Triumph of Authoritarians
Published 12:00 am Thursday, August 3, 2006
Here’s a little light weekend reading for you. This is particularly for those among you who seem to delight in branding me a liberal while I consider myself to be a conservative n at least in terms of what I’ve always understood conservatism means.
This, of course, is not really “by” me, but the way our Web site is set up, if we don’t put the
“by” in there it does some strange formatting.
Triumph of the Authoritarians
By John W. Dean
The Boston Globe
Friday 14 July 2006
Contemporary conservatism and its influence on the Republican Party was, until recently, a mystery to me. The practitioners’ bludgeoning style of politics, their self-serving manipulation of the political processes, and their policies that focus narrowly on perceived self-interest – none of this struck me as based on anything related to traditional conservatism. Rather, truth be told, today’s so-called conservatives are quite radical.
For more than 40 years I have considered myself a &uot;Goldwater conservative,&uot; and am thoroughly familiar with the movement’s canon. But I can find nothing conservative about the Bush/Cheney White House, which has created a Nixon &uot;imperial presidency&uot; on steroids, while acting as if being tutored by the best and brightest of the Cosa Nostra.
What true conservative calls for packing the courts to politicize the federal judiciary to the degree that it is now possible to determine the outcome of cases by looking at the prior politics of judges? Where is the conservative precedent for the monocratic leadership style that conservative Republicans imposed on the US House when they took control in 1994, a style that seeks primarily to perfect fund-raising skills while outsourcing the writing of legislation to special interests and freezing Democrats out of the legislative process?
How can those who claim themselves conservatives seek to destroy the deliberative nature of the US Senate by eliminating its extended-debate tradition, which has been the institution’s distinctive contribution to our democracy? Yet that is precisely what Republican Senate leaders want to do by eliminating the filibuster when dealing with executive business (namely judicial appointments).
Today’s Republican policies are antithetical to bedrock conservative fundamentals. There is nothing conservative about preemptive wars or disregarding international law by condoning torture. Abandoning fiscal responsibility is now standard operating procedure. Bible-thumping, finger-pointing, tongue-lashing attacks on homosexuals are not found in Russell Krik’s classic conservative canons, nor in James Burham’s guides to conservative governing. Conservatives in the tradition of former senator Barry Goldwater and President Ronald Reagan believed in &uot;conserving&uot; this planet, not relaxing environmental laws to make life easier for big business. And neither man would have considered employing Christian evangelical criteria in federal programs, ranging from restricting stem cell research to fighting AIDs through abstinence.
Candid and knowledgeable Republicans on the far right concede – usually only when not speaking for attribution – that they are not truly conservative. They do not like to talk about why they behave as they do, or even to reflect on it. Nonetheless, their leaders admit they like being in charge, and their followers grant they find comfort in strong leaders who make them feel safe. This is what I gleaned from discussions with countless conservative leaders and followers, over a decade of questioning.
I started my inquiry in the mid-1990s, after a series of conversations with Goldwater, whom I had known for more than 40 years. Goldwater was also mystified (when not miffed) by the direction of today’s professed conservatives – their growing incivility, pugnacious attitudes, and arrogant and antagonistic style, along with a narrow outlook intolerant of those who challenge their thinking. He worried that the Republican Party had sold its soul to Christian fundamentalists, whose divisive social values would polarize the nation. From those conversations, Goldwater and I planned to study why these people behave as they do, and to author a book laying out what we found. Sadly, the senator’s declining health soon precluded his continuing on the project, so I put it on the shelf. But I kept digging until I found some answers, and here are my thoughts.
For almost half a century, social scientists have been exploring authoritarianism. We do not typically associate authoritarianism with our democracy, but as I discovered while examining decades of empirical research, we ignore some findings at our risk. Unfortunately, the social scientists who have studied these issues report their findings in monographs and professional journals written for their peers, not for general readers. With the help of a leading researcher and others, I waded into this massive body of work.
What I found provided a personal epiphany. Authoritarian conservatives are, as a researcher told me, &uot;enemies of freedom, antidemocratic, antiequality, highly prejudiced, mean-spirited, power hungry, Machiavellian and amoral.&uot; And that’s not just his view. To the contrary, this is how these people have consistently described themselves when being anonymously tested, by the tens of thousands over the past several decades.
Authoritarianism’s impact on contemporary conservatism is beyond question. Because this impact is still growing and has troubling (if not actually evil) implications, I hope that social scientists will begin to write about this issue for general readers. It is long past time to bring the telling results of their empirical work into the public square and to the attention of American voters. No less than the health of our democracy may depend on this being done. We need to stop thinking we are dealing with traditional conservatives on the modern stage, and instead recognize that they’ve often been supplanted by authoritarians.
John W. Dean, former Nixon White House counsel, just published his seventh nonfiction book, Conservatives Without Conscience.