Notes on the Atrocities
Like a 100-watt radio station, broadcasting to the dozens...

Thursday, July 24, 2003  

A little analysis on Bill Pryor. (For more on Pryor and the major Bush nominees, check out the dossier.)

He's yet another of the far-right, anti-abortion types that Bush continues to nominate. As I was working my way through The Authoritarian Specter, I was thinking about these kinds of nominees. Author Bob Altemeyer, a social psychologist in Canada, has spent 30 years studying a personality type he calls "right wing authoritarians." These are people who strongly adhere to a strict, hierarchical social order, submit to authority figures within that order, and aggressively attack those they perceive as threatening the order. In short, exactly the kinds of people Bush nominates. (I discussed the book earlier here and here.)

One of his significant findings is that right wing authoritarians (hereafter RWAs) have a strong tendency toward double standards in their thinking (not what you'd call a judicial virtue).

On the other hand, they showed relative leniency toward a millionaire industrialist convicted of defrauding the government. They went easy on a police chief who beat up an accused child molester, but were more punitive if told another prisoner had done the beating. Finally, they showed an even more striking double standard in sentencing an accountant and a "hippie panhandler" who got inot a fight. If the evidence showed the accountant started the fight, they favored leniency. But if the evidence showed the hippie had started the fight, they laid down the law. (AS, p. 23.)

He has a number of studies to support the evidence of RWAs applying double standards to support power structures. When Altemeyer dug around this tendency, he found that RWAs were far less able to think critically about contradictory ideas, or distinguish between poor or reliable evidence (see chapters 4 and 5). [Altemeyer has never found a correlation between IQ and right wing authoritarianism. The inability to identify as faulty evidence that doesn't support your own beliefs--creationism, say--is not an intellectual mistake, it's a cognitive or psychological one.]

In addition, RWAs are far more likely to be nationalistic, ethnocentric, rigidly religious, and opposed to equal treatment of individuals.

Now, what does all this have to do with Bill Pryor? In 1991, Altemeyer surveyed a number of legislators from Connecticut, New Jersey, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, and Wyoming and included three questions about abortion. The abortion question allowed him to divide the legislators into groups. "Forty-seven of the 145 participants with interpretable stands said they would shaprly cut back on the number of abortions being performed under Roe v. Wade." He then compared the means of those who wanted to roll back Roe against the others. This group had a mean score of 200.7 on the RWA scale, one of the highest means he'd ever seen for any group. In short, those legislators who wanted to roll back Roe were among the most authoritarian (Altemeyer uses the word "prefascist") he'd ever encountered.

Bill Pryor holds the same views as those 47. While there's no way to tell where he'd score on the RWA scale, it's enough to give me pause. We know that RWAs apply double standards and don't think critically about evidence that contradicts their own views. And we know that the desire to overturn Roe is linked to very high RWA scores (that is, people who are very strongly authoritarian, and therefore less likely to think critically and more likely to apply double standards).

Bush's single-item litmus test for judgeships is abortion, and he's found a good one: it seems like a great guide to finding people who will enforce the law in a way that benefits his own beliefs. But for those who do think critically about the law and don't wish to apply double standards (that is to say, those who have an abiding faith in democracy)--it is also a pretty good indicator.

Maybe Pryor's not an authoritarian; maybe he's just a nice Catholic boy after all. But based on the views he's already admitted to, his history, and the troubling allegations he lied about fundraising for the Republican Attorneys General Association, I'd rather not find out the hard way.

posted by Jeff | 9:14 AM |
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