The Politics of the Authoritarian Personality

By Levine, Alan J. | The World and I, December 2002 | Go to article overview

The Politics of the Authoritarian Personality

Levine, Alan J., The World and I

Alan J. Levine is a historian specializing in twentieth-century international relations and the author of From the Normandy Beaches to the Baltic Sea.

A new feature of American life in the post--World War II era, which has not been much noted by historians, was the great influence wielded, for the first time, by social scientists. Several classic studies, ranging from Gunnar Myrdal's An American Dilemma to the Kinsey Reports, had great impact on American ideas. Widely taken as gospel, some had a direct influence on government policies.1 Some of these works, notably Myrdal's, were magnificent; others were far less impressive.

One of the most influential but controversial of these classics was The Authoritarian Personality. Published in 1950, it was written by Theodor Adorno, Else Frenkel-Brunswick, Daniel Levinson, and R. Nevitt Sanford as part of a joint undertaking of the Berkeley Public Opinion Study and the Institute of Social Research, also known as the Frankfurt School. The latter organization, formed in Germany during the Weimar era, was leftist in orientation. Its leading members, including Adorno, aimed at understanding man and society by mixing a nonorthodox form of Marxism with psychoanalytic theory. The Authoritarian Personality was part of a series called Studies in Prejudice, sponsored by the American Jewish Committee as part of an effort to produce basic research on religious and racial prejudice, especially, but not only, anti-Semitism. That series included Bruno Bettelheim and Morris Janowitz's Dynamics of Prejudice, which came to rather different, and in some ways more convincing, conclusions.

The Authoritarian Personality examined the connection between deep- rooted personality traits and prejudice. Basing their work on insights that Adorno and his associates, especially Erich Fromm, had developed before fleeing Germany, the authors analyzed the formation of the "potentially fascistic individual" or, as they usually called it, the "authoritarian personality." That they identified authoritarianism and anti-Semitism so closely with the beaten menace of fascism is an indication of the extent to which, even then, their work was dated.

Nevertheless, The Authoritarian Personality had a major impact in the academic world and ultimately the opinion-forming media. It identified some traditional social values with an undesirable, even proto-fascist, personality structure; the principal locus for the development of ethnocentrism and anti-Semitism, this personality type was common under the conditions of twentieth-century capitalism.2 The book's concepts became widespread and its methods and aims were widely copied, inspiring many similar studies.


According to Adorno and his associates, the authoritarian personality was formed in childhood under the impact of bad relations with the parents, especially the father, who was--or was seen as--domineering, distant, and punitive. The conflict with parents was not dealt with but was sharply repressed, with a resulting clash between unusually strong aggressive impulses and a rigid, punitive conscience or superego.3 Such people tended to be obsessed with conforming (at least outwardly) to social rules; they were strongly ethnocentric and hostile to outsiders or perceived outsiders, onto whom they projected their negative characteristics and conflicts they refused to admit in themselves. Ambivalent about authority they both wanted and feared, they usually subordinated themselves to authority but bullied outsiders.4

The authors thought that the existence of this character structure was obvious. They sought to prove its existence and find its characteristics by developing a series of questionnaires, or scales, which they administered to a largely middle-class group of white Americans in 1945--46. The group included no members of ethnic minorities or what the researchers thought of as outgroups (for example, Catholics and "Okies").

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