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Altemeyer is best known for a long-term self-funded study into what he terms "right-wing authoritarianism" (RWA) and builds heavily on the work of Theodor Adorno and others who studied authoritarian movements in the 20th century. The conclusions of this study, presented in a freely available book entitled The Authoritarians, are that there are a certain set of psychological characteristics shared by these "right-wing authoritarians" and that people should learn to identify these characteristics so as to avoid being politically dominated and/or popped off. The book has been updated twice since its release, with Altemeyer adding chapters on the 2008 U.S. presidential elections and the Tea Party movement.
Although Altemeyer takes most of his examples from U.S. right-wing politics, right-wing authoritarianism is not inherently right-wing (Joseph Stalin's supporters, for example, were politically at least nominally left-wing collectivist, but most definitely RWA followers). The "right-wing" in the term essentially identifies a mindset, a sort of hyper-paternalistic worldview with an emphasis on stratification between leaders and followers and a definite concept of a "chain of being", as well as a generally high level of dogmatic thinking. RWAs are not necessarily low in intelligence, but are often quick to grab on to any evidence that supports their beliefs no matter how tenuous—compartmentalized thinking is common. Altemeyer describes the three most important aspects of right-wing authoritarianism as follows:
- Authoritarian submission — a high degree of submissiveness to the authorities who are perceived to be established and legitimate in the society in which one lives
- Authoritarian aggression — a general aggressiveness directed against deviants, outgroups and other people that are perceived to be targets according to established authorities
- Conventionalism — a high degree of adherence to the traditions and social norms that are perceived to be endorsed by society and its established authorities; and a belief that others in one's society should also be required to adhere to these norms
Altemeyer divides RWAs into leaders and followers. Leaders tend to be aggressive and individualistic, while followers tend towards a somewhat fatalistic but principled acceptance of their own status as cogs in a machine, generally condemning those not seen to be in conformance with the leaders' wishes. Leader diktats and social pressure both discourage both independence and dissent; and RWAs frequently demonize outgroups as a further incentive to obedience to the social order. Further research – including experiments involving a nation sim, the Global Change Game (GCC) showed RWAs to be more possessive and more likely to attempt to solve problems by starting turf wars with perceived competitors (in the case of one GCG experiment, causing an all-out nuclear war on the first run-through and creating a global resource crisis leading to mass famine when given a mulligan).
Politics and family
In The Authoritarians, Altemeyer identifies himself only as a political anti-authoritarian, rather than a left-winger. However, his son Rob is a former New Democratic legislator in the provincial assembly.
Altemeyer became something of a target for right-wing pseudo-intellectuals who accused him of persecuting them for calling his theory "right-wing authoritarianism", even though the term "right-wing" is being used in an academic sense as opposed to a purely political one. Likewise, a left-winger may use the term to pretend as if his research only applies to the political right even though it can apply to one at any point on the political spectrum.
However, not all conservatives who know who he is hate Altemeyer; former White House Counsel for Richard Nixon and Goldwater conservative John Dean has praised and referenced Altemeyer's research numerous times to critique the Religious Right. This was especially prevalent in Dean's book Conservatives Without Conscience which references Altemeyer's research to critique the Republican Party. Apparently Barry Goldwater himself planned on co-writing such a book with Dean, but unfortunately he died before he could. In turn, Altemeyer praised Dean in the opening of his book The Authoritarians, going so far as to call him "Honest John" in an homage to Honest Abe and saying that he was the primary reason he wrote The Authoritarians.
- Bob Altemeyer. "The Authoritarians". University of Manitoba. Retrieved June 5, 2019.
- Bob Altemeyer (2006). The Authoritarians. p. 27. Shamelessly stolen from the Wikipedia article.
- See the Wikipedia article on Global Change Game.