Obama’s Out-of-Date Categories

With his now notorious remarks
about the way “bitter” small-town folks “cling” to their religion and guns while disliking immigrants, Barack Obama has taken us — at least those of us old enough to remember — for a stroll down memory lane, back to the 1950s, when it was taken for granted among liberals that conservative beliefs were largely psychopathological.
Back in those days, political intellectualism was a monopoly in the hands of liberal thinkers. Of course, there were some conservative intellectuals: Russell Kirk was at work, and so was Clinton Rossiter, and it was in the 1950s that William F. Buckley Jr. founded his National Review. But in the world of business, a company doesn’t have to control a full 100 percent of the market to count as a monopoly; 90 or 95 percent is far more than enough. And in the 1950s, serious political thought in the United States was at least 90 percent liberal. Liberal thinkers and their fans pretty much took it for granted that if you were an intelligent person, you’d be a liberal. And you didn’t have to be exceptionally intelligent: The truth of liberalism was so obvious that anybody of even moderate intelligence could see it.
That raised a question: How could we account for the fact that some people were not liberal, that some were conservative? Sheer stupidity, of course, was part of the answer. Some people are just so dumb they wouldn’t recognize the truth if it came up and shouted at them. But not all conservatives were that dumb. Most knew how to read; many had high school educations; some had even been to college. So how can we account for their conservatism?
The answer was soon found: Conservatives were suffering from a psychopathology. The scientific rationale for this assessment was provided by one of the most influential books ever produced in America, The Authoritarian Personality, a study done by a team led by the philosopher Theodor Adorno. Adorno was an anti-Hitler refugee from Germany, where he had been a member of the so-called Frankfurt School. He was very much on the political left, a neo-Marxist who, along with other members of the school (Erich Fromm and Herbert Marcuse, for instance), attempted a synthesis of Marx and Freud.
The study was commissioned and funded by the American Jewish Committee, which was fearful that what had happened in Germany could possibly happen here in America. It was obvious that millions of Germans were of a certain personality type that made Hitler and Nazism and the Nazi program — including its lethal anti-Semitism — appealing to them. Did the United States abound in persons of a similar type? If so, there was a real danger that an American Hitler could come along.
Sure enough, the Adorno study revealed that this personality type (the authoritarian personality, they called it) was easily found in America. The type was characterized by, among other things, anti-Semitism, xenophobia, rigid conventionalism in morality, strong hostility to homosexuality and other forms of sexual deviance, servile submission to those in authority, aggression toward violators of the norms of conventional morality, and “superstition” (with much religion being counted as superstition). The authors developed something they called the “f-scale” (f standing for fascism). This paper-and-pencil test would allow you to measure a person’s proneness toward authoritarianism, hence the psychological likelihood of his being lured by a fascist leader or party.
Since The Authoritarian Personality was not light reading (my copy has a length of nearly 1,000 pages, all of them densely written), it is unlikely that many persons read the book word for word from beginning to end. But there were many second- and third- and fourth-hand summaries of its content, so that hardly any American intellectual of the 1950s was ignorant of its central thesis. As word of the study circulated, it was perhaps inevitable that it would merge with the popular political-spectrum idea of the day, according to which conservatism and fascism were both of “the right” — conservatism being moderate rightism and fascism extreme rightism. The end result was that liberal intellectuals came to see American conservatives as infected with an authoritarian personality, and it was this “sick” personality that inspired their political views. In other words, conservative opinions, unlike liberal opinions, were not rational; they were irrational; they were the consequence not of reason but of a psychopathology, and a very dangerous psychopathology at that.
One of the more amusing results of all this was the collision between Buckley and Gore Vidal at the 1968 Democratic convention, where they served as commentators for one of the TV networks. At a certain heated moment Gore called Buckley a “crypto-fascist,” and Buckley retorted by calling Vidal a “queer.” These were not equally culpable insults: Vidal was describing Buckley in what must have seemed to Vidal to be scientifically accurate terms, whereas Buckley was merely using a nasty word to refer to Vidal’s well-known homophilic orientation. Vidal was doing analysis, Buckley was just hurling an insult.
Poor Senator Obama! He’s trying to understand — and to explain to some of his San Francisco fans — why blue-collar families in Pennsylvania and elsewhere don’t seem fully to appreciate his brand of liberalism. Unfortunately for him, he’s using explanatory categories that are now nearly 60 years old. But among certain present-day liberals (especially perhaps those living in the San Francisco Bay area), these ancient categories are alive and well. Despite a half-century of conservative intellectualism in America, some liberals — not as up-to-date as they think they are — still believe that political intelligence is a liberal monopoly. And so when they run across somebody who believes in religion, believes in the Second Amendment, believes that only legal immigrants should enter the United States, etc., they dismiss out of hand the possibility that the person may have good reasons for his belief. Instead they say, “Poor fellow, he’s got psychological problems.”
If Obama is the candidate of “change,” the first thing he ought to change, I submit, is these outmoded anti-conservative categories.


David R. Carlin Jr. is a politician and sociologist who served as a Democratic majority leader of the Rhode Island Senate. His books include "Can a Catholic Be a Democrat?: How the Party I Loved Became the Enemy of My Religion" and "The Decline and Fall of the Catholic Church in America." Carlin is a current professor of sociology and philosophy at the Community College of Rhode Island at Newport.

  • 01/20/09

    Sunday morning, McCain appeared on “SOFTBALL With George Stephanopoulos.” George followed the line of questioning dictated to him by HRC and the GOP, but he still looked mighty intimidated by McCain. He was afraid that McCain would blow up on the spot, especially after McCain referred to George as

  • Avid Reader

    Try John Dean’s “Conservatives Without Conscience” for additional insight into the authoritarian personality as it relates to right-wing leaders and followers in today’s GOP.

  • Deal Hudson

    If the case against McCain is going to made on the basis of his temper and personality, the GOP nominee doesn’t have anything to worry about. Tempers abound on both sides of the aisle, as do commanding personalities.

  • Kathy

    How did the MCCain’s “indiscriminate and atomic temper” comments come from reading this article? I guess one cannot make any comment (other than a glowing one) about Obama without driving some people into a rage.

  • Deal Hudson

    The whole temper issue thing is a good example of how trivial our political discussion has become. Ah, for the fresh air of a disagreement over policy, rather than, Carlin points out, the insinuation that conservatives lack proper character development.

  • JP2Feminist

    John McCain may have a temper, but Barack is the master whiner — “Why can’t I just eat my waffle?” (spoken in response to reporters’ questions at a Waffle House on April 21, 2008) Ha!

  • Thomas A Hunt

    How did the writer “01/20/09” get from A to B? Even if his points about McCain are on the mark, they do not relate to the point being made, which I think is a good one.

    I teach at a liberal arts college. There is a lock-step we-all-think-the-same-things mentality here that has difficluty accepting the right of a conservative to disagree with the profoundly liberal consensus of the faculty. A few thoughtful liberals around here are concerned at this knee-jerk “illiberality.” These colleagues would probably agree with the point being made in the article. Perhaps writer “01/20/09” should do the same before he begins his . . . what word can one use? Rant?

    Thomas Hunt in Iowa

  • 01/20/09

    No one candidate or political party has a corner on the “notorious remarks” market.

    On April 20, 2008, The Washington Post published “McCain: A Question of Temperament,” its thoroughly researched and corroborated account of the senator’s many irrational and vindictive episodes. McCain’s fellow Republicans are both his victims and accusers.

  • Not a McCain Fan …

    It’s nice to see that “01/20/09” thinks so highly of McCain that “01/20/09” has thought to use the date of McCain’s inauguration as a pseudonym.

  • Deacon Frank Osgood

    Does 01/20/09 illustrate David Carlin’s point?

    01/20/09 seems to believe that believe that McCain’s “conservative opinions, unlike liberal opinions, were not rational; they were irrational; they were the consequence not of reason but of a psychopathology, and a very dangerous psychopathology at that.” And, in his/her opinion, takes the form of “out-of control anger, complemented by rudeness, filthy language in public (even against his wife), physical intimidation, arrogance and vindictiveness.” Yet not a word about his positions or beliefs.

    Where does the irrational anger so evident in 01/20/09’s comments come from?

  • 01/20/09


  • John Jakubczyk

    I do not know many people who having a passion to do something in life have not sometimes allowed that passion to erupt, whether it was apporpriate or not. But i will take a man with passion over some wimp who thinks that killing babies is a “right” and who cannot define marriage as it has been ordained and defined throughout history because he fears to offend and wants the support of the homosexual lobby.

    As for 1/20/09, explain to me how supporting a candidate who supports Planned Parenthood is a good thing. Just a reminder, Planned Parenthood killed over 280,000 babies last year, PP is complicit with child predators, who bring their under-aged minors to have abortions at PP abortion mills. PP is under investigation for defrauding the California medical health care system of millions of dollars.

  • David W

    America has elected “ill tempered individuals” before, one man in particular comes to mind…his face is on the 20 dollar bill.

  • Steve P in Bethesda, Md

    Because conservatism is a sociopolitical pathology, it needs a sociopolitical therapy. Those benighted blue-collar types clinging to their guns and religion need to be patiently taught where their true interests lie. And who’s to do the teaching except Dr. Obama and the Democratic Party!

    This is what Lenin identified as the role of the vanguard (i.e., communist) party during the late stages of industrial capitalism.

    I don’t think Obama is explicitly a Marxist-Leninist, but his understanding of his political opposition seems consistent with the Party line. It also helps make sense of his wife’s shame at being American, his pastor’s fiery condemnation of the country, and the senator’s friendship with two unrepentant members of the Weather Underground (whose political manifesto was subtitled “The Politics of Revolutionary Anti-imperialism”). This is the rhetorical style BHO seems to come to naturally.

  • 01/20/09

    At least since his 2000 campaign, McCain has maintained a close working relationship with his South Carolina campaign advisor named Richard M. Quinn, a white supremacist. As recently as 2005, it was confimed that Mr. Quinn was founder, part-owner and contributor to the “Southern Partisan” quarterly journal.

    “When confronted with some of the more outrageous articles in Southern Partisan–articles like “Why I Will Not Denounce Southern Racism or American Imperialism” or a 1991 John Rockeresque rant in which the “Old-Stock” author, visiting New York, wonders “‘Where are the Americans?’ for I met only Italians, Jews, Puerto Ricans”–Quinn explains that Southern Partisan is an “opinion magazine” that publishes “provocative essays.”

    Interesting character this Mr. Quinn. We’ll all be hearing more about him.

  • Nathan Cushman

    I’m pretty sure 01/20/09 is a troll… He might not even be a person (I mean he may be a bot). If he is a person, he’s probably copying and pasting this same spiel every politics related site he can find.