For much of my life I have been trying to understand the conservative mind, though I long ago came to the conclusion that I would never succeed in this endeavor. However, yesterday, I finished reading a book by John Dean that gave me some insights into this question and I would like to share them.
You may recall that John Dean was Attorney to the President in the Nixon Administration, and when that administration attempted to have him shoulder the blame for the Watergate activities, John Dean became a most important witness for the Senate investigations into the Watergate scandal and other issues surrounding the Nixon Administration.
Surprisingly, a reading of his book, Conservatives Without Conscience, shows John Dean to still retain considerable respect for Nixon. Dean still thinks of himself as a conservative though he thinks the U.S. Government has now leaned too far to the right and needs a correction.
The book itself began as a joint effort between John Dean and Barry Goldwater. Barry Goldwater was the Republican candidate for President in 1964 who lost to Lyndon Johnson. At the time he was considered extreme by many, though by today's standards, Barry Goldwater would be considered pretty moderate.
The title for John Dean's book suggests that he thinks of it as a sequel to Barry Goldwater's famous earlier work, Conscience of a Conservative.
You can hear an informative interview with John Dean about his book
by Thom Hartmann. In conducting research for this book, John Dean became aware of research on what is known as an authoritarian personality. The motivation for this work on authoritarianism was to understand the psychology of the good Germans who fell under the sway of the Nazi movement.
In brief summary, there is a substantial (about 23%) minority of people with these authoritarian personalities in any society. They virtually always have a conservative political philosophy (not so surprising since the conservative view is that one should follow precident in preference to applying reasoning).
When there are followers, there must be leaders and this is the second kind of authoritarian personality that has been studied in only recent years. The most extreme of these are what John Dean refers to as double-highs; these are people who rank high both as leaders and as followers. He describes double-highs as people who are absolutely ruthless and without conscience; people who will do anything to take control. They value power for power's sake and for the sake of their own personal ambition.
I should, at this point, make clear that will I now start injecting my own thoughts rather than strictly following what can be found in Conservatives Without Conscience.
Double-highs are greatly prized in business and the military, often rising to the highest ranks. Double highs also find themselves in prominence today among the neocon movement. If you look up the term, neocon, you will find that this is a movement that was once made up of liberals, but now made up of conservatives and that the transition occurred in the 1980's.
This evolution of neocons from liberal to conservative has always puzzled me and John Dean's book has finally helped me to understand it. If you think of the neocons not as a political movement but as an association of ruthless power addicts, then it is easy to understand why they would have been liberals before 1980 and why they would have become conservatives after 1980. It had little or nothing to do with any political philosophy but rather with their ambition and consequent attraction to the center of power. As the center of power shifted from liberal toward conservative, so did the neocons.
A corollary to this is something we should be watchful for. When power shifts again from right to left, we should expect the double-highs to again migrate left and to try to take control of any progressive coalition.
A bit of history is worth remembering in this regard. Following WWII and up to the 1970's the Democratic party had two competing power centers. Although there was a liberal base, there was also the strong and powerful conservative force of the southern Democrats. Powerful senators and congressmen were elected over and over again by southern states and, due to the seniority system, these people wielded tremendous power in both the Senate and in the House. Probably many of these powerful Democrats would be classified as double-highs.
On the other hand, it is good to remember that the authoritarian personalities (the followers) tend so strongly to be conservative in their political philosophy. When the double-highs migrate to the left, there is good reason to think that they will find fewer and less eager followers.
I would like to end with a recommendation that people read and think about what John Dean has to say in Conservatives Without Conscience. It is very good food for thought, both for conservatives and for liberals and progressives.