Conservatives without Conscience: An insider views the GOPs ominous politics

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BOOK REVIEW Conservatives without Conscience By John W. Dean Penguin Books, 2006 Hardcover, 246 pp., $26.95

In recent years our society has witnessed the rise of a right-wing authoritarian political movement hiding behind a self-described “conservative” label while engaging in vicious, confrontational and hypocritical tactics in all areas of political activity. The unholy alliance between this movement, the Republican Party and religious right extremists has created a grave threat to our democratic freedoms.

John W. Dean is a former Watergate figure and counsel to the late President Nixon. In Dean’s latest book, “Conservatives without Conscience,” he observes that under the Bush-Cheney administration, there has been a “striking shift toward a very un-American type of authoritarianism,” in all branches of the federal government.

The author charges “the Grand Old Party to which I belonged has moved so far to the right, that on the contemporary political spectrum, I now often fall to the left of the Republican center.” Dean credits the present administration with giving “authoritarianism a new legitimacy in Washington.”

The author explains that this book originally began years ago as a collaborative project with the late conservative Republican Sen. Barry Goldwater during the last years of his life. Goldwater himself, certainly no model of moderation during most of his career, had become greatly concerned over the growing influence of religious right extremism in the Republican Party, and he gave this book its title.

Dean quotes Goldwater saying: “Those people (the religious right) frighten me. Politics and governing demand compromise. The government won’t work without it. But these Christians believe they are acting in the name of God, so they can’t and won’t compromise. I know. I’ve tried to deal with them.”



Authoritarians take over

Much of this work is devoted to a description of social science and psychological research that has been conducted on the American political right over the past four decades. Dean especially cites the work of American Robert Altemeyer at the University of Manitoba in Canada. He notes that a large number of studies have documented a high correlation between authoritarianism and conservatism, and they have also defined the two types of authoritarian personalities, namely leaders and followers.

Most importantly, research shows that right-wing authoritarian leaders score high on measures of “Social Dominance Orientation.” Empirical data demonstrates that they are “relatively power-hungry, domineering, mean, Machiavellian and amoral, and hold conservative economical and political outlooks.”

Their followers are blindly submissive to authority, which can lead them to do harm to others if they believe such behavior is sanctioned. In addition, the followers also “accept the traditional norms of society and tend to be fundamentalist in religion and reject moral relativism.”

Persons who score high on both scales of authoritarian followers and leaders are described as “particularly scary,” and they “inevitably see the world with themselves in charge.” The writer describes Vice President Cheney as a “double-high” on the measurement scales. Cheney believes in “unimpaired authority,” and Dean charges that he has been “the catalyst, architect and chief proponent of Bush’s authoritarianism.”



Terrorism — cover for agenda

Dean writes that neoconservatives and Republicans in the Bush administration believe they are “more likely to maintain their influence and control of the presidency if the nation remains under ever-increasing threats of terrorism so they have no hesitation in pursuing policies that can provoke potential terrorists throughout the world.”

Dean accuses the present administration of exploiting the tragedy of 9/11 “as an excuse to indulge their natural authoritarian and conservative instincts.” Criticizing Bush-

Cheney, Dean explains that they use the politics of fear as “their most troubling of authoritarian radical tactics.” The Bush administration is not being serious, he says, “about addressing the possibility of another major terror attack in the United States.” Dean cites the five F’s, twelve D’s and two incomplete grades given to Bush-Cheney on the 2005 report card evaluated by the 9/11 Commission.



Merging right-wing religion with politics

Finally, a key element in the rise of authoritarianism has been the merger of Christian religious fundamentalists with the right-wing politics of the Republican Party. Dean cites the warning from former President Jimmy Carter, who said, “Narrowly defined theological beliefs have been adopted as the rigid agenda of a political party.”

The author also cites others who have noted that the real power of the religious right “lies in the lower parts of the Republican machinery, in precinct meetings and the like.” And the Christian right “have a virtual lock on state and local Republican politics, and have totally outmaneuvered their opposition.” The Republican Party now depends on Christian religious extremists to win elections, and their domineering influence on Republicans has fueled the authoritarian bent of that party.



Class forces?

Dean has written an important and informative political study and analysis on the role of the authoritarian right in American politics. Although this political study clearly lacks an economic or class focus, such as: What is the corporate role in these events? But this should still not deter folks from reading this work especially during this important election year.

The mere fact that Dean and other traditional conservatives such as the late Sen. Goldwater would now find themselves to the left of center in the present Republican Party speaks volumes to the degree to which that party has shifted. The author concludes writing, “I am not sure which is more frightening: another major terror attack or the response of authoritarian conservatives to that attack. Both are alarming prospects.”

Yes, alarming and scary as hell.