Left-wing Authoritarianism: Is It Even Real?

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Good news everyone, another stupid conservative tabloid has misrepresented scientific research, which sent me down another rabbit hole of learning from which I have only just emerged, blinking into the light of day.

This time it’s the New York Post reporting that “Left-wing extremism linked to psychopathy and narcissism: study.” Alongside photos of people at Portland’s 2020 protests in response to the murder of George Floyd, the article states “Left-wing extremism can be rooted in very unhealthy and selfish mental behavior, a new study suggests.”

Fascinating! I immediately had to wonder what the study actually says.

It turns out, it’s not about left-wing “extremism,” which in the US could be considered anything from firebombing a Walgreens to knocking on doors asking people to vote for Bernie Sanders. It’s actually about a particular, well-defined type of extremism known as “authoritarianism,” which the study authors define as “a submissiveness to authority figures and a dominance towards subordinates.”

This is where I immediately felt myself falling down that rabbit hole, because the entire idea of “left-wing” authoritarianism seems to be a paradox: the right-wing is by definition authoritarian–a central tenet of conservative thought is a belief in an inevitable hierarchy that leads to the natural superiority of those who are in positions of authority. And even in this study, which by the way is open-access and as always you can find a link in the transcript on my Patreon, linked below, the authors define left-wing authoritarianism in part as “antihierarchical aggression.” Authoritarian anti-authoritarianism! Now I absolutely HAD to find out more about THAT.

It turns out that I’m not the only one who is baffled that such a thing could exist. For years now, sociologists have debated whether left-wing authoritarianism is even a thing, to the point that one study I found stated that it’s “famously known as the Loch Ness monster of political psychology,” a quote I later traced back to Canadian psychologist Bob Altemeyer, who developed the first right-wing authoritarian scale and then the left-wing authoritarian scale, indicating that either he changed his mind or else he thinks the Loch Ness Monster is real. In his book The Authoritarians, Altemeyer wrote “An authoritarian follower submits excessively to some authorities, aggresses in their name, and insists on everyone following their rules. If these authorities are the established authorities in society, that’s right-wing authoritarianism. If one submits to authorities who want to overthrow the establishment, that’s left-wing authoritarianism, as I define things.”


But apparently Altemeyer’s left-wing scale failed to actually find many authoritarians, at least compared to the absolute hordes he found using his original right-wing scale. Other psychologists thought that maybe that meant a better scale WOULD identify more left wing authoritarians, so that’s just what Thomas H. Costello at Emory University did in a paper last year (the one that referenced the Loch Ness monster). He and his colleagues developed a list of 39 questions to determine whether or not a person adheres to “anti-hierarchical aggression” (“If I could remake society, I would put people who currently have the most privilege at the bottom”); “top-down censorship” (“Getting rid of inequality is more important than protecting the so-called ‘right’ to free speech”); and “anti-conventionalism” (“I cannot imagine myself becoming friends with a political conservative”).

That new scale DID identify people they considered to be left-wing authoritarians. “But hold on,” you may say, who gets to say that those things are authoritarian? Didn’t they just draw a circle around a random group of lefties and then apply the label “authoritarian” to them?

And yeah, that kind of is what happened, in my opinion – I can’t really imagine myself becoming friends with a political conservative in this, the year of our Lord in which political conservatives don’t view me as a complete human with bodily autonomy. Does that make me authoritarian? 

But strengthening Costello’s point is that this group he labeled DID possess “a shared constellation of personality traits, cognitive features, beliefs, and motivational values” with the people who are identified as right-wing authoritarians. He also found that this label “powerfully predicts behavioral aggression and is strongly correlated with participation in political violence.” Which is all pretty convincing, to be honest.

And so this new study that inspired the New York Post article builds upon that research. It was pre-registered, which you know is my favorite because it means they couldn’t just keep trying new statistical analyses until they got an interesting result. And they found that the anti-hierarchical aggression part of left wing authoritarianism is associated with both antagonistic narcissism and psychopathy, and that “some leftist political activists do not actually strive for social justice and equality but rather use political activism to endorse or exercise violence against others to satisfy their own ego-focused needs.”

And honestly, yeah! That makes sense to me. Consider people like Shaun King, who has become such a joke in leftwing circles that I couldn’t remember his real name and I had to do some creative Googling. King is a grifter of the highest order, with a very long history of separating leftwing fools from their money: a crowdfunded plan to hike seven mountains that he quit after a few days of training, a crowdfunded website “The North Star” that failed to deliver its promises, $60,000 raised for the family of Tamir Rice that had to be seized via court order after King failed to give it to them, $40,000 of donor money spent on a dog – yes, a dog – that he then returned for being too aggressive – I honestly don’t even have time to detail all the ways that this guy has behaved like an absolute monster and people continue to donate money to him. He’s a less trustworthy Lyle Lanley only instead of a monorail it’s civil rights.

And in addition to the mismanagement of millions of dollars, King has also done things like publishing a mugshot and full name of a white man calling him a “racist, violent asshole” and accusing him of murdering a black child in a drive-by shooting. The man was not connected with the crime but said he and his family received numerous death threats. Six months later, the man committed suicide.

So yeah, there are definitely people in left-wing circles who “do not actually strive for social justice and equality but rather use political activism to endorse or exercise violence against others to satisfy their own ego-focused needs.” But here’s my final concern: can we actually call those people “left-wing?” To get back to actual definitions, “left-wing” is at its core about advocating for equality. If someone doesn’t actually believe in that, are they actually left-wing? 

But now I’m getting close to the No True Scotsman fallacy: Sean King isn’t TRULY left-wing because he’s bad. Left-wing people are good. And how do I know, maybe King really does believe in progressive ideology, it’s just that his dang ol’ narcissism and psychopathy keep getting in the way of doing the right thing.

So that’s where I am after emerging from my rabbit hole: I’m still not sure if there’s really such a thing as left-wing authoritarianism since the actual definition precludes it, but also people are complicated and can hold two opposing beliefs at once, and there are always going to be terrible people in all communities who use others for their own nefarious purposes. 

But the New York Post is still a pile of garbage not fit to wrap a fish in.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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