The Fast Lane To Fascism:
A Review of John Dean's
"Conservatives Without Conscience"
By Bernard Weiner, Co-Editor
The Crisis Papers
August 1, 2006
"How does the Bush Administration get away with it?" And: "How come, no matter what scandal or embarrassment or disaster Bush&Co. get enmeshed in, one third of the population still supports them?"
The answers to those oft-expressed questions are complex, to be sure, but with the publication of former White House Counsel John W. Dean's compelling new book "Conservatives Without Conscience," we now have more of a framework for understanding what drives the Busheviks and why so many continue to stand behind them.
Dean, whose insider testimony helped bring down President Nixon during the Watergate scandal, is a Goldwater-style conservative Republican. Like so many such "old-style" conservatives -- believers in small government, maximizing freedom of the individual, balanced budgets, caution in foreign affairs, etc. -- Dean is appalled by the extremists who now run the party, turning all the traditional conservative beliefs upside-down.
These so-called "conservatives" have taken the country down the slippery slope of extra-Constitutional rule, at the bottom of which, unless the situation changes, lies the reality of fascism.
"It would not take much more misguided authoritarian leadership, or thoughtless following of such leaders, to find ourselves there," Dean writes.
IMPACT OF FUNDAMENTALIST THOUGHT
And here is the heart of Dean's intelligently-reasoned volume. In his 2004 book "Worse Than Watergate," Dean excoriated the CheneyBush presidency for its secrecy, unconstitutional over-reaching, and in-your-face nastiness. But, aside from revealing its dastardly governance, Dean didn't have an over-arching theory of why the Administration and their followers behaved that way. Here, in "Conservatives Without Conscience," he has come up with a believable explanation as to why those traits are so prevalent in rightwing circles.
So how did America wind up on the freeway heading toward the exit marked fascism? Dean finds a good share of the answer in the pulling power of authoritarianism, both as practiced by demagogic officials and as accepted by the third of Americans who, without much thought, permit themselves to be swayed so easily by those leaders.
But what explains the willingness of so many millions of American citizens to blindly follow such leaders?
Dean points to the power of fundamentalist religious thought, both in this country and in other areas of the world as well, no matter what the religious preference.
Dean keeps digging: What has led to the resurgence of fundamentalist belief systems?
In America, he notes, fundamentalist/evangelical Christians had political reasons for their renewed activism, including reacting strenuously to attempts to tax their schools, for example, or to Roe vs. Wade. But there is something much deeper, which is true as much in Afghanistan as it is in the U.S. of A.
HARD-WIRED FOR AUTHORITARIANISM
To put it simply (in my words, not Dean's) there are those who are reasonably comfortable with major social changes, or at least can adapt to them, and there are those who find rapid changes off-putting, disorienting, even frightening. To the latter group, the world is a scary place, with so many conflicting options and alternatives, so much freedom and so many temptations. Many find psychic safety in returning to the old verities, the simple prescriptions for behavior, the clear reasons for acting this way and not that way.
Not having to think for themselves, or about themselves, provides a secure "container" for their anxiety. Conservatives have a "heightened psychological need to manage uncertainty," notes one social researcher quoted by Dean.
Fundamentalism, you see, seems to provide a safe harbor, a simple "quiet" way in the midst of all the world's ambiguity and "noise," that helps in dealing with the frightening and contradictory cacophony outside the religion. There is good and there is evil, a right way and a wrong way, Revealed Truth and dangerous falsehood, you're with us or with our enemies, that sort of simplistic understanding of the world. Got Mitt Uns -- God is on our side, so why should we compromise with or pay attention to those who do not believe in The Truth?
But, says Dean, in addition to the doctrinal underpinnings, something in the personality of many fundamentalist religious leaders, and their followers, may be working even more strongly: a built-in tendency toward authoritarianism.
He quotes from voluminous studies by social psychologist/researcher Bob Altemeyer, who -- after examining the attitude of tens of thousands of subjects in interviews and questionnaires -- concluded that "acceptance of traditional religious beliefs appear to have more to do with having a personality rich in authoritarian submission, authoritarian aggression, and conventionalism, than with the beliefs per se."
LYING AS STANDARD MODUS OPERANDI
Dean says he writes as "a conservative who is deeply troubled by what has become of a treasured philosophy. Conservatism has been co-opted by authoritarians, a most dangerous type of political animal."
"[A]t heart," he writes, those in charge of the Republican party "are tough, cold-blooded, ruthless ... tolerate no dissent, use dissembling as their standard modus operandi, and have pushed their governing authority beyond the law and Constitution ... [O]ur nation's founders relied on reason, which is anathema for many of today's conservatives. ... [They] cannot be trusted to exercise the powers of government responsibly."
Conservatives, Altemeyer found, often engaged in right-wing aggression not only out of political belief but also "for the pure pleasure of it ... [They are] malicious, mean-spirited, and disrespectful of even the basic codes of civility ... [A]uthoritarians have little if any conscience when pursuing their causes, and reason gives way to expediency."
THE NEED FOR DOMINATION
Altemeyer and other social scientists who have done the ground-breaking research on authoritarianism have also found that many political conservatives, both leaders and followers, possess "a need to dominate others."
Dean reminds us of the famous '60s experiment by Dr. Stanley Milgram where college students readily inflicted electrical shocks (or what they thought were such shocks) on supposed prisoners in their care because the supervising scientist in a white coat told them to do so, despite the prisoners' seeming writhing in pain. The experiment revealed in most of the subjects a clear readiness to bow to the orders of authority figures. Decades later, we saw photos and videotape of normal young U.S. soldiers tormenting, humiliating and torturing prisoners in their care at Abu Ghraib Prison in Iraq. The hard-wiring is there and switches on in optimal social situations.
According to Altemeyer's research, "authoritarian aggression is fueled by fear and encouraged by remarkable self-righteousness, which frees aggressive impulses. ... [Lying is] easy for right-wing authoritarians to do because of their remarkable self-righteousness."
Not only do political conservatives tend to follow authority figures' orders more often, Altemeyer's research revealed, but they are "intolerant of criticism of their authorities, because they believe the authority is unassailably correct." In short, their leaders do not lie; but when they are found to have lied, they did so for good, godly reasons. After all, the righteous end justifies all means.
Outbreaks of dangerous authoritarianism have occurred throughout our nation's history, notes Dean, but the CheneyBush Administration has taken social authoritarianism to the extreme -- with Dick Cheney, Newt Gingrich and Tom DeLay as dominator poster-boys for the movement.
They may think of what they are doing as akin to playing political chess, but, if so, it's a political game with extremely lethal consequences. Unlike most other examples of previous authoritarianism in earlier U.S. administrations, now when the leaders lie, a large number of people die. Another such example would be what happened in Europe in the 1930s; see "The Easy Slide Into Fascism: Germany in 1933."
Most everything in the Bush Administration is done for political reasons, often to feed its rock-solid fundamentalist/evangelical base. Rove's tested election strategy is built upon that base. By hook or by crook or by fraud -- dropping hundreds of thousands of Dem voters off a state's rolls, tying up oppositional phone lines, perhaps altering ballot tallies, and so on -- he's able to claim one more vote than the opposition and feels free then to assert that the GOP now has a "mandate" to rule.
And, of course, the run-up to the election is orchestrated to the drumbeat of constant fear and fright, against real or imagined enemies; these days, the buzzworded scapegoats are "gays," "illegal immigrants," "atheists," and that oldie-but-goodie "terrorists." (When the Bush Administration "continues to raise the threat of terrorism but refuses to implement even the minimum measures recommended by the [9/11] commission," writes Dean, "it is clear they are playing the politics of fear.")
WHAT HAPPENS IF GOP WINS IN NOVEMBER
What can America look forward to if the GOP holds onto the House and Senate in November? For sure, we can anticipate the further destruction of any opposition as the Republicans continue their drive for permanent one-party rule. "Our goal is to inflict as much pain as possible," said authoritarian GOP honcho Grover Norquist. "It is not good enough to win; it has to be a painful and devastating defeat. We're sending a message here."
In addition, we can anticipate continued packing of the appeals courts with more jurists in the authoritarian mode, serious cracking down on opposition websites and writers on the internet, the continuation of corruption at the highest levels as lobbyists buy corporate access to the writing of laws, and further movement toward the assumption of "unimpaired executive authority," to use Cheney's spine-chilling term.
And, no doubt, we can expect more wars abroad (Iran? Syria? Venezuela?), carried out with bullying, self-righteous certainty of victory -- which, since these guys never learn, and are clueless and incompetent as well, will backfire in America's face. Again. Chalk it up to greed, power-hunger and the arrogance of empire. (Bush's unwavering support of Israel's destruction of Lebanon is a proxy case in point.)
Is the situation hopeless in moving this country away from authoritarianism, and restoring America to its great foundations, its adherence to and respect for law? Dean concludes with this:
"Research, however, reveals there is a solid majority of Americans who are not right-wing authoritarians, that there are countless millions of liberals, moderates and conservatives with conscience, people who shudder at the prospect of giving away our hard-earned democratic principles, and who cherish our liberties. These are individuals who question their leaders and their policies, and that is as it should be.
"Democracy is not a spectator sport that can be simply observed. To the contrary, it is difficult and demanding, and its very survival depends on active participation. Take it for granted, and the authoritarians, who have already taken control, will take American democracy where no freedom-loving person would want it to go. But time has run out, and the next two or three national election cycles will define America in the twenty-first century, for better or worse."
Copyright 2006, by Bernard Weiner
Bernard Weiner, Ph.D. in government & international relations, has taught at universities in California and Washington, worked as a writer-editor with the San Francisco Chronicle for nearly two decades, and currently co-edits The Crisis Papers (www.crisispapers.org). To comment: firstname.lastname@example.org .