Book Review: Conservatives without Conscience John W. Dean; Penguin Group; 186 pages; $25.95.
Given the opportunity to correct President Bush’s political blunder wherein he stated that “this nation is at war with Islamic fascists, John Dean, author of best-selling Worse than Watergate, might suggest that the biggest threat facing the nation is American fascism, not so-called Islamic fascism. In Conservatives without Conscience, the author steps shy of an outright declaration of American fascism – defined by Oxford as “any form of right-wing authoritarianism – but the inference is clear. Consuming the country at a frightening pace and prevailing upon all branches of U.S. government, the book catalogues right-wing authoritarian regime’s remarkable ascendancy. “Are we on the road to fascism? the author asks. According to Oxford, we’re already there.
Dean’s damning diatribe begins with an overview of how American conservatives think – an oft-covered topic in nonfiction. What characterizes the rest of the Dean’s work is a vivid and telling examination of the genesis, the spread, the institutionalization and the perpetuation of right-wing authoritarianism.
While fraught with partisan shots (Dean is glaringly pro-liberal) and straying from legitimate research to vilify the individuals responsible for fueling American right-wing authoritarianism, Dean offers a unique, quasi-biological understanding of America’s fascist movement. Peruse past the preface, which is used to heal old Watergate wounds, and the reader is left with a profound sense of awe at the growing size and strength of American right-wing authoritarianism or as Oxford would put it, American fascism.
The Birth of American Authoritarianism
Are Americans born fascists? According to the author, psychological factors such as “fear, intolerance of ambiguity, need for certainty or structure in life, and an overreaction to threats are all indicators of fertile ground for budding conservatives. New York University professor John T. Jost corroborates these hypotheses in a report titled “Political Conservatism as Motivated Cognition and substantiates, through quantitative analysis, that people orient towards conservatism because of their “heightened psychological need to manage uncertainty or threat . This must give liberals pause, for many conspiracy-theory-thinking liberals would like to completely dismiss American conservatism as a ruthless, power-hungry movement. Understanding the biological underpinnings, however, might equip liberals with both compassion and a compass for a more effective counter-response.
The Spread of American Authoritarianism
Right-wing authoritarianism continues to puzzle liberals, leading to ineffectual, reactionary campaigns by the left. One example where liberals miss the mark: questioning the morality of Christian conservative attacks on marginalized populations. Liberals, who tend at least in rhetoric to embrace marginalized populations, vehemently assail conservatives (especially Christian conservatives) for their seemingly discriminatory policies, whether it is their Christian angst directed towards homosexuals, minorities, teen pregnancies, or Muslims. Why is conservative policy, liberals ponder, so inconsistent with Christian teachings that encourage followers to “love thy neighbor as thyself ? According to Dean, the liberal tack is misguided again.
The author suggests that two survival mechanisms explain apparent Christian incongruity: 1) Individual conscience, described as the “inner inhibitory system that is “necessary to the survival of our species , gets sidelined and even ignored when commanded to obedience by an authority figure, and 2) The creation of the “Other , in this case the liberal, provides an essential unification mechanism that conservative leaders utilize to rally individuals under one tent. Supported by research, the book illuminates how conservative authoritarian leadership circumvents conscience-related obstacles and fosters a demonstrable “other as mechanisms for survival – a tactic that, when successful, is indicative of a frightened, insecure population. Liberals concerned about escalating authoritarianism, therefore, should not rely on saber-rattling (as the Democratic National Committee is known to do), for it will only intensify survivalist behavior among conservatives.
The Institutionalization of American Authoritarianism
The strength of the book lies in the last chapter where Dean outlines how right-wing authoritarianism is being implemented in America’s capital. Dean claims, and rightly so, that authoritarianism now characterizes all three branches of U.S. government-legislative, executive and judiciary.
Authoritarian control of the legislative branch appears the most egregious. “Emergency measures, bills that offer legislators often less than 30 minutes to review content, are now passed over 57 percent of the time. The Republican-controlled House frequently prohibits amendments to major bills. The Republican-controlled Senate prohibits Democrats from participating in conference committees (committees organized to settle differences between House and Senate bill versions) and then proceeds to send a non-amendable bill written in committee, often exceeding a thousand pages, to each body for a quick up-or-down vote. Dean describes this inundation of authoritarianism in America’s capital as the “increasingly flagrant erosion of once deliberative practices . The judiciary and executive branches of government are no less inundated by the right-wing authoritarian agenda. On the judiciary front, according to Dean, “today’s Supreme Court is more conservative than any since before the New Deal and “lower federal courts are more conservative than they have ever been. On the executive front, Vice President Cheney, the quintessential authoritarian dominator, believes that “the president needs to have unimpaired executive authority and is enjoying unfettered success in achieving this. The President’s imposition of blank secrecy on the executive branch, creation of policies that detain enemy combatants with no due process, and removal of restraints on the National Security Agency from intelligence gathering on Americans are all examples of how authoritarianism has infiltrated the executive branch.
The Perpetuation of American Authoritarianism
Why has authoritarianism been so successful in taking over the U.S. government? Because, largely speaking, Americans supported it. The events of 9-11 sparked fear in the heart of many Americans and it is this fear that authoritarianism manipulates. Dean’s argument comes full circle here. Opening the book with descriptions of conservative proclivity, visible in an individual’s propensity for fear and insecurity, Dean highlights how authoritarian rulers – knowing that the quality of fear makes for ripe conservative recruits – intentionally propagate more fear to ensure authoritarianism’s long-lasting reign. Additionally, the creation of the “other is essential in this quest, invoking fear of the “other and the “other’s radical, extremist, fundamentalist, or fascist agenda. The irony, of course, is that in executing this agenda, the fear-mongering authoritarian begins to look, and act, like a fascist.
According to Dean, the politics of fear, orchestrated by Bush and Cheney, is unprecedented. No President before him – Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush I, or Clinton – used fear so pervasively and powerfully. In response, other conservatives, e.g. realists, libertarians, or economic conservatives, are starting to revolt against Bush’s right-wing authoritarian agenda. It is these conservatives, not the liberals, who will have the most impact on Bush and the highest probability of redirecting this right-wing authoritarian agenda. The liberal left will, as long as they react as Dean does in this book with equally acerbic scare tactics, only further cultivate the soil on which authoritarianism will take
root. What this book fails to proffer is a way out. Dean’s diatribe is primarily an attack on right-wing authoritarianism and offers no plan for an American alternative. In countering American fascism, Dean and the liberals continue to error in two ways: 1) by succumbing to phraseology that either scares Americans or scares conservatives they only increase the number of potential authoritarian recruits, and 2) by failing to identify the underlying psychological factors motivating individuals to join right-wing authoritarianism, i.e. fear and insecurity, they remain out of synch with the American psyche. Unknowingly, what Dean nailed precisely was his analysis that America is headed towards fascism. To use a Merriam-Webster definition of fascism, America is indeed becoming a “centralized autocratic government headed by a dictatorial leader that “exalts nation and often race above the individual and that exercises “forcible suppression of opposition. The irony in the President’s war against so-called Islamic fascism – a war used to fear-monger among American publics and cultivate rich soil for authoritarian recruitment – is that America is the real party guilty of fascism, not Islam. And it is American fascism with which we are at war.
Michael Shank is a PhD student at George Mason University’s Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution. He wrote this commentary for The Daily Star Egypt.