The Fast Lane To Fascism:
A Review of John Dean's
"Conservatives Without Conscience"
By Bernard Weiner,Co-Editor
The Crisis Papers
August 1, 2006
"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
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
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
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
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
Dean keeps digging: What has led to the resurgence of fundamentalist
In America, he notes, fundamentalist/evangelical Christians had political
reasons for their renewed activism, including reacting strenuously 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.
Fundamentalism, you see, seems to provide a safe harbor, a simple
"quiet" way in the midst of all the world's ambiguity and
"noise," that helps in dealing with the frightening and
contradictory cacophony outside the religion. There is good and there is
evil, a right way and a wrong way, Revealed Truth and dangerous falsehood,
you're with us or with our enemies, that sort of simplistic understanding
of the world. Got Mitt Uns -- God is on our side, so
why should we compromise with or pay attention to those who do not believe
in The Truth?
But, says Dean, in addition to the doctrinal underpinnings, something in
the personality of many fundamentalist religious leaders, and their
followers, may be working even more strongly: a built-in tendency toward
He quotes from voluminous studies by social psychologist/researcher Bob
Altemeyer, who -- after examining the attitude of tens of thousands of
subjects in interviews and questionnaires -- concluded that
"acceptance of traditional religious beliefs appear to have more to
do with having a personality rich in authoritarian submission,
authoritarian aggression, and conventionalism, than with the beliefs per
LYING AS STANDARD MODUS OPERANDI
Dean says he writes as "a conservative who is deeply troubled by what
has become of a treasured philosophy. Conservatism has been co-opted by
authoritarians, a most dangerous type of political animal."
"[A]t heart," he writes, those in charge of the Republican party
"are tough, cold-blooded, ruthless ... tolerate no dissent, use
dissembling as their standard modus operandi, and have pushed their
governing authority beyond the law and Constitution ... [O]ur nation's
founders relied on reason, which is anathema for many of today's
conservatives. ... [They] cannot be trusted to exercise the powers of
Conservatives, Altemeyer found, often engaged in right-wing aggression not
only out of political belief but also "for the pure pleasure of it
... [They are] malicious, mean-spirited, and disrespectful of even the
basic codes of civility ... [A]uthoritarians have little if any conscience
when pursuing their causes, and reason gives way to expediency."
THE NEED FOR DOMINATION
Altemeyer and other social scientists who have done the ground-breaking
research on authoritarianism have also found that many political
conservatives, both leaders and followers, possess "a need to
Dean reminds us of the famous '60s experiment by Dr. Stanley Milgram where
college students readily inflicted electrical shocks (or what they thought
were such shocks) on supposed prisoners in their care because the
supervising scientist in a white coat told them to do so, despite the
prisoners' seeming writhing in pain. The experiment revealed in most of
the subjects a clear readiness to bow to the orders of authority figures.
Decades later, we saw photos and videotape of normal young U.S. soldiers
tormenting, humiliating and torturing prisoners in their care at Abu
Ghraib Prison in Iraq. The hard-wiring is there and switches on in optimal
According to Altemeyer's research, "authoritarian aggression is
fueled by fear and encouraged by remarkable self-righteousness, which
frees aggressive impulses. ... [Lying is] easy for right-wing
authoritarians to do because of their remarkable self-righteousness."
Not only do political conservatives tend to follow authority figures'
orders more often, Altemeyer's research revealed, but they are
"intolerant of criticism of their authorities, because they believe
the authority is unassailably correct." In short, their leaders do
not lie; but when they are found to have lied, they did so for good, godly
reasons. After all, the righteous end justifies all means.
Outbreaks of dangerous authoritarianism have occurred throughout our
nation's history, notes Dean, but the CheneyBush Administration has taken
social authoritarianism to the extreme -- with Dick Cheney, Newt Gingrich
and Tom DeLay as dominator poster-boys for the movement.
They may think of what they are doing as akin to playing political chess,
but, if so, it's a political game with extremely lethal consequences.
Unlike most other examples of previous authoritarianism in earlier U.S.
administrations, now when the leaders lie, a large number of people die.
Another such example would be what happened in Europe in the 1930s; see
Easy Slide Into Fascism: Germany in 1933."
Most everything in the Bush Administration is done for political reasons,
often to feed its rock-solid fundamentalist/evangelical base. Rove's
tested election strategy is built upon that base. By hook or by crook or
by fraud -- dropping hundreds of thousands of Dem voters off a state's
rolls, tying up oppositional phone lines, perhaps altering ballot tallies,
and so on -- he's able to claim one more vote than the opposition and
feels free then to assert that the GOP now has a "mandate" to
And, of course, the run-up to the election is orchestrated to the drumbeat
of constant fear and fright, against real or imagined enemies; these days,
the buzzworded scapegoats are "gays," "illegal
immigrants," "atheists," and that oldie-but-goodie
"terrorists." (When the Bush Administration "continues to
raise the threat of terrorism but refuses to implement even the minimum
measures recommended by the [9/11] commission," writes Dean, "it
is clear they are playing the politics of fear.")
WHAT HAPPENS IF GOP WINS IN NOVEMBER
What can America look forward to if the GOP holds onto the House and
Senate in November? For sure, we can anticipate the further destruction of
any opposition as the Republicans continue their drive for permanent
one-party rule. "Our goal is to inflict as much pain as
possible," said authoritarian GOP honcho Grover Norquist. "It is
not good enough to win; it has to be a painful and devastating defeat.
We're sending a message here."
In addition, we can anticipate continued packing of the appeals courts
with more jurists in the authoritarian mode, serious cracking down on
opposition websites and writers on the internet, the continuation of
corruption at the highest levels as lobbyists buy corporate access to the
writing of laws, and further movement toward the assumption of
"unimpaired executive authority," to use Cheney's spine-chilling
And, no doubt, we can expect more wars abroad (Iran? Syria? Venezuela?),
carried out with bullying, self-righteous certainty of victory -- which,
since these guys never learn, and are clueless and incompetent as well,
will backfire in America's face. Again. Chalk it up to greed, power-hunger
and the arrogance of empire. (Bush's unwavering support of Israel's
destruction of Lebanon is a proxy case in point.)
Is the situation hopeless in moving this country away from
authoritarianism, and restoring America to its great foundations, its
adherence to and respect for law? Dean concludes with this:
"Research, however, reveals there is a solid
majority of Americans who are not right-wing authoritarians, that there
are countless millions of liberals, moderates and conservatives with
conscience, people who shudder at the prospect of giving away our
hard-earned democratic principles, and who cherish our liberties. These
are individuals who question their leaders and their policies, and that
is as it should be.
"Democracy is not a spectator sport that can be simply observed. To
the contrary, it is difficult and demanding, and its very survival
depends on active participation. Take it for granted, and the
authoritarians, who have already taken control, will take American
democracy where no freedom-loving person would want it to go. But time
has run out, and the next two or three national election cycles will
define America in the twenty-first century, for better or worse."
Copyright 2006, by Bernard Weiner
Bernard Weiner, Ph.D. in government &
international relations, has taught at universities in California and
Washington, worked as a writer-editor with the San Francisco Chronicle for
nearly two decades, and currently co-edits The Crisis Papers (www.crisispapers.org).
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