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Keywords:

  • authoritarianism;
  • conservatism;
  • psychoanalysis;
  • bias;
  • armchair speculation

Abstract

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Acknowledgments
  4. References

This article provides a response to Crouse and Stalker's reply to my commentary (Thomas, 2013) on their article titled “Do Right-Wing Authoritarian Beliefs Originate from Psychological Conflict?” (Psychoanalytic Psychology, 24, 25–44). The authors' critical remarks regarding my commentary are addressed, and recommendations are offered for a more cautious use of psychoanalytic theory and results derived from The Right-Wing Authoritarianism Scale (Altemeyer, 1998) for labeling persons with mainstream conservative political beliefs as being “psychopathological” or “right-wing authoritarians.” Such assertions regarding the personality characteristics of political conservatives are particularly troubling, since the authors' conclusions were purely speculative, and they collected neither clinical nor empirical data on patients or research subjects with so-called right-wing authoritarian personalities to support their speculations.

This article is a response to Crouse and Stalker's reply to my commentary (Thomas, 2013) regarding their article titled “Do Right-Wing Authoritarian Beliefs Originate from Psychological Conflict?” (Psychoanalytic Psychology, 24, 25–44). The purpose of the response is twofold: (a) to address Crouse and Stalker's criticisms of my commentary and (b) to advocate for a more cautious approach to using psychoanalytic theory, in conjunction with The Right-Wing Authoritarian Scale (Altemeyer, 1998), to label mainstream political conservatives as “psychopathological” or as having right-wing authoritarian personalities.

Crouse and Stalker's (2014) reply to my commentary (Thomas, 2013) includes both valid and invalid observations. They assert, but often do not substantiate, a litany of purported errors on my part. Among these assertions are the following: several aspects of their original article (Crouse & Stalker, 2007) were misunderstood; the importance of empirical research to investigate the structure of right-wing political beliefs was not appreciated; inappropriate conclusions were reached due to insufficient statistical sophistication, including awareness of multivariate statistical and research techniques such as factor analysis; the value of speculative theory building and the application of psychoanalytic theory to a variety of social issues were unappreciated; subtle differences between classical psychoanalysis and modern conflict theory were not understood; the fact that people actually hold the beliefs reflected in responses to The Right-Wing Authoritarian Scale (Altemeyer, 1998) was denied; the objective, psychometrically sound, potentially heuristic, and rigorously researched characteristics of The Right-Wing Authoritarian Scale were unappreciated; and, generally, Crouse and Stalker's claim that their original article was purely scientific and based entirely upon advancing an understanding of the psychoanalytic etiology of right-wing authoritarianism was questioned. In addition, my commentary was criticized for neither offering nor mentioning alternative strategies for measuring right-wing authoritarianism and related research problems.1

Crouse and Stalker (2014, p. 113) emphasized early in their reply that their original article was “speculative.” This emphasis was apparently intended to release them from responsibility for being viewed as politically biased or for providing any clinical or empirical support for their contentions. Simply because one is speculating on something does not eliminate its potential bias. To suggest that it does makes especially no sense for authors who have asserted, “beliefs may be controlled by powerful non-cognitive causes often outside of conscious awareness” (Crouse & Stalker, 2007, p. 26). Moreover, it could be argued that speculations are more likely to be tied to bias than to real analysis, since it is presumed that real analysis is supported by clinical and empirical data.

Crouse and Stalker are completely justified in stating that it is valuable to apply psychoanalytic theory to a variety of issues ostensibly removed from the psychoanalyst's consulting room, including the belief systems of right-and left-wing authoritarians.2 However, when authors confuse right-wing authoritarianism with run-of-the-mill political conservatism and assign deviant and psychopathology labels to the belief systems of mainstream conservatives, with little empirical or clinical evidence to suggest such pathology, one is justified in inquiring into their possible biases and the validity of their conclusions.

Crouse and Stalker stated specifically in their original article: “Interpretations similar to the ones we develop below for right-wing authoritarian attitudes and beliefs probably also apply to other types of authoritarianism, such as left-wing authoritarianism, and related dogmatic and submissive attitudes that are independent of political views” (2007, p. 26). This “caveat or qualification,” however, was offered only in passing with no follow up. There was, for example, no further discussion of the similarities between the two types of authoritarianism, despite numerous opportunities to do so. In other words, their article was directed entirely toward demonstrating how predominantly negative personality characteristics were related to right-wing (i.e., conservative) political attitudes and beliefs.

Crouse and Stalker argued that I characterized the psychometric data presented in their original article as insufficient evidence for the Scale's validity. For example, they stated in their reply that “predictive and discriminant validity is a far more complicated matter” (2014, p.115) than I make it. Actually, it is difficult to determine from reading their original article what their intention was in reporting the psychometric data presented in Table 1. Perhaps their intention was only to demonstrate that scores on the Scale were related to scores on inventories purporting to measure a variety of other personality characteristics (e.g., dogmatism, religious fundamentalism, perception of the world as a dangerous place, ethnocentrism, militia attitude) that would reflect right-wing authoritarianism. Yet, if that was their intent, and given the varied range of the correlations, they should have made their case by analyzing similarities and differences among the various scales and personality attributes, not simply asserting them.

Regardless of whether the correlations reported support or don't support the validity of the Scale or Crouse and Stalker's speculations regarding the personalities of right-wing authoritarians, the nature of the instruments selected for inclusion in Table 1 (e.g., The Dangerous World Scale, The Posse Against Radicals Scale) further buttresses my contention that the result of their article, whether intended or not, served to demonize individuals with conservative political beliefs under the guise of an informed and scholarly psychoanalytic analysis.3 Also, despite implications to the contrary in Crouse and Stalker's reply, it was clearly acknowledged in my commentary that the data reported in their original article (2007, p. 39) supported the conclusion that the Scale possessed adequate internal consistency (reliability) of scores produced by the Scale.

Crouse and Stalker also characterized my commentary as being full of cherry-picked sentences from their original article that were unfairly criticized. Unfortunately, from my perspective, there were many statements in their article that could be challenged. To dispute the veracity of these statements, an attempt was made, as fairly as possible, through concrete examples, to demonstrate how the Crouse and Stalker's conclusions regarding the four general groups of impulses could apply both to right- and left-wing authoritarian personalities. In other words, except for criticizing Crouse and Stalker for exaggerating the psychopathology associated with possessing conservative political beliefs and suggesting that using psychoanalysis to advance a political agenda might be considered unprofessional, there were no statements in my commentary that could even loosely be considered ad hominem attacks. Crouse and Stalker (2014), on the other hand, may have committed their own ad hominem attacks when they characterized me as “displaying confusion about basic social science matters in psychometrics,” (2014, p. 114) “not being aware of research that investigates the common, correlated and unique factor structure of the RAW and related measures,” (2014, p. 115) seeming to be “unaware of the value of this avenue of research,” and being unable to understand “how one ought to go about criticizing social science work.” (2014, ibid) Specific examples of my purported ad hominem statements were not presented, but Crouse and Stalker stated in their reply: “In this response we will ignore Thomas's rather aggressive and ad hominem attacks on us and our article, save for mentioning that while one of us is liberal in political matters, the other is conservative.” (2014, p. 114)

As far as The Right-Wing Authoritarianism Scale is concerned, a fairly thorough critique of the information provided by Crouse and Stalker (2007) regarding the Scale's reliability and validity as a measure of right-wing authoritarianism was presented in my commentary. However, remarkably, in their reply to my commentary, Crouse and Stalker defended the use of poorly written and potentially confusing items on the Scale, implying that the use of such items was all right because the test-retest reliability of the Scale was .85 over 28 weeks. The high test-retest correlation coefficients could mean only that the confusing questions generated the same confused responses. Surely, the improvement of such items would improve the Scale's reliability and validity. Also, it is unfortunate that even in their reply, Crouse and Stalker failed to acknowledge that the Scale has been critically adjudged to provide only a measure of “general conservatism” as opposed to a measure of “right-wing authoritarianism” (Ray, 1990). Moreover, neither psychometric scales that inadvertently measure “conservatism” (e.g., the Altemeyer scale), nor scales that purportedly measure “conservatism,” reliably predict Democrat versus Republican voting behavior in American national elections.

In response to Crouse and Stalker's contention that alternative methods to investigating the issues raised in their original article were neither presented nor appreciated, it can only be stated that the purpose in writing the commentary was to critique what was considered a biased and methodologically flawed attempt to use psychoanalytic theory to accomplish a specific political objective. The purpose was not to explore all the techniques available to measure the role of conflicts and compromise formations in influencing political orientations, nor to suggest ways of improving the technical characteristics of the Scale. Realistically, the attempt to point out flawed theoretical assumptions and analysis is, in and of itself, one road to improving the quality of scholarly work.

Crouse and Stalker's strong advocacy in the final sentence of their reply for “quantitative methodology such as experimental, quasi-experimental, and latent variable modeling to garner support or rejection of these speculations” (2014, p. 117) was not followed in their original article. That is, no empirical or even clinical data on persons deemed high in right-wing authoritarianism were collected at all in their original article. There was no research design, no research sample, no statistical analysis, and no results and discussion based upon anything but their speculations derived from the items on a dated psychometric instrument.

One thing wholeheartedly endorsed that Crouse and Stalker advocated in their reply is the attempt to explain and predict political beliefs and attitudes in terms of psychoanalytic theory. It would be especially interesting and valuable to be able to explain one's political beliefs and attitudes using conflict theory, whether derived from classical psychoanalysis or ego psychology. In fact, it would also be interesting to examine these issues from an object relations or self-psychology perspective. It is, incidentally, perfectly legitimate to use the generic term “conflict theory” to refer to classical psychoanalysis. Such terminology has been used frequently to distinguish models of psychopathology based upon conflict versus developmental deficits or relational approaches. For example, Morris Eagle (2011), who is clearly one of America's most esteemed psychologist-psychoanalysts, just devoted an entire book to the similarities and differences between Freudian theory and contemporary psychoanalytic theory. In this book, a major aspect of Freudian theory is characterized as the existence and resolution of conflicts related to the Oedipus complex. Specifically, Eagle stated, “the primary elements of the oedipal conflict are sex and aggression” (p. 159). The only difference between conflict theory derived from classical psychoanalysis and modern conflict theory is that modern conflict theory is derived from ego psychology, which, in turn, is derived primarily from Freud's addition of the structure theory (i.e., id, ego, and superego) to his models of the mind. Intrapsychic conflict plays a major part in all of Freud's revisions to his theories. The term “contemporary conflict theory,” which Crouse and Stalker use erroneously, is a sociological concept.

Ironically, my commentary was criticized for providing only “armchair criticism” of Altemeyer's right-wing authoritarian concept and its measure. This criticism is an especially remarkable one. For example, Crouse and Stalker (2014) stated specifically in their reply that, “We do not try to evaluate the empirical adequacy of each posit we use.” Also, in the same paragraph they stated, “We wrote our paper to speculate and provoke further analysis, not to present a laundry list of well-supported empirical conclusions” (p. 113). Apparently, from their perspective, speculations without empirical support are fine so long as they are the ones doing the speculating. Or, in using psychoanalytic theory as a model for interpretation, accusing others of doing what you do yourself defines the well-known defense mechanism of “projection.”

Finally, on a more positive note, Crouse and Stalker are to be applauded if they follow through with their intention to pursue the more sophisticated line of empirical research on right-wing authoritarianism mentioned in their reply to my commentary.

Acknowledgments

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Acknowledgments
  4. References

Correspondence concerning this article should be sent to Kenneth R. Thomas, Ed.D., Professor Emeritus, Department of Rehabilitation Psychology and Special Education, University of Wisconsin-Madison, 1000 Bascom Mall, Madison, WI 53706. Email: kthomas@wisc.edu

Footnotes
  1. 1

    Although several new topics were introduced in Crouse and Stalker's reply, the present discussion will be limited to issues Crouse and Stalker raised specifically in relation to my commentary rather than to the plethora of new material they presented regarding The Right-Wing Authoritarianism Scale and different strategies for measuring right-wing authoritarianism. This new material would have been more appropriately presented in a different venue, perhaps even in their original article.

  2. 2

    Several articles were authored or coauthored by the present author in which attempts were made to apply psychoanalytic theory to different social, clinical, and professional issues (e.g., see Cubbage & Thomas, 1989; Huebner & Thomas, 1995; Huebner, Thomas, & Berven, 1999; Thomas, 1991, 1995, 1997; Thomas & McGinnis, 1991; Thomas & Siller, 1999). In fact, it was probably the articles regarding the application of Freud's classical psychoanalytic theory to literature, history, anthropology, religion, and a variety of other topics that were most enjoyed by the author during his psychoanalytic studies.

  3. 3

    The classic study of this similarity was demonstrated experimentally by Rokeach (1960), who found that left- and right-wing dogmatists were quite similar.

References

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Acknowledgments
  4. References
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