The myth that authoritarianism happens only on the right

Costello and his colleagues started fresh. They developed what eventually became a list of 39 statements capturing sentiments such as “We need to replace the established order by any means necessary” and “I should have the right not to be exposed to offensive views.” Subjects were asked to score the statements on a scale of 1 to 7. They showed a trait that the researchers described as “anti-hierarchical aggression” by agreeing strongly that “If I could remake society, I would put people who currently have the most privilege at the bottom.” By agreeing with statements such as “Getting rid of inequality is more important than protecting the so-called ‘right’ to free speech,” they showed an attitude called “top-down censorship.” And they showed what the research team called “anti-conventionalism” by endorsing statements such as “I cannot imagine myself becoming friends with a political conservative.”

Costello and his colleagues administered their new LWA index and Altemeyer’s original RWA scale. Some differences emerged between left-wing and right-wing authoritarians; the former were more open to new experiences and more receptive to science than the latter, for example. Yet the new research documents a large overlap in authoritarian structure—a “shared psychological core,” as the authors put it—between high scorers on their new LWA index and Altemeyer’s original RWA scale, which they also administered. The authoritarian mentality, whether on the far left or far right, the authors conclude, exerts “powerful pressures to maintain discipline among members, advocate aggressive and censorious means of stifling opposition, [and] believe in top-down absolutist leadership.”

Perhaps the most compelling insight emerged from trying to separate subjects’ political ideology from authoritarianism. They found that your ideology—whether you’re a progressive or a Trumpist—is a secondary matter. Whether your values and beliefs are authoritarian or not is more fundamental. “Psychologically speaking, authoritarianism comes first,” Costello told me.