Tribally, what's in a word: In a very lengthy piece at Vox, Amanda Taub has made some sweeping claims.
Her sweeping claims are also scary. (That's often the purpose of sweeping claims.) That said, do you understand what her sweeping claims mean? Do her claims make sense?
Amanda Taub's sweeping scary claims concern the presence, in the U.S., of a hidden vast scary cohort.
In this case, the hidden scary cohort in question isn't ISIS sympathizers. At present, that frightening group is being used by other parties to scare us the people witless.
Taub has found a different scary group; this group is extremely large. Indeed, the "insights" Taub reports in her piece have created a "terrifying theory," she says. This terrifying theory concerns the existence of "a potentially enormous population of American authoritarians."
(For our previous post on this topic, click here.)
How about it? Is it true? Does the American electorate contain "a potentially enormous population of authoritarians?"
Everything is possible! Although, to state what is blindingly obvious, it all depends on what the meaning of "authoritarian" is.
Professor Taub is rather fuzzy in her definition and use of that term. Tomorrow, we'll look at the humble four-question test she used to reach her conclusions, which she describes, not just as terrifying, but as "astonishing" as well.
For today, let's briefly review the sweep of her findings concerning her terrifying topic. Also, let's ask an important question:
What the Sam Hill's in a word?
Using a humble four-question test, Taub has come up with some remarkable findings. In her own words, "the first thing that jumped out from the data on authoritarians is just how many there are."
For the record, the data to which Taub refers are data of her own creation—data which emerged from her recent use of that humble four-question test. Taub's findings are best summarized in this chunk of her lengthy tribal cri de coeur (wail of the dog):
TAUB (3/1/16): The first thing that jumped out from the data on authoritarians is just how many there are. Our results found that 44 percent of white respondents nationwide scored as "high" or "very high" authoritarians, with 19 percent as "very high." That's actually not unusual, and lines up with previous national surveys that found that the authoritarian disposition is far from rare.To read her whole piece, click here.
The key thing to understand is that authoritarianism is often latent; people in this 44 percent only vote or otherwise act as authoritarians once triggered by some perceived threat, physical or social. But that latency is part of how, over the past few decades, authoritarians have quietly become a powerful political constituency without anyone realizing it.
Today, according to our survey, authoritarians skew heavily Republican. More than 65 percent of people who scored highest on the authoritarianism questions were GOP voters. More than 55 percent of surveyed Republicans scored as "high" or "very high" authoritarians.
We have to agree with Taub on one point. On face, those findings really do seem astonishing, and perhaps terrifying.
Based on what she has written there, it seems that well over half of white American adults are "authoritarians."
Even worse, a remarkable 44 percent of white Americans are "high authoritarians." Presumably, they're even more authoritarian than "authoritarians" are!
As is often the case in horror films, the frightening group is especially prevalent in The Other Tribe. According to Taub, more than 55 percent of Republicans scored as "high" or "very high" authoritarians on her four-question test.
In a rather jumbled construction, she goes on to suggest that Democrats scored much better on her test. We have fewer authoritarians Over Here in our tribe!
As we did in Monday's post, we'll note one additional point about Taub's presentation of data. In a report which is very long, she tells us how white Americans scored on her test, but doesn't provide any data for black or Hispanic respondents.
We don't know why Taub omitted those data. We can tell you this:
In recent years, we liberals have often worked to generate data branding The Others as racists or bigots, and now as authoritarians. When we engage in this tribal practice, this type of omission of data is quite routine.
A cynic will say that this omission is maybe perhaps engineered for an obvious reason. When our professors devise their tests to brand The Others as racists and bigots, we don't want to be forced to discuss the fact that their tests also identify many blacks as racists and bigots.
Such findings will suggest to some that the professors' tests may not be "all that." Not wishing to let such doubts gain purchase, we absent-mindedly forget to disclose such data.
(Important note: Our professors never identify anyone as "racists." They devise softer, alternate language which is instantly taken to mean the same thing; their alternate wordings are swept away in our desire to brand The Others. These alternate phrases are perhaps best regarded as professorial "dog whistles." They let us say the things we wish to say while saying we've done no such thing.)
Without any question, Amanda Taub reported some "astonishing" findings last week. Her findings are also a bit terrifying as she scatters in references to Nazi Germany and its fascist behavior.
As everyone knows, the word Taub chooses—"authoritarians"—bears a frightening penumbra of emanations, historical associations-wise. That's why we close this post with that age-old question:
What the heck's in a word?
Some words produce a great deal of heat, and perhaps a lot less light. Unless their goal is tribal excitement, decent people will try to exercise care in the use of such words.
As we note this point, we invite you to consider one more passage from Taub's report. In this passage, Taub is discussing the academic study of authoritarianism.
She says the research began after World War II as an understandable reaction to the horrific conduct of the Nazis, with the assistance of large swaths of the German people.
As she proceeds, she mentions Professors Hetherington and Weiler, two of the academics involved in the current research. In our view, she records a slightly odd set of comments:
TAUB: This study of authoritarianism began shortly after World War II, as political scientists and psychologists in the US and Europe tried to figure out how the Nazis had managed to win such wide public support for such an extreme and hateful ideology.According to Taub, a problem exists with the word in question. According to Professors Hetherington and Weiler, the A-bomb seems to suggest "that a certain subset of people are inherently evil or dangerous," an idea they "say is simplistic and wrong."
That was a worthy field of study, but the early work wasn't particularly rigorous by today's standards. The critical theorist Theodor Adorno, for instance, developed what he called the "F-scale," which sought to measure "fascist" tendencies. The test wasn't accurate. Sophisticated respondents would quickly discover what the "right" answers were and game the test. And there was no proof that the personality type it purportedly measured actually supported fascism.
More than that, this early research seemed to assume that a certain subset of people were inherently evil or dangerous—an idea that Hetherington and Weiler say is simplistic and wrong, and that they resist in their work. (They acknowledge the label "authoritarians" doesn't do much to dispel this, but their efforts to replace it with a less pejorative-sounding term were unsuccessful.)
According to Taub, the professors have therefore tried to replace the word "authoritarian" with "a less pejorative-sounding term." But she says their efforts have been "unsuccessful."
As with everything else in her piece, Taub doesn't explain this point real well. If the professors don't want to use the term in question, what could be making them use it?
Whatever the answer might be, we'll suggest you take serious note of the professors' concern.
For obvious historical reasons, "authoritarian" is a heavily-loaded term. According to Hetherington and Weiler, this highly fraught term may tend to lead us to conclusions which ain't necessarily so.
We'd express this idea as we've done above—the term in question is one of those terms which tend to shed more heat than light. In our view, a decent person will be very careful about the use of such fraught terms outside a controlled academic context.
Taub displays no such scruples. Where others seek to scare us silly concerning the presence of ISIS, she's excitedly scaring the tribe about the vast number of authoritarians in whose midst we unknowingly find ourselves.
For Trump, a jihadist lurks under every bed. Taub lives in a similar world.
We think her work is careless, unhealthy, perhaps a bit ugly, unwell. More than anything else, we think her work moves well past The Planet of The Dumb into the realm of The Stupid. (That's a term we rarely use.)
That said, Taub's work is tribally pleasing at a fraught juncture like this. Tomorrow, we'll let you consider the four-question test which produced her "astonishing" numbers.
Tomorrow: In our view, astonishing foolishness; careless, unhealthy, unwell