John W. Dean, “Conservatives Without Conscience”

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John W. Dean has done that hardest of things: speak the truth, even when it hurts.

Dean weaves together social science research, including the much derided findings of Bob Altemeyer’s study that Conservative personalities tend to be fear-based, recent studies by political science scholars of changes to the rules and institutional culture of the Executive and Congress, and classical studies of authoritarian behavior and psychology. The result is a disturbing concordance of theory, science, and current events pointing inexorably at the fact that the GOP is dragging us toward an authoritarian state – perhaps even to the brink of fascism.

One of the most convincing features of Dean’s book are the many lists of traits, atitudes, methods, and beliefs that characterize authoritarian modes of social behavior. Chillingly, so many of the predictive models sit four-square on what we have seen in recent years in the public forum. Reading them, you reaction will be icy chills in your veins.

Singled out for special criticism is the religious right’s role in GOP’s increasing authoritarianism. Dean characterizes many of the leaders of fundamentalist and evangelican Christians as the worst of the worst in terms of authoritarian personalities and leadership tactics. He characterizes the millions of politically active religious right as being nearly mindless authoritarian followers of the most agentic and uncritical kind.

The combination of a dogmatic, uncompromising relgious convictions and political authoritarian tendences is incompatible with a hereogenious, compromised-based political culture. If the authorians don’t learn to deal with the give and take of politics, they will soon either destroy our political institutions, or be driven from power.

Not all fundamentalist or evangelical Christians are Authoritarian, however. Consider Jimmy Carter, probably one of the most profoundly relgious of men to have occupied the Presidency, yet he continues to speak out against the use of dogma in politics, and for the separation between personal religious faith and public policy and politics.

Dean convincingly defines many of today’s top leaders of the GOP and Conservative Movement as Double High Authoritarians: people who display all the traits of both Social Domination leaders, and Right-Wing Authoritarian followers. These people are contrasted with traditional conservatives and come out as people who should not be trusted with government authority.

Strangely, Dean doesn’t think that Bush is such a Double High authoritarian. Dean finds Bush to be a typical Authoritarian follower, and a remarkably successful, though unorthoxed PR man. The real villian in the Executive in Dean’s view is Cheney, who dominates the Executive from his relatively obscure position. In Cheney, Dean finds all the worst traits of the Social Domination leader, and the Peter-Principle to boot. Dean argues that, far from being a competent and canny administrator, that Cheney is in reality a terrible incompetent who benefits of the Peter Principle and uses authoritarian tactics to keep the worst of his failures secret. In this, Dean echoes the idea that tyranny, secrecy, and incompetence go hand in hand; feeding upon and perpetuating one another.

Dean also examines the careers and behavior of figures such as Tom DeLay, Newt Gingrich, Bill Frist, Jack Abramoff and his life-long buddy Grover Norquest, in the context of the history of Congress and lobbying. He finds their public actions to be on a whole new scale of corruption and anti-democratic behavior. And their personal lives are often just a unprincipled and selfish as to belie their public personnae of models of moral rectitude; in short, they’re hypocrites of the first water.

Finally, Dean examines Karl Rove. Dean thinks that Rove is the most dangerous man in America because of his intimate knowledge of and demonstrated facility in using fear to manipulate the electorate. Rove is an Authorian follower, but an extraordinarily gifted one; the American Goebels.

Dean doesn’t offer any easy solutions for confronting the rising tide of Authoritarianism in American politics. Part of the solution is the learn how to resist appeals to fear in our political lives. That involves talking honestly and frequently about the reality of American Authoritarism. It also involves real conservatives distancing themselves from authoritarians, refusing to support them, and denouncing their radical (and certainly un-conserrvative) policies to fundamentally change American society and government.

If you follow social science to any degree, and if you keep up on current events, you won’t find much new in Dean’s book. But you will find it all in one place, presented in a very cogent and credible manner from a man who really is a Conservative with a conscience. If you are looking for a way to smack a family member out of their agentic state, this book might just do the trick.

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