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From the Boston
Triumph of the Authoritarians
By John W. Dean | July 14, 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 ``Goldwater
conservative," 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 ``imperial presidency"
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 ``conserving" 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, ``enemies of freedom, antidemocratic,
antiequality, highly prejudiced, mean-spirited, power hungry,
Machiavellian and amoral." 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."
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