There’s a New “Study” Showing 26% of Americans Are Right-Wing Authoritarians. There’s Nothing Scientific about It.
“1/4 of Americans Qualify as Highly ‘Right-Wing Authoritarian’ New Poll Finds,” runs a recent headline from Business Insider. This shocking headline is only one of many similar articles reporting on a recent study.
If the headline’s implications are true, this is certainly terrifying news. But before we start checking under our bed for fascists every night, we might want to look a bit deeper into how the researchers behind this poll came to this number.
The “Right-Wing Authoritarianism Scale” was constructed by Canadian psychologist Bob Altemeyer, and it gained notoriety after Altemeyer and John Dean used it in their book Authoritarian Nightmare, published in August. Altemeyer’s scale has been around since long before the Trump presidency, and he explains how he created it in his 2006 digital book The Authoritarians.
The first thing one might notice about Altemeyer’s scale is that it is not designed to identify authoritarian tendencies independently of left-right beliefs. It simply scores people on a spectrum for how “right-wing authoritarian” they are. Scores range between 20 and 180, and respondents who score as low as possible are classified as “low right-wing authoritarians.”
Essentially, the premise of the study is that we’re all at least a little bit right-wing authoritarian. After surveying one thousand libertarians, for instance, the average score was a 90. But don’t worry, Altemeyer assures us, this score is “below the mid-point of the scale, which is 100,” so we “are not authoritarian followers in absolute terms.”
With this foundation, Altemeyer can only group people by degrees of right-wing authoritarianism. So how does he designate “high” and “low” right-wing authoritarianism? He explains this in a footnote:
What is a “high RWA”? When I am writing a scientific report of my research I call the 25% of a sample who scored highest on the RWA scale “High RWAs.”
In other words, his study doesn’t find that 25 percent of Americans are “High RWA”; it classifies 25 percent of the population as “High RWA” by default. Whether or not you find yourself in this category depends on how you score relative to other respondents, but there will always be 25 percent.
The more recent study making headlines currently does modify this approach somewhat, polling several Western countries and classifying the top 15 percent of respondents as “High RWA.” Then, when the data is disaggregated by country, 25.6 percent of American respo
Article from Mises Wire