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Book Review: Conservatives Without Conscience, by John W. Dean

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Message Lynne Glasner
John Dean is making a comeback, but not as a Watergate player/whistleblower - take your pick depending on your knowledge and recollection of events from that dark political period. In his new, provocative book, Conservatives Without Conscience, Dean provides a watershed moment: We are on the cusp of being taken over by authoritarianism wrapped in a blanket of pseudo-conservative ideology. Unless we the public recognize it and counter it within the next decade or so, the US may be shocked to find itself among the world's dictatorial regimes.

A few months ago, I ran across an article on the internet written by Dean. His perspective about current political events gave me pause. I knew that he had written a book a couple of years ago in which he negatively compared Bush & Co. to Nixon, but beyond that, his was not a voice I had heard much in today's noisy spectrum of political discourse. Nevertheless, this article revealed thinking that was more in keeping with what might be considered "progressive" or even "liberal" perspectives. This was not your typical conservative bloviating on the internet. I continued to read some of his columns, which were sometimes picked up or linked from traditionally liberal websites and for a reality check, I occasionally scanned the website where he and several other attorneys appear as regular columnists (http://writ.news.findlaw.com/dean/). I assumed that Dean had undergone some kind of epiphany. This wasn't the same Dean I associated with Watergate. In my memory, Dean was loosely lumped together with the other Watergate players of that era. While some of Dean's former colleagues, like Chuck Colson and Gordon Liddy, have remained in the public eye, strident in their reconstructionist ideology, Dean had been most notable by his absence from the political scene.

But Conservatives Without Conscience is not about John Dean or Watergate; it is about an attempt to understand how the conservative movement evolved to its place today, the different factions that call themselves conservative, and an understanding of the thinking behind both the leaders and followers of such policy. After having read the book, I can report that it is not that Dean has changed his political outlook so much as that the definition of conservative has moved to such extremes that Dean now sees himself as left of center. Apparently, the term conservative has been fixed around contemporary conservative hegemony. Dean uses this book to object.

In a thoughtful and incisive analysis, Dean explains the conservative movement in all its many layers and permutations as well as its history, mostly since WWII. Dean was (and still is) a fan of the Barry Goldwater brand of conservatism. He knew the late senator quite well and respected both his ideas and his integrity. It is Dean's belief that the garden varieties of conservatism as they exist on the current political landscape have very little to do with the kind of conservatism to which he subscribes. Goldwater warned Dean that the Republicans were doomed if they continued to allow the right wing to take over the party, selling their souls to get elected. In another kind of epiphany, I had to let go of my stereotypical image of Goldwater, which stemmed from a collective recall of the famous Johnson campaign ads that painted Goldwater as a madman willing to blow up the world to save it. Apparently I was wrong. We have come full circle, for it was never Goldwater who advocated that policy; rather, it is the contemporary conservatives in power who are the madmen willing to blow up the world.

Dean laments the loss of the core conservative principles that have largely been overrun by the political right. From neocons to theocons, these groups all coalesce around a common enemy: liberalism. Dean points out not just their internal inconsistencies and intellectual dishonesty, but also the common thread of authoritarianism that runs through them. This is not a characterization that Dean takes lightly and it is one that stands apart from the brand of "kinder, gentler" conservatism that represented the Goldwater/Reagan ideology and its cousins.

Dean takes the contemporary conservative movement head on and puts it under a microscope. Once stripped to the basic authoritarian personality, he further divides conservatives into two basic groups: those who have a conscience and those who do not. This is not an insignificant distinction. It turns out that most of the precepts that fall into the category of "conservatives with a conscience" are ones that are most often associated with liberals and progressives, and in some cases libertarians. For example, the notion that "the national government should be limited" is usually thought of as a libertarian concept, but it's the kind of issue that used to engender civil discourse among people holding diverse views about the body politic. The point is that it's debatable. It's a question of degree and of political-philosophical premise and it would be quibbling over a detail in this context in light of the other precepts; for example, "reject government secrecy and seek as much transparency as possible" or "the separation of powers in government [must] be maintained, along with checks and balances in all areas." These are the kinds of foundational beliefs that are the heart of a functioning democratic system and are shared by most Americans. It is why our government has remained stable, vacillating within the parameters of these core ideas about government.

Dean stakes out his territory and backs up his claims. He covers a lot of ground in a relatively short book, from the politics of dirty tricks to a philosophical analysis of authoritarianism. In a copiously well-documented narrative, Dean explains that current conservative policy has regressed to authoritarian thinking characterized by a lack of conscience. Those who make and influence the policies of the Bush Administration share many of Nixon's personality traits and his character (or lack thereof). "Nixon for all his faults, had more of a conscience than Bush and Cheney," Dean tells us (p. 183). But no one on the fairly extensive list of the Republican shysters escapes notice in their quest toward one party rule: DeLay, Boehner, Gingrich, K Street, Abramoff, Frist, Cheney (the voice of Bush), to name a few. Having been one of the major players in the Nixon White House gives Dean the advantage of both inside knowledge and hindsight. This time, Dean is in the audience as he watches the drama unfold on the US stage, and he is fearful of the de'nouement. As he stated in his previous book of the same title, this drama is worse than Watergate.

Dean observes how the contemporary conservatives use the politics of fear much like totalitarian governments and dictatorships, commenting that Nixon was the only other president who used fear to lead the public. "Fearmongering has serious political consequences," he chillingly tells us (p. 178). It prevents the pubic from having a real dialogue on policy. Fear clouds reason, but the media knows that it sells, and the Republicans know that it wins elections.

In undertaking the analysis that is this book, Dean asks the ultimate question: Why? What is it about contemporary conservative thinking (or nonthinking in many cases) that makes people subscribe to authoritarian claims? Why do people in general succumb to this kind of ideology? To address these questions, Dean looked toward social science and social psychology and found himself immersed in research and data that provided answers that made sense. Research by Stanley Milgram and more recently Bob Altemeyer harkens back to themes put forth by Hannah Arendt and her ideas about the "banality of evil." Dean discusses these major social science theories and aptly applies them to the current crop of conservatives who dominant US politics. None of the theories suffice independently to understand the phenomena, but taken together they go a long way toward explaining how a few dominant personalities have been able to radicalize and co-opt the traditional conservative philosophy without too much protest from within their own ranks. Until now. Dean's may not be the only voice rumbling from more traditional conservatives, but it is clearly the loudest and the most cogent. Others have mostly remained on the sidelines without being cheerleaders.

In the making of an authoritarian, Dean provides detailed profiles of the specific personality traits of both the leaders and followers. He then completes his analysis by matching the personality traits in the authoritarian conservative profile to those in power. And yes, Dean names names to illustrate why we should be worried. "Bush and Cheney have given authoritarianism a new legitimacy in Washington, and it is taking us where we should not want to go," he explains (p. xxxvii). The Bush Administration is dramatically changing both politics and procedures, and Dean sounds the alarm. But it would be a mistake to characterize the book as a diatribe against the Republican players who have corrupted the system, though many are given honorable mention and are duly excoriated. The message is that without major push back, the shoes of these conservatives without conscience will surely be filled by others of the same ilk, however they label their ideology.

Although Dean points out the hypocrisy of those who call themselves conservatives, he steers away from getting involved in a partisan debate about Democratic vs. Republican issues. Rather, the focus is on how the contemporary conservative movement has co-opted the Republican Party and traditional conservatism. Democrats have merely become part of the group of silent lambs, watching the Republicans rig the system to assure themselves of a permanent majority. The fact that someone from the Nixon Administration sees the Republican tactics as an attempt to rig the system should be a wake-up call for a dormant public that is a new silent majority.

We don't have to call ourselves conservatives to agree with Dean's perspective; indeed his viewpoint is in tune with what many on the left have been saying for a number of years but were branded by the new right as "liberals" who were unpatriotic, communists, paranoid, fascists, et al., for doing so. Dean's voice should be heard as a calling card for those traditional conservatives (i.e., those with a conscience) whose values have been hijacked by the Bush/Cheney White House. Dean would like this book to raise both the consciousness and conscience of those conservatives and moderate Republicans and Democrats who have been both acquiescent and silent in the face of bald-faced lies, corruption, and a tilt toward tyranny. We are all stakeholders. Daniel Ellsberg, famed for his leak of the Pentagon Papers in the Watergate era, called for "patriotic whistleblowing'' from those on the inside. "We need to delegitimize silence that costs lives," he said (AP, 7/12/04) in an attempt to rally a counter to what he also perceives as a dangerous Administration.

What makes Dean's voice most significant is that his cry is not coming from someone who can be dismissed as a "left-wing tree-hugger." Dean echoes Ellsberg's sentiments about the need for a public will to counter the authoritarian conservatives in our midst. Will Dean's warning be heeded in time to pull the plug on a government that has run amok, overrun by extremists while the public ignores the signs? This is an important book and needs to be read by people across the political spectrum. Caveat lector. It is only when the public stands up that these authoritarian conservatives will stand down.

©Lynne Glasner, 2006
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Lynne Glasner is a freelance writer/editor based in New York City. She has edited numerous books, fiction and nonfiction, many on political subjects. Her essays have appeared in Commondreams, MediaChannel.org, and Huffington Post as well as OpEd (more...)
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