A limited analysis

Where tyranny begins, liberty ends. The United States is careening down such a path, paved by the Republican Party, and this pains author John Dean, a longtime party member who was also President Nixon’s top lawyer during the Watergate crisis.

“My effort, fundamentally, is to understand them, to explain why they are happening, while placing them all in a larger context,” Dean writes in his new book, Conservatives Without Conscience. His description of Republican conservatism as a political philosophy is useful.

Early conservatives disliked the New Deal social programs begun in the 1930s. Then, big government was the enemy, something they expressed civilly. Now, party conservatives run an expanding federal government and reject civility. Negative thinking rules the conservative roost. Witness the bashing of liberals, typically Democrats, as the enemies of liberty. Such hostility to other viewpoints, Dean writes, defines conservatism as a closed, dictatorial style of politics.

For him, these authoritarian new conservatives betray the movement’s “old school,” as personified by the late Senator Barry Goldwater, R-Arizona. Dean admired Goldwater’s respectability. The senator, for example, had the integrity to not attack his opponents personally, according to Dean.

Such a quality partly defines the conscience of political conservatism that Dean prefers. This past practice stands in contrast to the belligerent extremism, i.e., name-calling, which many conservatives employ today.

However, it’s worth noting that Goldwater fueled a backlash of white racism against blacks by linking their nonviolent protests for civil rights to street crime in the 1960s. How did that show respectability? This somewhat weakens Dean’s argument that the extremism of today’s conservatives is something new.

Dean improves with a survey of research on people who appear to lack conscience, which he sees as one’s internal checks on rash behavior. With social scientist Bob Altemeyer, Dean breaks conservatives down into types. There are the leaders (social dominators, or “take-charge types”) and followers (right-wing authoritarians, or absolute and loyal devotees). And those with both traits? They are known as “double high authoritarians.” Altemeyer calls them “particularly scary.”

According to Dean, Senator Bill Frist, R-Tennessee, is a bully who pursues unilateral power. Karl Rove, President Bush’s top adviser, and indicted Republican Congressman Tom DeLay join Frist in pursuing victory by any means fair or foul, writes Dean. For them, the law is like a sports record, made to be broken.

Interestingly, Dean mentions Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, “mentor” to Vice President Dick Cheney, only once. Why, given both were part of the Reagan years? Rumsfeld has had no small part in the rise of a dictatorial executive branch that defines laws it disagrees with as unconstitutional. The torture of detainees in the global war on terror and the surveillance of ordinary Americans minus court-ordered warrants are but two examples.

“When the Bush/Cheney presidency adopted neoconservative policies and made them their own, they also became the policies subscribed to by their unquestioning authoritarian followers, the largest bloc of which is made up of Christian conservatives,” Dean writes. He performs a civic duty by fleshing out some of this little-known history.

In 1973, Paul Weyrich, an authoritarian conservative, founded the Heritage Foundation. Crucially, this wealthy think tank brought conservative Catholics and fundamentalist Protestants together and into GOP activism. Yet, Dean is mum on this turning point that helped Republicans transform millions of church-goers into political activists.

The conservative authoritarianism that Dean critiques did not pop out of thin air. Employer-government attacks on workers’ rights, plus tax breaks for the wealthy few, long have polarized our society. Meanwhile, the GOP has mobilized millions of victims of the conflict and actually turned them into the party’s non-secular electoral base. Dean, now registered as an independent, misses the roots of this political trend, which limits his analysis.