John Dean and Authoritarian Cultism - a Review
(cross-posted at C&L)
The full extent and irreversibility of the damage to our country wrought by the Bush administration will likely not be known until well after George Bush finally disappears from our political life. But understanding the dynamics and impulses of the movement which have enabled these abuses is a critically important task, and that is the project undertaken by John Dean's new best-selling book, Conservatives Without Conscience (selected excerpt is here). Fortuitously for Dean, this examination of what has become the so-called "conservative" movement (composed of Bush followers, neoconservatives and hard-core religious conservatives) comes at the perfect time.
With 2 1/2 years still left for this administration, the true radicalism of the administration and its followers has becoming unavoidably, depressingly clear, and it is equally clear that this movement has not reached anywhere near the peak of its extremism. Dean's central thesis explains why that is so.
Dean contends, and amply documents, that the "conservative" movement has become, at its core, an authoritarian movement composed of those with a psychological and emotional need to follow a strong authority figure which provides them a sense of moral clarity and a feeling of individual power, the absence of which creates fear and insecurity in the individuals who crave it. By definition, its followers' devotion to authority and the movement's own power is supreme, thereby overriding the consciences of its individual members and removing any intellectual and moral limits on what will be justified in defense of their movement.
Dean relies on substantial social science data to illustrate the personality type that seeks out authoritarian movements. But his case is made much more persuasively by what one can visibly see unfolding before one's own eyes.
As Iraq collapses into all-out civil war and new, tragic levels of violence, Bush supporters continue to insist that things are going well there and our invasion was a success. As the Middle East spirals into all-out regional war, Bush supporters insist that this repulsive violence is actually good for the region -- wars are encouraging "birth pangs" on the road to progress, as the Secretary of State put it yesterday -- and they are now actively involving the U.S. in this escalated conflict, even while Iraq rapidly falls apart.
And there is seemingly no limit -- literally -- on the willingness, even eagerness, of Bush supporters to defend and justify even the most morally repugnant abuses -- from constantly expanding spying on American citizens, to a President who claims and aggressively exercises the "right" to break the law, to torturing suspects, imprisoning journalists, and turning the United States into the most feared and hated country on the planet.
And as radical as the administration has become, it is clear that the administration has not even come close to reaching the level of extremism which would be necessary for its supporters to object -- if such a limit exists at all. If anything, on those exceedingly few occasions over six years when his followers have dissented from the Presidents's decisions -- illegal immigration, Harriet Miers, Dubai ports -- it has been not because the administration was too radical, extremist, militaristic and uncompromising -- but insufficiently so.
Bush supporters want more spying, much more aggressive actions against investigative journalists and even domestic political opposition, more death and violence brought to the Middle East, more wars, and still fewer restraints on the President's powers, to the extent there are any real limits left. To them, the Bush administration has not been nearly as extremist and aggressive as it ought to be in dealing with the Enemies. And that is to say nothing of the measures that would be urged, and almost certainly imposed, in the event of another terrorist attack on U.S. soil or in the increasingly likely event that our limited war in Iraq expands into the Epic War of Civilizations which so many of them crave.
Ultimately, as Dean convincingly demonstrates, the characteristic which defines the Bush movement, the glue which binds it together and enables and fuels all of the abuses, is the vicious, limitless methods used to attack and demonize the "Enemy," which encompasses anyone -- foreign or domestic -- threatening to their movement. What defines and motivates this movement are not any political ideas or strategic objectives, but instead, it is the bloodthirsty, ritualistic attacks on the Enemy de jour -- the Terrorist, the Communist, the Illegal Immigrant, the Secularist, and most of all, the "Liberal."
What excites, enlivens, and drives Bush followers is the identification of the Enemy followed by swarming, rabid attacks on it. It is a movement that defines itself not by identifiable ideas but by that which it is not. Its foreign policy objectives are identifiable by one overriding goal -- destroy and kill the Enemy, potential or suspected enemies, and everyone nearby. And it increasingly views its domestic goals through the same lens. It is a movement in a permanent state of war, which views all matters, foreign and domestic, only in terms of this permanent war.
Supreme Court justices who rule against the President on national security matters are tyrants, traitors and pro-terrorist. Journalists who uncover legally dubious government conduct carried out in secret are criminals who should be imprisoned for life or hanged. Virtually every political opponent of the administration's of any significance -- Howard Dean, Al Gore, John Kerry, the Clintons -- is relentlessly branded as a liar, mentally unstable, corrupt, seditious, and sympathetic to the Enemy.
And even those who devoted much of their adult lives to military service to their country (often in ways far more courageous and impressive than most Bush supporters), or even those who have been longtime Republicans and conservatives, have their characters relentlessly smeared and motives and integrity impugned as soon as they criticize the administration in any way that could embarrass the President -- Richard Clarke, Paul O'Neill, the war critic Generals, Joe Wilson, Scott Ritter, Wesley Clark, John Murtha, John Paul Stevens, and on and on and on.
It is a movement devoted to the destruction of its enemies wherever they might be found. And it finds new ones, in every corner and seemingly on a daily basis, because it must. That is the food which sustains it.
* * * * *
In many ways, John Dean is the ideal person to examine this dynamic because he has seen and experienced both sides of it up close and personal. Attracted to the political conservatism of Barry Goldwater, Dean joined the Nixon administration and, at the age of 32, became Nixon's aggressive White House counsel, deeply involved in helping to perpetrate many of the Watergate abuses. Morton Halperin, who was a standing member of Nixon's "enemy list," claimed in an Op-Ed in Friday's Los Angeles Times that Dean authored a 1971 memo setting forth a plan to "use the available federal machinery to screw our political enemies."
But in 1973, Dean became the first high-level Nixon official to turn against the administration, famously testifying before the Senate Watergate Committee that the President (as well as Dean himself) was personally involved in the Watergate cover-up. As a result of his refusal to copy the example of blindly loyal authoritarian followers such as G. Gordon Liddy and Charles Colson -- who lied and covered-up for their leader -- Dean became one of the most hated enemies of Nixon followers, a hatred which, he later discovered, would make him the target of the right-wing authoritarian tactics which he previously wielded against Nixon's enemies.
In 1991, as Dean recounts at length, he learned that 60 Minutes and Time Magazine were preparing to feature a new book, entitled Silent Coup, which claimed that Dean himself was the one who ordered the Watergate break-in. The book alleged that Dean's motive was that his wife, Maureen, had a connection to a Washington, DC call-girl operation and thus had knowledge of various sex scandals involving Democrats, and Dean sought to obtain documentation to use against them.
The very idea that Dean himself had ordered the Watergate break-in because of his wife's connection to a call-girl service, and that these secrets were somehow kept for 20 years, was completely absurd on its face. And once Dean vehemently denied these allegations, both 60 Minutes and Time investigated the claims and both decided not to run the story -- a noble decision which, in Time's case, led to the loss of the $50,000 it had paid for the rights to run an excerpt of the book.
But using right-wing smear techniques which, back then, were still new, but which are now a staple of the "conservative" movement, these patently false allegations against Dean were aggressively promoted by right-wing ideologues and then accepted and given great attention by the mainstream media. The book's publishers enlisted both right-wing follower G. Gordon Liddy and by-then-born-again Christian activist Charles Colson -- both of whom still hated Dean for his blasphemy in testifying truthfully against the President -- to promote the book and push its allegations against Dean.
More and more right-wing groups and personalities jumped on board this smear campaign, until it received full-fledged support from mainstream right-wing media personalities. That, in turn, induced many mainstream media programs -- from Good Morning America to CNN's Larry King Live -- to invite the authors on to discuss the book. Out of this now all-too-familiar process, this defamatory book ended up on the New York Times' Best Seller List. As Dean recounts:
Despite most of the news media’s fitting dismissal of Silent Coup’s baseless claims, the protracted litigation provided time for the book to gather a following, including an almost cultlike collection of highprofile right-wingers. Among them, for example, is Monica Crowley, a former aide to Richard Nixon after his presidency, and now a conservative personality on MSNBC, cohosting Connected: Coast to Coast with Ron Reagan. Other prominent media-based conservatives who have joined the glee club are James Rosen and Brit Hume of Fox News. How these seemingly intelligent people embraced this false account mystified me, and I wanted to know. . . .
As for Colson, his reason for promotion of Silent Coup remained a complete mystery for me, as did the motives of people like Monica Crowley, James Rosen, Brit Hume, and all the other hard-core conservatives who embraced this spurious history and made it a best seller. The only thing I could see that these people had in common was their conservatism.
That is how the "conservative" movement works to this day, although its methods have become even more efficient and less scrupulous. Petty allegations and character attacks begin percolating in the smear sewers of the right wing -- through insinuations by talk-radio dirt-mongerers like Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity, speculation by Matt Drudge, smear campaigns by shadowy groups and organizations, and now by attention-desperate and glory-seeking right-wing blogs. From there, the attacks are reported by the right-wing media and then fed into the mainstream media.
A lynch mob is created which seeks not the truth of what happened, but the destruction of the movement's enemies. "Conservative" rank-and-file, confining themselves to an echo chamber, embrace the allegations instinctively, because they are made by the movement's defenders against the movement's enemies. And their allegiance to their movement and a desire to destroy their opponents overrides any concern for proportionality or truth. As Dean documents, it is what the contemporary, so-called "conservative" movement feeds on more than anything else -- a limitless and bloodthirsty attack on the character of its opponents and enemies.
* * * * *
Dean advances and then amply documents (both with his own analysis and social science data, the former being far more persuasive than the latter) what I consider to be the book's two central points:
First, that what is currently described as the "conservative movement" bears virtually no resemblance to Goldwater's conservatism, and has nothing to do with restraining government power or preserving historical values. Instead, it has transformed into an authoritarian movement which largely attracts personality types characterized by a desire and need to submit to and follow authority.
Second, because those who submit to authority necessarily relinquish their own conscience (in favor of serving the conscience of their leader and/or their movement), those who are part of this movement are capable of acts which a healthy and normal conscience ought to preclude. They can use torture, break laws, wage unnecessary wars based on false pretenses, and attempt to destroy the reputation of plainly patriotic and honest Americans -- provided that they are convinced that doing so advances the interests of the authority they serve and the movement of which they are a part.
The central premise of Dean's argument is that the current "conservative" movement shares none of the core principles of the political conservatism which attracted Dean to its movement -- those espoused by Dean's longtime friend, Barry Goldwater (whose 1960 book, The Conscience of a Conservative, is the source for Dean's title). That the Bush movement bears no resemblance to traditional conservatism is a view shared by scores of the country's most prominent conservatives, such as Pat Buchanan and increasingly George Will. The Father of Modern Conservatism, Bill Buckely, just yesterday pronounced that Bush's "singular problem" is "the absence of effective conservative ideology." And before his death, Barry Goldwater himself frequently accused the religious right of assaulting core conservative principles.
Relatedly, Dean documents that the "conservative" movement is composed of various factions who actually share very little in common in the way of political beliefs and could not come close to agreeing on a core set of political principles and ideals which define their movement. In the absence of a set of core, shared beliefs, what, then, binds them and maintains their allegiance to this political movement?
The answer Dean provides is the shared hatred of common enemies. And their collective attacks on those enemies have become the consevative movement's defining attribute. And that is sufficient to maintain allegiance because, argues Dean, what Bush followers crave more than anything else is submission to a powerful authority as a means of alleviating their fears of ambiguity, uncertainty and complexity -- the same attributes which are common to all followers of authoritarian movements on both the right and the left:
Given the rather distinct beliefs of the various conservative factions, which have only grown more complex with time, how have conservatives succeeded in coalescing as a political force? The simple answer is through the power of negative thinking, and specifically, the ability to find common enemies. . . .
Important conservative opinion journals, like the National Review and Human Events, see the world as bipolar: conservative versus liberal. Right-wing talk radio could not survive without its endless bloviating about the horrors of liberalism. Trashing liberals is nothing short of a cottage industry for conservative authors. . . .
The exaggerated hostility also apparently satisfies a psychological need for antagonism toward the “out group,” reinforces the self-esteem of the conservative base, and increases solidarity within the ranks.
The heart of [New York University Professor John] Jost and his collaborators’ findings was that people become or remain political conservatives because they have a “heightened psychological need to manage uncertainty and threat.” More specifically, the study established that the various psychological factors associated with political conservatives included (and here I am paraphrasing) fear, intolerance of ambiguity, need for certainty or structure in life, overreaction to threats, and a disposition to dominate others.
This data was collected from conservatives willing to explain their beliefs and have their related psychological dynamics studied through various objective testing techniques. These characteristics, Dr. Jost said, typically cannot be ascribed to liberals.
A healthy skepticism is warranted with regard to the ability of social science data to reveal truths about political movements. But ultimately, the ability of that data to persuade is dependent upon the extent to which it comports with one's own observations. And when Dean cites and applies the conclusions of the famous study by Stanley Milgram, in which subject participants administered what seemed to be excruciatingly painful electric shock because they were instructed by authority figures in white coats to do so, its applicability to the Bush movement becomes self-evident:
When "a person acting under authority performs actions that seem to violate his standards of conscience, it would not be true to say that he loses his moral sense," Milgram concluded. Rather, that person simply places his moral views aside. His "moral concern shifts to a consideration of how well he is living up to the expectations of the authority figure."
The Bush administration's ability to engage in extraordinary and radical behavior has not occurred in a vacuum. The administration is radical and can act seemingly without limits because its supporters and followers are radical and limitless in their allegiance to its abuses. Understanding the disturbing and dangerous human dynamic which fuels that movement is critical to understanding the movement itself, and ultimately, to defeating it. Dean's book is a uniquely valuable tool for understanding what the so-called "conservative" movement has become.
UPDATE: It is difficult to select a 1,000 word excerpt from the book, as most of Dean's arguments are lengthier and can't be contained within that limit, but I've selected a somewhat representative sample from a different part of the book than that which is highlighted in the review. The excerpt is here.