New opinion piece by John O'Sullivan, President of the Danube Institute, published in the Quadrant Magazine.

If something doesn’t exist in theory, can it exist in practice? It’s fairly clear that the answer to this question has to be yes, if only because one can’t theorise about nothing at all. In social theory, there has to be a basic minimum of fact or reality on the table for the theoretician to discuss what it’s for, how it impacts people, whether it could be improved, and much else.

It’s also true, however, that without theory the facts are dumb. If we don’t have a sense that some social tendency exists, then we won’t look for its effects. Worse, when we see its effects, we’ll attribute them wrongly to other causes. Phlogiston, for instance, was an erroneous scientific theory about an element in all combustible bodies that was released by burning. In reality it didn’t exist, and when the theory of it was refuted, that opened the way to the discovery of oxygen.

Until quite recently, political theorists had developed a theory of authoritarianism that left out half of the reality it claimed to classify. In 1950 Theodore Adorno and three other psychologists wrote The Authoritarian Personality, which was an attempt to define the personality traits that made people susceptible to authoritarianism. A US psychiatrist, Dr Sally Satel, pointed out in a September 2021 Atlantic article that the book concluded that “the authoritarian type of human” was found only among conservatives.

That conclusion is often put down to two facts: that it was written only a few years after Hitler was defeated and that Adorno was a German refugee of the Frankfurt school of Marxist critical theory. That’s a very myopic view to hold even fewer years after (or even during) the Soviet repression and show trials in Eastern Europe.

All the same it took hold in the academic psychology profession and in the wider world of liberal letters and public debate—except among conservatives, who could be dismissed as having an obvious interest in denying the theory. And though conservatives scored some hits on the methodology of Adorno’s theory, there was no serious development of a counter-theory of left-wing authoritarianism. As late as 2020 a psychology conference debated the proposition: “Is Left-Wing Authoritarianism Real?”

Recent research from Thomas H. Costello and five colleagues from Emory University has identified a distinctive authoritarianism of the Left. It shares some of the features of its right-wing counterpart, including “cognitive rigidity, aggression and punitiveness towards perceived enemies, and moral absolutism”, which is alarming enough. But it also has a clearly leftist character of its own. As Dr Satel summarises it:

“They [the subjects of the research] showed a trait that the researchers described as ‘antihierarchical aggression’ by agreeing strongly that ‘If I could remake society, I would put people who currently have the most 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 ‘anticonventionalism’ by endorsing sentiments such as ‘I cannot imagine myself becoming friends with a political conservative.’”

I think it’s fair to say that this list of traits (which I have had to shorten) would not strike nine out of ten people stopped in the street as surprising or unfair in a description of many left-wing people they know. Some of these attitudes would have been rare among ordinary members of the US Democrat or UK Labour parties in the relatively recent past— for instance, the refusal even to imagine being friends with someone of the opposite political party. That disposition would have been generally seen as unpleasant, fanatical, and morally odious. But it’s now common among younger and “woke” left-wingers and—as other statistics show—more common on the Left than on the Right. And that applies to the other traits as well.

Indeed, caricatures of left-wing authoritarians have been a feature of popular culture—including such sophisticated television comedies as Yes, Prime Minister—and they awaken an immediate echo in their mass audiences. There’s a reason for that. We’ve all met them—and unless we’ve been expensively miseducated, we all see them for what they are. Yet the academic profession devoted to understanding human behaviour has been reluctant to acknowledge their existence and only in recent years has it been compelled by the evidence from researchers like Costello and (on somewhat different grounds) Jonathan Haidt to see their political importance.

Dr Satel attributes that failure to the reality that the psychology profession has been overwhelmingly a left-liberal body for many years. Its members were simply not alert to the possibility that people who shared their political opinions on gender and racial equality or social services rooted in a compassionate ethic might be driven by an authoritarian personality that distorted those opinions.

But that disability is one shared by most of the academy, the media, the courts, and the learned professions. Which means that the most influential people in our societies—“the elites” is the popular shorthand for them—are either unaware or uneasily half-aware that there is a strong and influential body of left-wing authoritarians at all levels of society. They’ve met them too but—see above—they have been expensively miseducated either to join them or so as not to notice them.


Here we come to the problem suggested at the outset: if you are unaware of some aspect of reality, you are unlikely to diagnose its effects accurately or, worse, likely to attribute its effects to other causes. The largest such effect is likely to be a general bias to the Left in political debate. After all, if you know—and are persistently reminded—that right-wing authoritarianism is a clear and present danger to democracy but rarely or never hear of leftwing authoritarianism, you are not going to be looking leftwards to explain some of the more sinister developments in our politics—not excluding, ahem, authoritarianism in our policies.

Consider, therefore, some of the policies we in the West have adopted since, roughly, the end of the Cold War—and especially since 2014 and 2016 when the voters staged a series of rebellions against their elected governments, namely the rise of populism in the European Union, Brexit, and the election of Donald Trump.

First, the Euro. That was an elite project imposed without much democratic support anywhere and quiet but obstinate opposition within Germany. It created a massive long-running series of financial crises and a decade-long recession in Mediterranean Europe. It was described by the Washington Post as perhaps the worst public-policy failure since the Second World War. It’s still there, maintained by Brussels because its abandonment or reform would be a catastrophe for the European Idea. That’s a failure of a different kind.

Second, the immigration crisis of 2015 when the German Chancellor invited migrants and refugees into Europe in violation of the Dublin Accords. Euphorically greeted at the time, the arrival of millions of people from the Middle East and Africa into the EU has now created social, political and religious unrest across the continent.

Third, throughout the West governments embraced gender theory with its denial of biological and sexual reality on the basis of little or no evidence and under pressure from now discredited activist pressure groups. Thousands of young people have undergone drug and surgical treatments that will deprive them of a normal life, including having children and sexual pleasure, on the basis of medical theories that the United Kingdom, Sweden, and Denmark now prohibit. In the United States state and local governments have taken children into care because their parents refused such treatments.

Fourth, when children during the Covid pandemic were sent home to be educated over the internet by their teachers, parents discovered that they were being instructed in the separatist and racially discriminatory doctrine of Critical Race Theory. They rebelled successfully in school governor elections across the US. The FBI then pondered investigating them. That struggle continues, with the parents ahead.

Fifth, in order to combat climate change, governments and the courts have proposed major social changes—mass closure of farms in Holland and huge electricity price hikes to encourage a switch to renewables across Europe. Results? A successful rebellion by Dutch farmers, the fall of the Dutch government, an electoral swing to the Right there, and governments postponing their “bold” plans for lifestyle changes and electric vehicles across Europe.

Finally, the British establishment’s long battle after 2016 to reverse Brexit—in imitation of the EU’s practice of forcing countries that had voted “the wrong way” in national referendums on EU treaties to vote again. That establishment resistance failed in 2019 and 2021, but it hasn’t completely dissipated, and it has bred a new and different class bitterness.

What do all or most of these clashes have in common? They were all elite projects; they were all imposed with little or no democratic support. They were persisted with when they met strong democratic opposition. They all either failed, or produced far more difficulties than they resolved, or both. They were not practical policies to remedy obvious ills but utopian ideas that had not been thought through. Were they left-wing? Were they authoritarian? Well, they were technocratic. And they weren’t right-wing. Nor democratic. Make up your own mind.