The quest to single-out authoritarians might be ended if we look at parenting ideals

In the wake of World War II, social scientists from the Western parts of the world found themselves enamoured in something akin to a new sport: spotting radicals in society. That is, psychologists, sociologists and (some) critical theorists started searching for methodologically sound ways of singling out individuals with predispositions for authoritarianism, so as to protect free market democracies from the dangers of ideologies such as fascism, and later communism.

These people came up with what’s called ‘instruments’ — i.e. test that might show how people feel, react, and believe, with respect to delicate issues of modern life. Yet despite the new-found rigour behind researchers and scholars attempting to put people into neat little boxes, the practice was by no means a new one.

A famous example widely circulated in recent times is that of (19th and 20th century) German general Kurt von Hammerstein-Equord, who is supposed to have used a selection criteria based on two variables to judge his active forces. He is said to have developed the following matrix, whereby the smart and lazy of his army were to be promoted to the highest of ranks — following the logic by which lazy people don’t to unnecessary things.

Hammerstein was born in a small town from Mecklenburg-Vorpommern in 1897, and served under different flags throughout his life. From an officer of the German Empire, to one the Weimar Republic, and later (much to his disapproval) Nazi Germany, history remembers him as an ardent opponent of atrocity — a democrat before his time in the battle torn and ever shifting German state. But before he managed to make a name for himself, just two weeks prior to his 25 birthday, another nowadays renowned German was born 500km away in Frankfurt. His name was Theodor Adorno.

The inklings of authoritarian screening were overoptimistic

While any connection between the two men is fanciful at best, a certain parallel should strike in this particular context. Adorno — the modernist, critical theory superstar as he is remembered today — was born in a society run by people like Hammerstein-Equord; in a state undergoing a process of bureaucratisation and standardisation, where quantification became important in all walks of life: from running garrisons to universities, setting train schedules and planning food production.

And while Hammerstein did not make use of statistical baselining in his supposed approach to choosing and promoting (and of course, discharging) his troops, the overarching morale of objectivity in picking out people by means of detached instruments rather than subjective opinions seems like something the young Theodor never quite managed to shake off, despite his later humanist approach to knowledge and matters of society.

That being said, a more arresting parallel between Adorno and Hammerstein that needs no detailing lies in their shared loathing of Nazism. Adorno himself fled Germany in favour of the United States, where in the late 1940s, along with a group of fellows, he developed what’s probably the first and most famous screening developed specifically to single out people with predispositions that might skew from the democratic norm. In the wake of Nazi expansion in Europe, this group designed the California F-scale (whereby F stands for fascist) to indirectly measure people’s responses on elements thought to be integral to an authoritarian personality.

The F-scale later became a staple in America at the start of the Cold War, but it was soon shown to be imperfect, despite Adorno’s best intentions. After only a few years researchers started spilling ink over its deficiencies: it somehow managed to score well when measuring ethnocentrism, misanthropy, intolerance for ambiguity, rigidity, dogmatism, xenophobia, and suggestibility (all elements thought integral to a man or woman that would think Hitler did nothing wrong), but it had interpretability issues hard to overlook.

This further caused people to ask themselves whether the correlations the scale was making were truly valid. As subsequent studies have reiterated, authoritarianism isn’t a simple thing to define — let alone measure in an individual. Like all endeavors meant to put people into neat classes, this as well suffers on account of the fact that applying a noun such as ‘authoritarian’ implies merging a range of traits, rather than identifying a definite set of qualities (see above; ethnocentrism &c.) that you can put a stamp on.

So when researchers started proving that the F-scale could very well confuse conservatives for fascists, or that more intelligent people could read between the lines of the test and force themselves to seem more liberal than they really were, things started getting heated.

The quest to find a way to single out authoritarians

The F-scale started a deluge of screenings meant to single out all walks of ideological traits in individuals (see D-scale, I-E scale, the SECS scale, &c.), and for the greater part, scientific literature on the topic of authoritarianism have isolated it as a result of things like religiosity, fundamentalism, obedience to state power of organisation — and no less adherence to enforcing and maintaining control by using oppression.

At the height of the Cold War in 1981, Bob Altemeyer developed a 30 item revision of the F-scale which supposedly improved upon the later’s statistical properties, and called it the ‘Right-wing authoritarianism scale’. This new work measured one’s conventionalism, aggression, and submission — and was designed to be used jointly with screenings used to measure the degree to which people support systems of hierarchy. Altemeyer did a better job in isolating people that hold prejudice, ethnocentric and homophobic views — but it still wasn’t a surefire way of finding fascists.

And that’s because, simply put, there is no single authoritarian personality. Faults of tests such as the F-scale revolve around how the term ‘authoritarian’ is conceptualised, and it’s nowadays clear that Adorno et al. managed to grasp the imagination of police, policy makers and researchers alike because they seemed to be able to mash-up the various facets that might make an authoritarian into one, albeit fluid, personality. But for some, being an authoritarian represents a style of thinking, to others a way of behaving, and to others it’s simply an attitude — all of which might not go together into a single individual.

But what if the reliance on personal, political beliefs could be foregone, and instead a quick-fire measure on an apparently unrelated topic be used to surprise people into sharing their inner beliefs on whether authoritarianism were or weren’t okay with them?

Not that daunting of a task, if we’re to believe the work of one Stanley Feldman.

The link between parenting and political morals

Ever since Adorno, research conducted on fascist or communist personalities has used complex measured questionnaires, allowing for the breeches and inconsistencies I’ve spoken about above. Coupled with the liberal bias these employed, the social science world seemed at a loss for improving on what people like Altemeyer had designed.

Still, work was being done on finding out what made authoritarians tick. And following the hunches, and later toil of Stanley Feldman, it was shown that a way to go might be to dislocate the political factor completely and instead focus on the mindset of authoritarians. The result, later refined into a simple set of four questions, revolved around measuring authoritarian dispositions as shown by people’s ideal child-rearing practices. In no particular order, the questions I’m speaking of are:

  • Please tell me which one you think is more important for a child to have: independence or respect for elders?
    (as an indication of predisposition for hierarchy)
  • Please tell me which one you think is more important for a child to have: obedience or self-reliance?
    (as an indication of predisposition for order)
  • Please tell me which one you think is more important for a child to have: to be considerate or to be well-behaved?
    (as a measure of predisposition for conformity)
  • Please tell me which one you think is more important for a child to have: curiosity or good manners?
    (as an indication of one’s behavioural outlook)

While this approach might at times lack the numerical detail other scales have depicted, results have been shown to be reliable, specifically because child-rearing scales (or C-scales) as they’ve since become known, remove political bias — making them much more useful in finding a population’s outliers.

That being said, as part of a wider survey conducted in December 2016 by Dalia Research across the entire European Union, Feldman’s C-scale was issued to a sample of 11.283 individuals from all 28 member states. While the omnibus survey comprised of instruments for measuring over 80 variables, it’s Feldman’s legacy — stated in just those four simple questions — that makes this research worthwhile.

Responses were recorded using a Likert scale (i.e. from ‘strongly disagree’ all the way to ‘strongly agree’ with all the in-betweens) that I later assigned numerical values to (i.e. from -2 all the way to +2), so as to quantify and see average population predispositions to authoritarianism, as well as the estimate of just how may authoritarians there are in each member state of the European Union.

And in short, I’ve found that while there are some people that might like it that a darker version of ‘Er ist wieder da (2015)’ were a reality, Europe is dominated by an overarching neutrality that makes extremes, both liberal as well as authoritarian, few and far between.

So just how authoritarian are Europeans?

By employing the aforementioned approach, I’ve found that with respect to the above four variables, all European nations stand somewhere in the middle between the two extremes of the spectrum. So when viewed on authoritarian scores, you could very well say that Europe is strikingly boring.

Data sourced from EuroPulse by Dalia Research

And that’s because the vaster parts of all EU populations are moderates — neither people that score highly on the C-scale, neither people that score low. While no country stands out in any of the four variables (see above; left) when compared amongst themselves it would seem that the most authoritarian nation in the EU (see abobe; right) is Cyprus — with the most liberal being Denmark.

Coming back to splitting the population into segments, I further saw that Denmark is the single EU nation completely devoid of authoritarians (which stands to contradict Shakespeare, as there doesn’t seem to be any ground in arguing that there is something rotten there), and that, fascinatingly enough, Luxembourg with its tiny yet rich population is devoid of liberals.

Data sourced from EuroPulse by Dalia Research

These results might seem controversial, but samples have been weighed accordingly for each demographic — so for the moment, this would be the most reliable picture we can get. Still — this approach isn’t sound on all fronts, with researchers at times finding that correlations between parenting styles and political biases are tricky to prove.

Limits aside, I’ve found that the EU’s most authoritarian-prone region is Southern Europe (where an estimated 16% of people score very high on the Feldman C-scale) with the polar opposite being in Northern Europe (which includes for this case the Baltic nations, Scandinavia and Finland — and where only 6% of people score high marks on authoritarianism).

But that doesn’t mean we should expect the South to elect a new Mussolini — taken on averages, all regions of the EU float around the 0% area of the C-scale range (where a 100% score is a hypothetical score of full authoritarianism, and a -100% score represents full liberalism):

Eastern Europe -4%
Northern Europe -6%
Southern Europe 4%
Western Europe -4%

… meaning that European democracies have (for the time at least) found a way of balancing themselves out, countering the discourse of extremists to further uphold the importance of pluralism and liberal democracy.

Beyond the hype of C-scales

Whether child rearing scales will be refined into bulletproof means of finding democracy’s outliers is uncertain. However, I must argue that it is highly unlikely. As I’ve previously mentioned, people (and no less smart ones) are in the habit of learning how to answer such questionnaires so as to seem part of the mainstream. Further expansion and publicity around C-scales as valid instruments for measuring political morals and opinions might end up suffering from the very same interpretability issues that plagued Adorno’s original F-scale.

Perhaps the key to such an endeavour will never come about in a permanent fashion; and we will forever require new instruments that adapt to people’s knowledge and attitudes to best judge how human populations manifest their political creeds. But for the time being, I say we all take an honest look at the above questions and — whilst comparing our innermost beliefs with what our scores might say about us, see if there is in fact any truth in all of this.

Show your support

Clapping shows how much you appreciated alex ioana’s story.