The Authoritarians

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The Authoritarians is a book written by retiring University of Manitoba professor Bob Altemeyer and published online in PDF format as a free download. It was originally available only online, but is now (2009) available in print and as an audio book.

The subject is what Altemeyer calls "Right Wing Authoritarianism", or "RWA" for short: a two-dimensional personality trait exhibited by individuals and groups to varying degrees, with the two dimensions being "followership" and "leadership" intensity. Where individuals have an unusually high level of either dimension, they are referred to as "high-RWA" or "low-RWA" (the dimension is generally also specified, though "follower" seems to be the default if it is not).

See traits for more discussion.


Entire book PDF: local
By chapter:
Title Page / Chapters / Preface / Acknowledgements / Introduction PDF
1. Who Are the Authoritarian Followers? PDF
2. The Roots of Authoritarian Aggression, and Authoritarianism Itself PDF
3. How Authoritarian Followers Think PDF
4. Authoritarian Followers and Religious Fundamentalism PDF
5. Authoritarian Leaders PDF
6. Authoritarianism and Politics PDF
7. What's To Be Done? PDF
Postscript on the 2008 Election PDF
Comment on the Tea Party Movement (2010) PDF


Chapter 1 explains the reason for the word "Right" (in "Right Wing Authoritarian") in relation to the "high degree of submission to the established, legitimate authorities in their society" exhibited by authoritarian followers:

Because the submission occurs to traditional authority, I call these followers right-wing authoritarians. I'm using the word "right" in one of its earliest meanings, for in Old English "riht"(pronounced "writ") as an adjective meant lawful, proper, correct, doing what the authorities said.

In North America people who submit to the established authorities to extraordinary degrees often turn out to be political conservatives, so you can call them "right-wingers" both in my new-fangled psychological sense and in the usual political sense as well. But someone who lived in a country long ruled by Communists and who ardently supported the Communist Party would also be one of my psychological right-wing authoritarians even though we would also say he was a political left-winger. So a right-wing authoritarian follower doesn't necessarily have conservative political views. Instead he's someone who readily submits to the established authorities in society, attacks others in their name, and is highly conventional. It's an aspect of his personality, not a description of his politics. Right-wing authoritarianism is a personality trait, like being characteristically bashful or happy or grumpy or dopey.

The Authoritarians, Chapter 1

This explanation seems to imply that the "R" in "RWA" is not to be taken as applying specifically to the political right wing. Dr. Altemeyer's later elaboration about this question on Google groups seems to be saying, in essence, that although the phenomenon is not confined to the political right, the experiments he did and the data he gathered were specifically addressing the political right. The "Right [Wing]" was therefore included in the term in order to be as unassuming as possible in giving a label to that which was measured.

To give another example: One might do experiments using water from Lake Huron and describe the results as representing "the properties of water", but it would probably be more accurate (certainly more scientifically rigorous) to say they represent "the properties of water from Lake Huron". The book similarly describes the properties of "Right Wing Authoritarians", although it seems likely that the results will turn out to be generalizable in many ways to Authoritarians of other stripes.


The second reason I can offer for reading what follows is that it is not chock full of opinions, but experimental evidence. Liberals have stereotypes about conservatives, and conservatives have stereotypes about liberals. Moderates have stereotypes about both. Anyone who has watched, or been a liberal arguing with a conservative (or vice versa) knows that personal opinion and rhetoric can be had a penny a pound. But arguing never seems to get anywhere. Whereas if you set up a fair and square experiment in which people can act nobly, fairly, and with integrity, and you find that most of one group does, and most of another group does not, that’s a fact, not an opinion. And if you keep finding the same thing experiment after experiment, and other people do too, then that's a body of facts that demands attention. Some people, we have seen to our dismay, don't care a hoot what scientific investigation reveals; but most people do. If the data were fairly gathered and we let them do the talking, we should be on a higher plane than the current, "Sez you!"

The Authoritarians, page 4






Questions for follow-up studies

  • Is there a correlation between "RWA" level and...
    • ...interest in spectator sports?
    • ...friendships? (do high-RWAs and low-RWAs get along?)
    • ...creativity? artistic talent?

Some examples of "left-wing" authoritarianism are raised here.