16 January 2010

Article: The "Antidemocratic Personality" Revisited

A 2008 article by Jaime L. Napier and John T. Jost: "The 'Antidemocratic Personality' Revisited: A Cross-National Investigation of Working-Class Authoritarianism" ("Journal of Social Issues", 64 [3]: pp. 595-617):


Abstract: "More than 60 years ago, psychologists identified a potential threat to democracy from within, namely the 'antidemocratic personality' arising from the 'authoritarian syndrome.' It was soon discovered that the problem of authoritarianism was especially acute among those who were low in education and income, and that it was associated with intolerance toward others. However, several important questions were left unresolved. We revisit fundamental theoretical and empirical questions concerning the existence and nature of 'working-class authoritarianism,' focusing especially on four psychological aspects of authoritarianism, namely, conventionalism, moral absolutism, obedience to authority, and cynicism.

"In a cross-national investigation involving respondents from 19 democratic countries, we find that all four aspects of authoritarianism are indeed related to moral and ethnic intolerance. However, only obedience to authority and cynicism are especially prevalent among those who are low in socioeconomic status. Conventionalism and moral absolutism were significant predictors of economic conservatism, whereas obedience to authority and cynicism were not. We find no support for Lipset's (1960) claim that working-class authoritarianism would be associated with economic liberalism. Instead, we find that authoritarianism is linked to right-wing orientation in general and that intolerance mediates this relationship. Implications for electoral politics and political psychology are discussed."

Some excerpts: "Mussolini and Hitler initially came to power through democratic means. [...] We suggest that [...] even when people – including many members of economically disadvantaged groups – actually do participate in mass politics, their participation does not necessarily produce outcomes that are democratic, egalitarian, or even congruent with their own self-interest [...].

"In general, our study suggests that people who are high and low in socioeconomic status may be drawn to right-wing ideology for different reasons. It appears that those who are high in income may be motivated, at least in part, to preserve their advantageous position in society, whereas individuals who are low in education and income are drawn to right-wing leaders, parties, and policies in part because of moral and ethnic intolerance, that is, because of certain behavioural manifestations of authoritarianism [...].

"[T]he social and psychological factors that lead members of the working class to vote against their own social and economic interests is a serious potential concern for the long-term stability of democratic society. In particular, democracy itself is threatened when citizens are motivated by intolerance of others, as opposed to, say, bettering their own situation and the situations of their fellow citizens. The findings of our research also underscore the tremendous importance of education for citizens in a democracy. It may well be that – especially for those who confront economic insecurity – higher education provides one of the few known social brakes against intolerance and other antidemocratic sentiments."

The authors of the article build up on Theodor W. Adorno et al.'s "The Authoritarian Personality" (1950) and an earlier book chapter by Frenkel-Brunswik, Levinson, and Sanford titled "The Antidemocratic Personality" (1947) as well as referring to many other contributions made since then to the study of this proposed set of character traits.

Jaime L. Napier is now an Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychology at Yale. John T. Jost is Professor of Psychology at New York University.

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