power of religious RWAs for the Republican party was first identified in 1969 by Nixon advisor Kevin Phillips in his book The Emerging Republican Majority, and soon after was born the Southern Strategy. In 2006, after nearly forty years of watching previously politically unmotivated Catholics and Protestants of the USA take control of the Republican party, Phillips published American Theocracy, where he revealed his concerns about this unprecedented development. While the Constitution that the TEA Partiers so claim to admire precludes the “establishment of religion” in government, it is clear from ongoing arguments about evolution vs creationism in the classroom and constant attacks on womens’ health programs (particularly abortion), they are apparently more than willing to cross out that amendment, to return the States to the halcyon days of myth.

I’m not an American, but as a Canadian, I aim to be malevolently well-informed about our neighbors. There is much that I disagree with when it comes to the Democratic party and Obama’s leadership. RWAs are naturally attracted to strong leaders, people so rigid in their beliefs that they will not (can not?) change directions even when the iceberg is RIGHT AHEAD! Liberals often point out that Obama is not a left winger, and instead refer to him as a “Rockefeller Republican”, or as Bush Junior. Given his actions with drones in Afghanistan and at home, increased surveillance of the population at home, and other activities Bush II could only have dreamed of, but no doubt would have approved of, I am in complete agreement that there is no American Left to speak of. Both major parties are right wing parties, with the Republicans just a few steps further out.

There is a bright spot ahead, however. The focus on religious RWAs may have had its second-to-last gasp (not the last, as I expect a massive turnout in the midterms to swing the seats strongly Republican once more). Religion itself seems to be losing much of its grasp on younger, and increasingly non-white, Americans. The current Republican base is edging toward oblivion, and the party will have to reinvent itself as something appealing to a new crowd. Given time, even I might start to support Republican initiatives… but that’s a long way off, yet.

REFERENCES

Altemeyer, Robert. The Authoritarians. 2006. Available from http://home.cc.umanitoba.ca/~altemey/

Altemeyer, Robert. Comment on the TEA Party Movement. 2010. Available from http://home.cc.umanitoba.ca/~altemey/

M., Steve. This is what the TEA party would have been like without Fox and the Koch brothers. August 7, 2013. Available from http://nomoremister.blogspot.ca/2013/08/this-is-what-tea-party-would-have-been.html

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