The Demise of Conservatism, and The Rise of Authoritarianism: A Review of John Dean's Conservatives Without Conscience


Friday, Sep. 01, 2006
John Dean, Conservatives Without Conscience (Viking 2006)

In his latest book, Conservatives Without Conscience, John Dean argues that today's Republican party has become mean-spirited, inconsistent, illogical, and dissembling. Dean's view is especially illuminating because he himself was once not only a committed Republican, but, indeed, former counsel to President Richard Nixon. (Dean is also a columnist for this site.) I highly recommend this insightful and powerful book.

Dean's ideological mentor was former Arizona Republican Sen. Barry Goldwater. But the conservative tradition to which Goldwater belonged has been betrayed by today's Republican party. (Indeed, Dean's title is a play on Goldwater's 1960 bestseller, Conscience of a Conservative).

As Dean describes it, conservativism has morphed into an authoritarian movement - one that blends the ideologies of the political neoconservatives with the social conservatism of the religious right.

Dean's book is provocative and original, and it begs for a sequel - one addressing the social and political forces that created modern conservatism.

Conservatism, Then and Now, Defined

What is traditional political conservatism, and what is conservatism today?

To define traditional conservatism, Dean borrows from John Burnham's late-1950's analysis (which Dean includes in an Appendix.)

Briefly, the traditional conservative opposes government interference with the market, such as affirmative action programs; respects tradition, established institutions, and conventional modes of conduct; believes in and honors the separation of powers and checks and balances set out in the U.S. Constitution; supports states' rights and decentralized government; and abhors government involvement in the private and family lives of individuals.

Though some traces of these traditional beliefs may exist among today's conservatives, Dean argues that most have been cast aside.

Traditional conservatives, Dean contends, were not on a social mission, or on a quest to imbue our government with Christianity, in violation of the Establishment Clause. But modern conservatives often are: Consider Florida Republican senatorial candidate (and Secretary of State overseeing the 2000 presidential elections in Florida) Katherine Harris, who said in a recent interview, that her goal was to return "Christ" to government. A vote against Christians (like herself) is, she said, a vote "for sin."

Harris is just one of many so-called Christians serving in Congress who are on a mission to destroy the separation of church and state. They want to legislate morality and have no objection to interfering in private lives. Their dogmas aren't conservative; they are authoritarian.

Nor were traditional conservatives out to remake the world through foreign policy. President Bush now vows to bring God's "gift" of freedom to the world; in Iraq, he's attempting to force a so-called "democracy" on Iraq with American bombs, bullets, and troops. Again, the point of view is authoritarian. Just think of President Bush's statements: "I am the decider"; "We're not leaving [Iraq] as long as I am President"; "You're either with us or against us in the fight against terror."

To quote Dean, "True conservatism is cautious and prudent. Authoritarianism is rash and radical."

Conservatives "Without Conscience": What Exactly Does Dean Mean?

Dean says that today's conservatism, the blend of the neocons and evangelical Christians, is "without conscience." What he means, more specifically, is that today's conservatives don't act in a way that is consistent with democratic principles, went to war in Iraq on false pretenses, and openly violate the law without any justification beyond the paternalistic and anti-democratic claim that what they are doing is best for us all.

Dean asks: Why is the Congress going along? Why are thousands of executive agency employees, at low and high levels, going along? Consider, for instance, those who carried through the law-violating NSA surveillance programs, and those who concocted legal theories under which the President's secret violations of Congress' longstanding laws, and the hallowed Geneva Conventions, were somehow perfectly legal?

Put simply, they have fallen into the trap of blindly following an authoritarian leader.

Dean spends a good bit of time discussing psychologist Stanley Milgram's famous experiment, designed to answer the most-asked question after World War II: "How could seemingly good people obey the dictates of Adolph Hitler?"

Milgram found an easy and disturbing answer: Most people have been taught to respect authority and the law; they follow this teaching too far, even to extremes. And there are other explanations, too: Those who follow authoritarian leaders may also see financial and political, even social gain. And even those who see no chance of gain may be convinced that to disobey is to risk ruin and be branded a traitor or unpatriotic.

Who, Specifically, Are The "Authoritarian Conservatives" Dean Discusses?

Dean provides profiles of some characteristic authoritarian conservatives from among both the neocons and the social conservatives, and gives a brief history of both movements.

The neoconservative movement began with mostly liberal Jewish intellectuals who became disenchanted with the left in the 1960s and 1970s, joined the Republicans in the 1980s, and began to make a mark for themselves in the Reagan Administration. They believe in military nation-building, distrust multilateral institutions, view Israel as a key outpost of democracy in the Middle East, and want to transform the Middle East with democracy. Today's neocons include former Cheney Chief of Staff (and current Plame grand jury target) Lewis "Scooter" Libby; current World Bank President and former Deputy Secretary of Defense (and second in command behind Rumsfeld) Paul Wolfowitz, and Douglas Feith, former Under Secretary of Defense for Policy.

Then there are the authoritarian social conservatives, who want to regulate adult sexual and reproductive behavior, and tell people how to think and act. Their leaders include former FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, former Vice-President Spiro T. Agnew, ERA Opponent Phyllis Schlafly, and Heritage Foundation founder Paul Weyrich.

A sub-group of the social conservatives is the evangelical "Religious Right." It has no lack of authoritarian leaders and followers, but Dean focuses on the outspoken, and often outrageous, Pat Robertson. Every disaster is, according to Robertson, a warning from God that we have strayed from His teachings and must be punished.

The neocons and social conservatives, Dean explains, have a shared attitude: Be they out to conquer the world of national politics, foreign events, or your personal life, they alone know what's best for you, the country, and the world. And both rule by fear. The world is a dangerous place and only in living by their rules do you have a chance of survival.

Authoritarian Politics on the Hill

Dean devotes a particularly interesting chapter to authoritarian politics, and politicians who have been very successful in instituting policies on the Hill that are anathema to democratic principles. Because the Republicans are a majority of both houses, they have been able to enact rules and conduct business that leaves out Democrats altogether; Dean explains some of the procedures that have been used.

Although Tom DeLay is no longer House Majority Leader, his legacy lives on. In addition, Dean credits former Speaker Newt Gingrich for creating the authoritarian House leadership as we know it today.

Other authoritarians in politics, Dean says, include Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist and, of course, Vice President Dick Cheney. One typical authoritarian statement from Cheney came recently, after the Connecticut Senate primary, when he said that Lamont's victory encourages "the al Qaeda types" who want to "break the will of the American people in terms of our ability to stay in the fight and complete the task." In other words, a vote cast by an American citizen in a democratic election with a duly qualified candidate is a vote for terrorism, for the enemy.

Are All Authoritarian Conservatives Without Conscience? Dean Says No.

Just as Dean is careful not to put all conservatives in the "authoritarian" category, he also refrains from positing that all authoritarians are conservatives without conscience. For there are high and low degrees of authoritarians, and some low degree authoritarians think for themselves sometimes, and don't always blindly follow authority.

Dean gives Patrick Buchanan as an example of an authoritarian conservative who displays a conscience--sometimes, at least. Buchanan, for instance, admitted that Nixon's ordering and covering up a burglary was wrong. And he had refused to organize the "Plumbers Unit" responsible for the burglary at the Watergate, and for other dirty tricks. Buchanan drew the line at what he considered illegal, immoral, and unethical. Thus, though readers may differ as to whether or not Buchanan has a conscience, it is clear, at least, that Buchanan had a line in the sand he would not cross.

The Current Administration: Is There a Line It Will Not Cross?

Can we say the same of anyone in the current Administration? Attorney General Gonzales, for one, delivers a true authoritarian follower message--in his eyes, this President can do no wrong. Indeed, Gonzales and Justice Department attorneys have argued repeatedly before the Congress and the federal courts that Article II of the Constitution makes the President so powerful that he is, in effect, a law unto himself.

Gonzales, in addition, is far from alone. As Dean concludes, virtually all of this Administration's leaders are authoritarian personalities -- opposed to equality, devoted to personal power, intimidating, bullying, amoral, dishonest, mean-spirited, militant, and nationalistic.

Meanwhile, Republicans in this and past Administrations have put at least three authoritarian Justices on the Supreme Court--Scalia, Thomas, and Alito. (Chief Justice Roberts' inclinations remain to be seen; thus far, he seems more interested in conciliation than in being authoritarian, at least in his role as Chief.)

The Politics of Fear

Dean devotes the last part of his book to the Bush Administration's politics of fear. Aside from Nixon, who exploited fear and paranoia, Dean notes that no other modern president has ruled by fear.

With his poll numbers dropping and the mid-term elections looming, how do Karl Rove and Republican National Committee Chairman Kenneth Mehlman plan to ensure the authoritarians remain in power? They freely admit it--by using fear.

These methods were in evidence this week as Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld give bombastic speeches accusing those who are against their policies as aiding the "enemy" in the "global war on terrorism." Rumsfeld aligned critics with those who wanted to "appease" Hitler. "Rumsfeld Assails Critics of War Policy," "Bush Team Casts Foes as Defeatists," and other headlines (these from The Washington Post) in the media carried the same message.

And the fear tactics have only just begun. Rove plans a crescendo up to the fifth anniversary of September 11, and then a major fear-driven get-out-the-vote campaign for the November 7 elections.

These tactics worked in 2002 and 2004. Will they succeed in 2006? Will Americans be smarter, think more critically in the upcoming election? Will they examine the flawed logic and false premises of the claims that to be against any Bush policy, from the war in Iraq, to tax cuts for the rich, to privatization of social security, is to be un-American?

Voters won't get any help from the media, as Dean notes. In the past months, on countless occasions when it had the opportunity to do so, the press has not challenged Bush or Administration spokespersons as to the truth, even logic, of their constant claims that to argue for a different policy in Iraq is tantamount to "declaring defeat," that to challenge surveillance done in secret, outside the bounds of the law, and about which the American people know virtually nothing, is to "tie the hands" of the President.

And why does the press remain silent? Dean has an answer--because fear sells, and the media is in the retail business.

Bush says that every day his policies send a "strong message" to the terrorists.

Those of us terrorized by this Administration's authoritarian tactics can send a "strong message" of our own on November 7. We can, with our votes, say no to authoritarianism and fear.

Whether Republican, Democrat, or Independent, we can reclaim our right to be governed by positive values, law, and reason-- traits of true conservatism, and traits of true Americanism.

Elaine Cassel practices law in Virginia and the District of Columbia and teaches law and psychology. Her textbook, Criminal Behavior (2nd ed., in press, Erlbaum), explores crime and violence from a developmental perspective. Her book, The War on Civil Liberties: How Bush and Ashcroft Dismantled the Bill of Rights, was published by Lawrence Hill in 2004.