You Know Those Studies That Say Conservatives Are More Authoritarian Than Leftists? They’re Basically Garbage.


You’ve undoubtedly seen those preening headlines from major outlets about how conservatives are more “authoritarian” by nature than Leftists. See, for example, here and here and here and here and here and here. But it turns out that this is nonsense. Such studies are generally vague and deliberately constructed to make it appear that conservatives are more “authoritarian” than Leftists. In reality, authoritarian personality types exist across the political spectrum. All you have to do is change the incentive structure in the questions, and you’ll suddenly find Leftists who hate freedom and conservatives who love it.

Jesse Singal of New York Magazine has a long and worthwhile piece about the scientific flaws in the authoritarian modeling. But the concept itself goes back to the Frankfurt School, members of which argued that Americans were members of an “authoritarian” mold since they didn’t agree with Marxist precepts about redistribution of wealth. Thus, for example, Erich Fromm argued that fascism would rise in the United States thanks to its devotion to capitalism — and that capitalism sprang from social structures that had urged “compulsive conforming in the process of which the isolated individual becomes an automaton,” breeding “authoritarian character.”

Leftists in science took the bait and began constructing clearly flawed studies to support this dubious and self-flattering conclusion. As Singal writes:

These scales, in short, are all too often structured in a way in which respondents’ tendencies toward dogmatism or close-mindedness or intolerance are ascertained by asking them about issues that are politicized. And while social and political psychologists have sometimes asked about rigidity in ways designed to tap liberal ideas — the famed authoritarianism researcher Bob Altemeyer, for example, did publish a left-wing authoritarianism scale — this has been the exception rather than the norm.

Thus, when you encounter an “authoritarian” quiz online, it will likely bear questions that ask whether you want flag burning banned — but none on whether you want hate speech banned, for example. When studies were constructed to reverse the politics of the original studies — surprise, surprise! — the results were reversed:

As it turned out, these tweaks affected which group responded more “dogmatically” a great deal. Liberals scored as more dogmatic than conservatives when it came to their agreement with sentiments like “When it comes to stopping global warming, it is better to be a dead hero than a live coward” and “A person who thinks primarily of his/her own happiness, and in so doing disregards the health of the environment (for example, trees and other animals), is beneath contempt,” while conservatives, by contrast, scored higher than liberals on items tuned in the opposite political direction. (In fact, there was little difference between how conservatives scored on the original scale and the tweaked-to-be-more-explicitly-conservative version, lending credence to the claim that the original scale was biased in a direction that captured more conservative than liberal dogmatism.) “By making only small adjustments to a popularly used dogmatism scale, results show that liberals can be significantly more dogmatic if a liberal domain is made salient,” explained the authors.

Confirmation bias has allowed too many members of the Left to ignore embarrassing scientific reversals like this one from 2016, when a study suggesting that conservatives were psychotic was actually recalibrated to show the reverse.

Yet virtually every political science course continues to carry nonsense about how conservatives are only conservative because they like authority.

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