The qualities of the Authoritarian Mind have been drawn into sharp focus with the rise of the Internet and the emergence of political tribalism over the last decade. For the last decade, I have been observing far-right behavior both in the wild (my workplace, my neighbor, Fox News, the wanderings of C-SPAN) and in captivity (my family around the holiday table). In these travels, I have been convinced that the difference between the far-right & the rest of us is not due to simple differences of opinion but rather to fundamental differences in mind.
You heard me. I claim far-right minds are different in neurological function. Specifically, I say they have differences in perception, belief projection & resonance. I will clarify this below.
At the outset I would like to state that I am not a neurobehaviorist but I observe the human condition in a professional manner. I am well aware that other writers have written on this subject in a more skilled & knowledgeable fashion. This list would include Umberto Eco, Richard Hofstadter, Eric Hoffer, Chris Hedges, Naomi Wolf, Sebastian Haffner, George Orwell and so on. I have read all of them and my apologies to those that I have plagiarized. But I would also like to credit the far-right themselves. Because if you listen closely to them, they say will describe their mental structure/function in a surprisingly self-aware fashion. This is especially true when they speak to others of their ilk such as at the Conservative Political Action Conference or the Republican Convention.
I define the far-right interchangeably as authoritarians, Republican Party faithful, tea-party members, ditto-heads, religious fundamentalists, fascists, monarchists, racists, etc. They are present in all societies (or nations) and come to prominence at multiple points in history. I suspect that around 20% of humans fall into this category. I suspect they are mostly created at birth with only minimal influence by upbringing & environment. They are the 20% who provided a floor to President Bush’s approval ratings during his dark years.
Most writings on this subject quote the landmark essay by Umberto Eco entitled “Ur-Fascism” and I do the same. I always felt that his fourteen-point list was more or less complete but lacked the essence of what made authoritarians tick. And I always thought the list could be shorter. But several lines in the essay are profound. Speaking of the cult of tradition, he states, “There can be no advancement of learning…the truth has already been announced…all we can do is continue interpreting its obscure message.” On the cult of action, he states, “action is beautiful…and must be implemented before…reflection. Thinking is a form of emasculation.” And so on.
What follows are what I think are the four principle qualities of the authoritarian mind. After this list is presented, I will hypothesize the two over-arching processes that lead to these qualities. I believe a neurological basis in terms of cognitive structure/function exists to explain the two processes.
Number one- “Crusadism.” Authoritarian minds have a compulsive need to convert others to their perspective. This includes invading a middle-eastern country and bringing free market beliefs such as a flat tax, corporate rights & ‘the market will rebuild their infrastructure’ while ignoring the overt suffering caused by the invasion. Or more mundane, your uncle giving you his poorly formed political idea unprompted at the family table.
Number two- “Dominionism.” Authoritarian minds do not see themselves as connected to the wide tapestry of life around them. They have perceptional blindness to their human mortal state. They do not see themselves as biological animals. They are oblivious to their connection to life around them. The planet has been bequeathed to them by the right-hand of God. The planet will endure by their hand because God has given it to them.
Number three- Paranoia. Authoritarian minds are highly suspicious of others. This is the classic quality that many have comment on. I would define this as intolerance to those who don’t resonate their beliefs precisely. Think of David Frum and his expulsion from the American Enterprise Institute.
Number four- Dualism. Authoritarian minds thrive in the constriction of language & avoidance of relativism (as they freely admit). Language is parsed to opposites- Good/Evil, Capitalism/Socialism, Right/Left, Christian/Secular, Heartland/Coast, etc. As Orwell coined it-“newspeak.” This is Umberto Eco’s Ur-Fascism point #14.
So what are the two processes that give birth to the above qualities? I would hypothesize two- Projection & Resonance. From these two neurological processes, I propose the other four qualities emerge.
First, let me explain how I feel most people are organized in opposition to projection. I think most people are perceptive to varying degrees. They observe their surroundings before making judgments & plans for action. Their behavior has a loose relationship to their innate beliefs and these beliefs are in constant evolution as they progress through life. They make moral decisions based on their ‘heart’ some distance from belief.
I think Authoritarians are stunted in terms of perception of the world that surrounds them and have a very different relationship with belief, namely they project belief.
Process one- Projection. Instead of perception, the authoritarian mind is organized around projection. They have core unalterable beliefs and a need to project them to the greater world. They do this at the expense of perception to a fault. They make no bones about this quality. Their speeches are rife with references to being true to “core beliefs & conservative principles.” They enumerate these core beliefs & principles. In fact, their speeches are little more than an emphasis on ‘being true to core beliefs’ & listing them to the exclusion of other rhetorical devices such as persuasion & argument. Think of how they respond to the run-on belief-fragments (memes) of a Sarah Palin speech. Some of these core beliefs include:
“The invisible hand of the market is always right.”
“Faith in the Lord Jesus Christ brings ever-lasting life.”
“Government can never improve our lives.”
“Rules descend from God’s Natural Law.”
“Life starts at conception.”
And so on. These beliefs are thought unalterable and meant to be articles for projection to others like immutable DNA. The problem is that these beliefs are not true. So when these beliefs are projected unto the larger world it seems to create cognitive dissonance in authoritarians under observation. But to the authoritarian, the world only needs to be altered to match their internal world-view to bring their beliefs back into reality.
Process two- Resonance. Authoritarian minds are unstable in isolation. They have a strong innate need to achieve belief-resonance with others of their tribe. Another term, courtesy of Rush Limbaugh, that could be used to describe the same phenomenon is ‘dittoing.’
It is well known that authoritarian minds are often in strong agreement with each other. Compare this to rag-tag groups of centralists & leftists. Think about the difference between the tea-party falling behind moneyed authority versus the disarray of the 99%. Listen to the perfect resonance of Republicans to their ‘talking-points’ versus the rest of us. Wonder at how they love their few media outlets (Limbaugh, Fox, Drudge), which provide constriction of belief by design.
(I predict that no centrist or leftist media outlet will ever achieve the same popularity as these laser-sharp megaphones of right-wing belief. I say this only because of differences of mind between them & us and for no other reason.)
Science has identified mirror neurons in primates. Mirror neurons have been implicated in mimicry of action and empathy but higher-order cognitive function such as belief have been mere conjuncture. Still, I propose something analogous to mediate this behavior in right-wing brains.
Individuals who are outside of their right-wing beliefs, or out of resonance with their belief, are objects of directed paranoia. Multiple examples would include (but not be limited to) President Obama, Nancy Pelosi, George Soros, ACORN, secularists, atheists, academics, east-coast elitists, Hollywood Jewish Moguls, homosexuals, climate scientists, environmentalists, community organizers, union members, Mexicans, etc. One must resonate with their projections of belief or risk harm. I predict they would author books with run-on lists of these individuals.
So what does all this nonsense mean in practical life? I would propose that is impossible to dislodge a mind from the iron grip of authoritarianism and it is a waste of time to try to change their minds. Instead, I think their influence needs to be contained, or isolated, from the rest of humanity.
How does one do this? I give as an example—the weakening of authoritarian racism over the last sixty years. At no point, was it thought prudent to try to change the mind of a racist.
First, I think authoritarians kowtow to overt authority & power relationships. One must project a strong well-informed image to heal them. Again, think of the effect of the Federal Government on damping southern race crimes.
Second, I think you need to fight their foundational beliefs head on in the court of public opinion. Their core beliefs need to be fought at all times to keep them off balance. Think of the Freedom Riders in changing white American attitudes on race relations.
Third, one must promote infighting among them and expose their scandals. I realize this is of dubious morality, but it is fundamentally a true statement. Think of how the government destroys radical groups it perceives to be harmful.
That is it for now. I hear Jane Goodall has unleashed a horde of chimpanzees to beat my ass.