Conservatives Without Conscience

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The Hard Right


NYT Published: July 30, 2006

 En route to getting shellacked by historic proportions in the 1964 presidential race, the Republican challenger, Senator Barry Goldwater, suffered through a smear job every bit as oversize and ugly as Lyndon B. Johnson’s gallbladder scar. Not the infamous “daisy ad” circulated by the Johnson campaign, in which a young girl innocently pulled the petals from a flower until a mushroom cloud filled the frame. While setting a new standard for negative campaigning, that TV commercial was at least rooted in Goldwater’s loose talk about using “low yield” atomic bombs in the escalating Vietnam War.

The truly low blow came in the pages of Fact magazine, which claimed to have asked some 12,000 psychiatrists whether Goldwater was “psychologically fit to serve as president of the United States.” Among the more than 1,800 replies were long-distance diagnoses pronouncing the challenger a “dangerous lunatic” and a “compensated schizophrenic” similar to Hitler and Stalin. The year after the election, Goldwater sued in federal court for defamation of character and won $75,000 in punitive damages.

The ghost of Barry Goldwater hovers over “Conservatives Without Conscience,” the new study of “authoritarian” Republicans by the Watergate-era White House counsel John W. Dean. The book, whose title is a play on the senator’s 1960 polemic, “The Conscience of a Conservative,” was conceived as a collaboration between Goldwater and the Nixon administration’s most famous heretic. Dean shared the senator’s dislike of the “so-called social conservatives” who have risen to prominence within Republican ranks over the past several decades, and the pair planned a book for which they would talk “with people like Chuck Colson, Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell” and “attempt to understand their strident and intolerant politics.”

The project was cut short by Goldwater’s death in 1998, but Dean remained dedicated to unmasking what he sees as the new and dangerous breed of “tough, coldblooded, ruthless authoritarians” who have “co-opted” conservatism. For Dean, who sounded similar notes in “Worse Than Watergate: The Secret Presidency of George W. Bush” (2004), the president, Vice President Dick Cheney, the disgraced former House majority leader Tom DeLay, the cashiered speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, the felonious lobbyist Jack Abramoff and many others are not simply misguided or repugnant ideologues, relentlessly pushing an agenda at odds with Dean’s own (he variously describes himself as a centrist, a registered independent and “a ‘Goldwater conservative’ on many issues”); they are also rainmakers uniquely deranged by their lust for power, their limited ability “to see the world from any point of view other than their own” and their willingness to submit to authority.

The book draws heavily on the work of the social psychologist Bob Altemeyer, the creator of a scale for measuring “right-wing authoritarian” (R.W.A.) tendencies. Dean writes that Altemeyer is “not given to hyperbole in his scholarly work,” yet quotes him as saying that many “High R.W.A.’s” would “attack France, Massachusetts or the moon if the president said it was necessary ‘for freedom.’ ” Altemeyer says it’s “a scientifically established fact” that political, religious and economic conservatives are High R.W.A.’s, and Dean concludes that our government “is run by an array of authoritarian personalities” who are “dominating, opposed to equality, desirous of personal power, amoral, intimidating . . . vengeful, pitiless, exploitive, manipulative, dishonest, cheaters, prejudiced, meanspirited, militant, nationalistic and two-faced.” The estimated 20 to 25 percent of High R.W.A.’s among us, he warns, “will take American democracy where no freedom-loving person would want it to go.”

With Ahab-like monomania, Dean discovers that every objectionable conservative Republican action — from “taking America to war in Iraq on false pretenses” to Dick Cheney’s obscene outburst at Senator Patrick Leahy to harsh right-wing criticism of the nomination of Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court — reflects triumphant authoritarianism. For those of us with little or nothing good to say about the Bush administration, the Republican Party or conservatives in general, Dean’s book is ideological comfort food, providing not only tasty anecdotes about abuse of power but a rationale for dismissing political opponents out of hand. Did you know, for instance, that Senator Bill Frist has confessed to dishonestly procuring cats for experiments during his medical school days, writing in his autobiography, “I was totally schizoid about the entire matter”?

But “Conservatives Without Conscience” does little to advance a true understanding of contemporary politics, conservative or otherwise. Dean’s schema doesn’t go far in explaining, for example, the huge increases in non-defense discretionary and entitlement spending under President Bush and a conservative Congress. Alas, even the distortions and exaggerations used to build the case for war in Iraq are hardly unprecedented. (Remember the Maine? And the Gulf of Tonkin?) What Dean sees as dark new developments read far more like politics — and politicians — as usual.

Just as important, Dean’s book calls to mind nothing so much as the scurrilous treatment of Barry Goldwater back in the 1964 campaign. Yeah, yeah, politics ain’t beanbag and all that. But our political discourse is rancorous enough without attempting to psychologize our adversaries out of decent debate. When Ronald Reagan nominated Sandra Day O’Connor to the Supreme Court, the Rev. Jerry Falwell said every good Christian should oppose her selection. Goldwater, rising to the defense of a fellow Arizonan, responded that “every good Christian ought to kick Falwell’s ass.”

If the politician nicknamed Mr. Conservative — to whom Dean’s book is dedicated — were to revisit today’s political scene, he might find another target at which to swing his leg.

Nick Gillespie is the editor in chief of Reason magazine and the editor of “Choice: The Best of Reason.”