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The Impact of Authoritarian Conservatism On American Government: Part Three in a Three-Part Series


Tuesday, Sep. 25, 2007

This is the final part of this three-part series of columns, in which FindLaw columnist John Dean discusses his recent book, Conservatives Without Conscience. Part One and Part Two appeared earlier on this site. - Ed.

The authoritarianism of the contemporary Republican Party has had a dire impact on all three branches of the federal government. This impact is the subject of my new book, Broken Government: How Republican Rule Destroyed the Legislative, Executive and Judicial Branches, and a matter I intend to write about periodically in this space as we approach the 2008 Election.


Authoritarian leaders do not govern when they control the apparatus of government; rather, they rule. And given their worldview, they rule from either the hard or radical right. This can best be seen by looking at the way they operate when in control of the government.

Newt Gingrich: A Prototypical Republican Authoritarian Leader

People who knew Newt Gingrich early in his political career have described him--and because he is a man who still wants to be president of the United States, such assessments remain relevant--in less than glowing terms. David Osborne spoke with many of them when he was preparing his telling profile for Mother Jones, and he was given information that describes an authoritarian leader.

Osborne reported that Gingrich was dominating, opposed to equality, desirous of personal power, and amoral; that he can be a bully, hedonistic, exploitive, manipulative, a cheater, prejudiced toward women, and mean-spirited; that he uses religion for political purposes; and that he wants others to submit to his authority and is aggressive on behalf of authority.

When Gingrich took charge of the House in 1995 as Speaker, he imposed authoritarian rule unlike that of any Speaker before him. His bullying, demanding style provoked antagonism and incivility, and made demonizing one's opponents standard operating procedure. Gingrich eliminated the seniority rights of Republicans in the House, and he personally selected committee chairs who would be loyal to him - and who could help raise money, using their posts for the good of the GOP. Gingrich lorded over the House, telling members not to bring their families back to Washington, and even suggesting which books they should be reading.

Not long after Gingrich's authoritarian approach became evident, a reporter for the Independent (London) observed that Gingrich was an avid reader of Frans de Waal, a Dutch ethnologist whose book Chimpanzee Politics was on the Speaker's list of twenty-five recommended books. In dead earnest, the reporter noted striking parallels between Gingrich's rise to power and the efforts of "apes striving to acquire the coveted status of 'alpha male,'" as de Waal's study described, in his May 31, 1995 piece "How Newt Aped His Way to the Top."

The GOP's Authoritarian House

Authoritarianism is, by its nature, anti-democratic. One look at the House under Republican rule shows how authoritarian behavior has distorted the deliberative processes of this legislative chamber. Under GOP rule, leaders have represented the interest of the Republican Party, and have run the place as if the Democrats who represent over half the country did not exist. For good reason, voters took control away from the GOP in 2006, and as the Party's members have done nothing to change their ways, we must all hope that voters keep sending the same message until Republicans choose to hear it, and to reconstitute themselves into a party capable of actually governing.

Under Speaker Gingrich as well as Speaker Hastert, who followed him, extreme centralization of the legislative processes of the House occurred. Regularly, GOP leaders wrote the laws themselves - often relying on lobbyists to do the grunt work of drafting - rather than abiding by the regular procedures of the committees, which hold hearings and have professional staff to draft legislation. When not actually writing the laws, the House leaders often drastically changed proposed legislation themselves, typically late in the evening when no one was around to contest their actions.

GOP leaders also changed the rules to eliminate deliberation. Under the rules of the House, only emergency measures can be considered without giving members 48 hours to consider the proposal. Yet Republicans regularly declared matters they wanted to push through to be an emergency, giving other members as little as thirty minutes' notice, and forcing members of their own party to blindly vote for measures when they had no idea what they were approving.

GOP House leaders also controlled legislation so as to prohibit amendments during the floor debate, and greatly reduced the time available for debate. When House and Senate legislation differed, thus requiring a conference committee, Republicans defied House rules and refused to allow Democrats to attend the conference committee. When votes were close in the House, or when the GOP was losing, they simply suspended the fifteen-minute rule (the rule setting the time period) within which votes are to take place, often leaving the vote open for hours while they twisted arms and literally bribed and cajoled Republicans to get them to comply with the leadership's wishes.

In sum, during the decade when Republicans controlled the House, they provided an example of the nature of authoritarian rule of the legislative branch. Similarly, but in a very different setting, President Bush and Vice-President Cheney have shown how authoritarian rule works in the executive branch. Neither demonstration has been pretty or reassuring.

The GOP's Authoritarian Reconception of the Presidency

Nixon was an authoritarian president. So was Reagan. Indeed, it was during the Reagan years that conservatives made a complete change in their thinking about the American presidency. This change -- not coincidentally, I believe -- occurred as authoritarian conservatives began to dominate the GOP.

The authoritarian conservative philosophy was fully articulated by Terry Eastland, a former Reagan Justice Department Director of Public Affairs, in his 1992 book Energy in the Executive: The Case for the Strong Presidency. This is a book that was studied closely by then-Halliburton Chairman Dick Cheney, and then-Texas Governor George W. Bush and his staff, long before they arrived in Washington in 2001.

"Reagan demonstrated that the strong presidency is necessary to effect ends sought by most conservatives," Eastland wrote. For conservatives, Eastland's book made clear, a strong president is one who wears his commander-in-chief uniform every day, and tells Americans how they should think and act, rather than one who responds to the wishes of the voters. It is a Father-Knows-Best presidency, one that considers Americans to be children who do not know what is best for themselves.

Nixon created the "imperial presidency." After the public rejected that concentration of power, in the aftermath of Watergate, Reagan restored the imperial presidency in another guise. Now, Bush and Cheney have created the post-imperial presidency. Using the threat of terrorism as their justification, Bush and Cheney have embraced the so-called "unitary executive theory" - which, in truth, is merely another term for an authoritarian presidency.

Eastland, like many conservatives, thought it a poor showing when Ronald Reagan left office with the highest approval ratings of any post-World War II president. Quoting the voice of authoritarian conservatism, Charles Krauthammer, Eastland assessed this supposedly unfortunate aspect of the Reagan presidency to be "Like dying rich… a great moral failure." As this comment shows, authoritarians do not want Americans to love or even necessarily like their president; indeed, they believe a president must be doing something wrong if they do.

Bush and Cheney's actions must surely bring a smile to the faces of folks like Terry Eastland and Charles Krauthammer, as they sink lower and lower in their approval ratings, spending all their good will and then some. Authoritarian conservatives will no doubt be disappointed if Bush and Cheney do not manage to get to single-digit ratings before they leave.

Many observers have suggested that the Bush/Cheney Administration may, in the eyes of history, be the worst ever. Yet this condemnation must seem beside the point to authoritarians, for these people simply do not care what others think of their performance. What is important, in their eyes, is simply that these leaders and their compliant followers are doing things the way they believe they must be done, and enforcing their will upon any who dare to dissent or disagree.

It is my great hope that voters will reject the option of embracing yet more authoritarianism in 2008, for, even in this three-part series of columns and in my books, I have only touched on its negative impact on America.

John W. Dean, a FindLaw columnist, is a former counsel to the president.

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