Civilization: Conservatism on the couch

By LOU MARANO  |  Aug. 4, 2003 at 6:40 PM
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WASHINGTON, Aug. 4 (UPI) -- For conservatives of a certain age, the new study seemed like the return of "The Creature From the Black Lagoon." After 53 years, another body of research was emerging from the University of California at Berkeley that appeared to pathologized conservative political opinion.

This one, titled "Political Conservatism as Motivated Social Cognition," raised a recent fuss partly because of a university press release that the study's authors say misrepresented their work.

In 1950 "The Authoritarian Personality," by Theodor Adorno (1903-1969) and his collaborators, tried to measure "fascist receptivity" in terms of various traditional beliefs. Despite being robustly criticized, "Adorno et al." has remained influential for more than half a century in the social sciences, which are dominated by leftist academics. Its conclusions and assumptions have also shaped popular culture.

For conservative intellectuals "Adorno" is a red flag. It was produced by the Berkeley Public Opinion Study and the International Institute of Social Research - the North American manifestation of Weimar Germany's cultural Marxist Frankfurt School. (After the rise of Hitler in 1933, many members of the school took refuge in the United States.) The best popular exposition of the Frankfurt School is contained in Chapter 4 of Patrick J. Buchanan's 2002 book "The Death of the West."

The chapter is titled "Four Who Made a Revolution," and Adorno is one of the four. Buchanan explained that after World War I discredited the international brotherhood of the proletariat as the engine of historical change, Marxist theoreticians looked for alternative paths to revolution.

Hungarian Communist Georg Lukacs (1885-1971) was the first to see that bourgeois culture was capitalist society's vulnerable spot. After trying to undermine traditional family structures as deputy commissar of culture in Hungary, he fled to Germany. There he proposed inducing a "culture of pessimism" to increase feelings of helplessness and alienation in the nations of the West as a precursor to revolution. Through his influence, the Institute for Social Research was founded at Frankfurt University in 1923.

Italian Communist Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937) thought that Western society and nationalism so blinded workers to their own class interests that a frontal assault on capitalism would not work. First the culture itself would have to be subverted by radicals' "long march through the institutions" -- i.e., the arts, academia, and the media.

For Herbert Marcuse (1898-1979), sex and drugs were the weapons of choice against bourgeois society. He coined the term "make love, not war" and encouraged "polymorphous perversity."

"For cultural Marxists, no cause ranked higher than the abolition of the family, which they despised as a dictatorship and the incubator of sexism and social injustice," Buchanan wrote. ... "To Adorno, the patriarchal family was the cradle of fascism."

Adorno was one of the pioneers of "critical theory," close cousin to "deconstructionist" and "postmodernist" schools, which hold that not only morality but also reality and even sexuality are "socially constructed."

Buchanan wrote that "The Authoritarian Personality" was the most influential book the Frankfurt School ever produced.

The second sentence of the current study, published in Psychological Bulletin, reads: "The practice of singling out political conservatives for special study began with Adorno," which the authors call a "landmark study of authoritarianism and the fascist potential in personality." After noting that "Adorno" has been heavily criticized, they write that the book "has withstood the relentless tests of time and empirical scrutiny."

The authors are Jack Glaser, of Berkeley's Goldman School of Public Policy, John Jost of Stanford's Graduate School of Business, Arie Kruglanski of the University of Maryland at College Park, and Frank Sulloway, a visiting professor at Berkeley. The researchers are distancing themselves from a press release prepared by Kathleen Maclay of Berkeley's Media Relations department on the grounds that its most controversial statement did not appear in the original study. But this might be a case of blaming the help.

In a phone interview, Glaser said that a critique by Jeff Greenberg of the University of Arizona and Eva Jonas of the University of Munich was published with the article along with the authors' rejoinder. Greenberg and Jonas provided counterexamples of conservatives seeking change and of dogmatic thinking on the political left. In the rejoinder the authors wrote that specific attitudes toward capitalism or government policies are "peripheral" to the "core themes of conservatism," which are "resistance to change and acceptance of inequality."

"The core is what disparate conservative ideologies tend to have in common, and the periphery is where they differ," wrote Glaser, Jost, Kruglanski and Sulloway. "One is justified in referring to Hitler, Mussolini, Reagan, and (Rush) Limbaugh as right-wing conservatives (as Greenberg and Jonas did) not because they share an opposition to 'big government' or a mythical, romanticized view of Aryan purity - they did not share these specific attitudes - but because they all preached a return to an idealized past and favored or condoned inequality in some form."

The reader can judge whether the ensuing outrage can justly be deflected from the authors onto Maclay.

Asked about "The Authoritarian Personality," Glaser confirmed that Adorno et al. "sparked the tradition of research" that the authors reviewed in a meta-analysis. "We don't have any original data collection in this paper," he told United Press International.

"Adorno was based on neo-Freudian theory about punitive parenting styles that most contemporary psychology has repudiated," Glaser said. "The modern research is not about emotional drives but cognitive styles. Past studies have found people high in conservatism to be less tolerant of uncertainty or ambiguity and have a higher need for order and structure and closure. It's really very different from the Adorno style, which is more stigmatizing."

But why shouldn't conservatives feel stigmatized by the current study? Glaser was asked.

"I think most people would agree that there is a personality trait, or disposition, that seems to correlate with some things that could be considered undesirable," he replied, such as being less open to experience and less tolerant of ambiguity.

"The flip side of that is you could say that liberals are relatively indecisive - aren't able to cut to the quick and analyze things. It's a cup half full kind of thing, I guess."

Glaser said that research on conservatism has focused on the kind of traits that could be considered undesirable. "There might be more positive aspects of conservatism that could be uncovered."

Asked about a political agenda, Glaser replied that neither conservatism nor liberalism is pathological. "They're just human traits. ... We're primarily interested in political ideology more generally, and the research on liberalism is just not there. ... That might be a reflection of a bias that's existed for 53 years, but it's what we had to work with. And we advocate research on liberalism in the paper. ...

"By looking at conservatives and not looking at liberals, we don't have the full picture, but we still learn something," Glaser said.

In a phone interview, Arie Kruglanski of the University of Maryland was asked if the study - like Adorno - was the pathologizing of conservative political beliefs.

"That's absolutely not what it is," he said, referring to the press release. "We are not about Hitler, Mussolini, or Reagan at all. This article was subjected to a scholarly critique, and the critics linked the three together. ... It's ridiculous to assert a commonality between Hitler and Mussolini and Reagan. Hitler and Mussolini were not conservatives in the sense that we commonly understand this term. ... We in no way imply, nor do we believe, that the contents of Hitler's ideology were in any way similar to those of current-day American conservatives.

"What we were suggesting was that psychological makeup can lead to different conservative ideologies, but the contents are determined by the context."

For example, he said, in communist countries people with a penchant for conservatism - "those with an intolerance for ambiguity, and so forth" -- endorse egalitarian beliefs. People who are more open-minded accept the free market.

"It's a very lengthy paper summarizing and reviewing 50 years of research on conservatism, including the Adorno studies that you mentioned," he told UPI.

Kruglanski said the study does not pathologize conservatism. "To the contrary, it suggests that it's a psychological tendency that we all experience in certain situations and has its advantages as well as its disadvantages. The same factors that foster conservatism also foster decisiveness, commitment, and loyalty to the group - all of which could be considered positive attributes."

Kruglanski said "The Authoritarian Personality" did pathologize conservatism because Adorno et al. used Freudian theory to suggest that a pathology in family dynamics produced political conservatism.

"We couldn't be farther from that kind of approach," he said. "We attempt to understand conservatism in terms of psychological motives that are not only a function of individual differences ... but we also fully address the idea that all people would be intolerant of ambiguity and would require closure when the cost of information-processing is very high."

Such as?

"When one is fatigued, under time pressure - when one needs to act."

This is an essential epistemological process without which one could not crystallize a single judgment, Kruglanski said. "You need to close your mind. Otherwise you could obsess endlessly."

Lead author John T. Jost, who presumably set the tone of the current study, was more approving of "The Authoritarian Personality." He agreed that the methodology of the 1950 book was not very good.

But Jost said that psychologist Robert Altemeyer, of the University of Manitoba, developed a scale of right-wing authoritarianism that is not subject to the same methodological flaws. Jost said Altemeyer's research shows that when you measure authoritarianism in a better way, much of what Adorno said holds up better than its critics, who pointed to psychological rigidity on the political left.

Altemeyer, author of "Enemies of Freedom: Understanding Right-Wing Authoritarianism" (1988) and "The Authoritarian Specter" (1996), has his own critics.

Author Frank Sulloway was asked why conservatism should be the stigmatized point of view. Why not turn the question around and ask what causes left-wing political beliefs?

"That's a perfectly legitimate point," he answered. "The fact is, any measure of conservatism implies liberalism, and vice versa. The article could have been switched the other way."

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