"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 strenously 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.