excerpts from the book
Conservatives Without Conscience
by John Dean
Penguin Books, 2006
Authoritarianism is not well understood and seldom discussed in
the context of American government and politics, yet it now constitutes
the prevailing thinking and behavior among conservatives.
Empirical studies reveal that authoritarians are frequently enemies
of freedom, antidemocratic, antiequality, highly prejudiced, mean-spirited,
power hungry, Machiavellian, and amoral. They are also often conservatives
Intellectuals who drifted from the far
left to the center to the right, carrying their flagship magazine,
Commentary, with them. They are mostly Jewish, and mostly New
York based. Neocons tend to be militant internationalists. They
publish their own inside the-Beltway weekly, The Weekly Standard.
Today's conservatives - especially social conservatives, as opposed
to intellectuals and the more thoughtful politicians - define
themselves by what they oppose, which is anything and everything
they perceive to be liberal. That category includes everyone from
Democrats to anyone with whom they disagree, and can, therefore,
automatically be labeled a liberal.
Antipathy to liberalism has been present from the outset of the
conservative movement but it only became a powerful unifying influence
in the early 1980s.
Sidney Blumenthal, Washington Post
Conservatism requires liberalism for its
meaning [for] without the enemy [of liberalism] to serve as nemesis
and model, conservative politics would lack its organizing principle.
Many conservatives are simply entertained by reading conservative
authors or hearing conservative talk-show hosts rant about liberals.
The exaggerated hostility also apparently satisfies a psychological
need for antagonism toward the out group, reinforces the self-esteem
of the conservative base, and increases solidarity within the
[Stanley] Milgram's classic experiments revealed that 65 percent
of seemingly ordinary people were willing to subject what they
believed to be protesting victims to painful, if not lethal, electric
shocks (450 volts of electricity). They did so simply because
they were instructed to by a scientist dressed in a gray lab coat
in the setting of a scientific laboratory. This apparent authority
figure ordered that the jolts of electricity be administered to
determine if the "learner" would memorize word pairings
faster if punished with increasingly painful electric shocks when
he failed to accomplish the task. Actually, this experiment was
designed to test not learning but rather the willingness of those
administering the electric shocks to obey the authority figure.
The subjects were not told of the ruse - that the "learner"
was only pretending to experience pain and, in fact, was not being
shocked - until the end of the experiment.
[Stanley] Milgram described conscience as our inner inhibitory
system - part nature, part nurture, and necessary to the survival
of our species.* Conscience checks the unfettered expression of
impulses. It is a self-regulating inhibitor that prevents us from
taking actions against our own kind. Because of conscience, Milgram
says, "most men, as civilians, will not hurt, maim, or kill
others in the normal course of the day." Conscience changes,
however, when the individual becomes part of a group, with the
individual's conscience often becoming subordinated to that of
the group, or to that of its leader In an organizational setting
few people assess directions given by a higher authority against
their own internal standards of moral judgment. Thus, "a
person who is usually decent and courteous [may act] with severity
against another person... conscience ... is diminished at the
point of entering the hierarchical structure." Those who
submit to an authoritarian order, and who adopt the conscience
of the authority figure that issues the order ... have become
an agent of the authority figure's conscience.
[Stanley] Milgram believed that Hannah Arendt's book Eichmann
in Jerusalem (1963) was correct in its analysis. She took issue
with the Israeli war crimes prosecutor's efforts to depict Eichmann
as a sadistic monster for his horrific role in exterminating Jews
during World War II. She ... described Eichmann as "an uninspired
bureaucrat who simply sat at his desk and did his job,"'
a compliant cog who had set aside his conscience. "Arendt's
conception of the banality of evil comes closer to the truth than
one might dare imagine," Milgram observed.
The lesson of [Stanley Milgram's] work was that ordinary people,
simply doing their jobs, without any particular hostility on their
part, can become agents in a terribly destructive process... [Stanley]
Milgram revealed that for a remarkable number of people, it is
very difficult to disobey authority figures, but quite easy for
them to set aside their conscience.
Linguistics expert George Lakoff reports in 'Moral Politics: How
Liberals and Conservatives Think' that the language and thinking
of contemporary conservatism is, essentially, authoritarian. The
conservative's worldview draws on an understanding of the family
that follows "a Strict Father model." (By way of comparison,
he noted, the liberal worldview draws on a very different ideal,
"the Nurturant Parent model.") Lakoff contends that
the organizing ideal of conservatism is the strict father who
stands up to evil and emerges victorious in a highly competitive
world. In the terms of this model, children are born bad and need
a strict father to teach them discipline through punishment.
'The Authoritarian Personality', a study undertaken at the University
of California Berkeley ... introduced the idea of the authoritarian
type" - people with seemingly conflicting elements in their
persona, since they are often both enlightened yet superstitious,
and proud to be individualists but live in constant fear of not
being like others, whose independence they are jealous of because
they themselves are inclined to submit blindly to power and authority.
Authoritarianism is consistently associated with right-wing but
not left-wing ideology.
social psychologist and researcher Robert Altermeyer of the University
of Manitoba in an article 'What Happens When Authoritarians Inherit
the Earth? - A Simulation'
Authoritarianism was conceptualized to
involve submission to established authorities who could be anyone.
But, it turns that people who have "conservative" leanings
tend to be more authoritarian than anyone else.
RIGHT-WING AUTHORITARIANS (RWA)
[Robert] Altermeyer characterizes right-wing
authoritarians (RWA) as "especially submissive to established
authority"; as showing "general aggressiveness"
toward others when such behavior "is perceived to be sanctioned"
by established authorities; and as highly compliant with "social
conventions" endorsed by society and established authorities.
All of these attitudes must be present in significant if varying
degrees if an individual is to fall within Altermeyer's well-honed
definition. Both men and women may score high on the RWA scale.
These three elements of the rightwing authoritarian personality,
while not elusive, still call for a little further explanation.
SUBMISSIVE TO AUTHORITY
By "submissive," Altermeyer
means these people accept almost without question the statements
and actions of established authorities, and they comply with such
instructions without further ado. 'Authorities" include parents
(throughout childhood), religious officials, government officials
(police, judges, legislators, heads of government), military superiors,
and, depending on the situation, other people like "bus drivers,
lifeguards, employers, psychology experimenters and countless
others." High-scoring right-wing authoritarians are intolerant
of criticism of their authorities, because they believe the authority
is unassailably correct. Rather than feeling vulnerable in the
presence of powerful authorities, they feel safer. For example,
they are not troubled by government surveillance of citizens because
they think only wrongdoers need to be concerned by such intrusions.
Still, their submission to authority is not blind or automatic;
these authoritarians believe there are proper and improper authorities
(good judges and bad judges, good presidents and bad presidents),
and their decision to submit is shaped by whether a particular
authority is compatible with their views.
AGGRESSIVE SUPPORT OF AUTHORITY
Authoritarian aggression, according to
Altermeyer, is "a predisposition to cause harm to" others
when such behavior is believed to be sanctioned by an authority.
This harm can be physical, psychological, financial, and social,
or "some other negative state which people would usually
avoid." 'When the public tolerates right-wing authoritarian
aggression, it too may be considered aggressive in its tacit approval
of such conduct. An aggressive predisposition does not always
result in aggressive action, however, since fear of retaliation
or even social pressure may prevent it. Authoritarians are inclined
to control the behavior of others, particularly children and criminals,
through punishment. They have little tolerance for leniency by
courts in "coddling" criminals. Targets of right-wing
authoritarian aggression are typically people perceived as being
unconventional, like homosexuals. Research finds that authoritarian
aggression is fueled by fear and encouraged by remarkable self-righteousness,
which frees aggressive impulses.
Right-wing authoritarians accept and follow
the traditional norms of society. In religious matters they tend
to be fundamentalist. Because authorities have already determined
what is right and wrong, they reject moral relativism. Religion
influences their attitudes toward sex other than for reproduction
it is considered sinful, if not perverse. They embrace the ideal
of the traditional family, with the woman serving as child rearer
and subservient wife. They are "straight and narrow"
in their dress and behavior, and believe themselves the country's
Altermeyer's data provides additional
information about the dispositions of right-wing authoritarians.
Here are a few examples that provide further perspective. These
have not been deliberately isolated as negative characteristics;
rather, they are traits that authoritarians believe to be positive.
* They travel in tight circles of like-minded
* Their thinking is more likely based
on what authorities have told them rather than on their own critical
judgment, which results in their beliefs being filled with inconsistencies.
* They harbor numerous double standards
* They are hostile toward so many minorities
they seem to be equal-opportunity bigots, yet they are generally
unaware of their prejudices.
* They see the world as a dangerous place,
with society teetering on the brink of self-destruction from evil
and violence, and when their fear conflates with their self-righteousness,
they appoint themselves guardians of public morality, or God's
* They think of themselves as far more
moral and upstanding than others-a self-deception aided by their
religiosity (many are "born again") and their ability
to "evaporate guilt" (such as by going to confession).
It is authoritarian followers who filled
churches across the United States on "Justice Sunday"
to lobby for right-wing judges in federal courts; who can be seen
on C-Span seated at dinner tables, after paying ten times the
cost of their meals, to listen to Bill Frist or Karl Rove give
a speech at the Federalist Society; who are the well-scrubbed
young people who join college Republican clubs, whose parents
or grandparents are delegates at GOP presidential conventions.
By and large these Americans have never been troubled by the execution
of a prisoner, and there has never been a war in which the United
States engaged that they did not support. If they work inside
the Beltway, you can recognize them by the American flag pins
on their suit lapels or dresses, and you can be relatively certain
they are carrying a copy of the U.S. Constitution in their pocket
or pocketbook. According to Bob Altermeyer,
Authoritarian followers, in all probability,
trusted President Bush's justifications for invading Iraq-when
all those who had been in Iraq searching for weapons of mass destruction
said there was no evidence they existed. The High RWAs were likely
the Americans who told pollsters they believed such weapons had
been found after the invasion, when none had been found. They
were probably the ones who accepted without pause the administration's
revised claim that the war had been necessary to remove Saddam
Hussein from power. Because of their high levels of dogmatism,
most of them will probably never realize that this war was unjustified,
an enormous error with horrendous costs. They will find someone
else to blame for the war's costs other than themselves and the
leaders they follow. Many of them would attack France, Massachusetts,
or the moon if the president said it was necessary "for freedom."
And authoritarian followers formed the rock core of the millions
who marched to the polls in November 2004, often at the instruction
of their church, and rejected George Bush.
Both right-wing authoritarians and social dominators can be accurately
described as conservatives without conscience. Needless to say,
conscience itself cannot be measured directly. But stated beliefs
and expressed behavior often reflect the workings of a conscience.
For example, social dominators freely admit on tests that measure
moral issues of right and wrong behavior that such matters are
irrelevant to them. That suggests little conscience, a fact which
is often corroborated by behavior.
Nothing shows lack of conscience better
than bold-faced lying.
If you ask rightwing authoritarians, they
will say they have very strong consciences indeed, which is one
of the reasons they are so good compared to others. But empirical
studies have shown that they are not as good as they believe themselves
to be when compared to others. When tested for cheating, right-wing
authoritarians, notwithstanding their protestation to the contrary,
did not prove themselves to be so
theologian Ronald J. Sider in 'The Scandal of the Evangelical
Whether the issue is divorce, materialism,
sexual promiscuity', racism, physical abuse in marriage, or neglect
of a biblical world view, the polling data point to widespread,
blatant disobedience of clear biblical moral demands on the part
of people who allegedly are evangelical, born-again Christians.
Right-wing authoritarians shed their guilt
very efficiently when they do something wrong. Typically they
turn to God for forgiveness, and as a result feel completely forgiven
afterwards. Catholics, for example, use confession. Fundamentalist
Protestants use a somewhat different mechanism. Many who are 'born-again'
believe that if you confess your sins and accept Jesus as your
personal savior you will go to heaven-no matter what else you
... When a great deal of misbehavior is
engaged in by born-again Christians it troubles their fundamentalist
consciences very little, for after all, they are the Saved. So
by using their religious beliefs effectively, right-wing authoritarians
have high moral standards in many regards, but pretty ineffective
... One of the things a conscience is
supposed to do is make us act better, but when you have a means
of eliminating guilt, there is not much incentive to clean up
your act. You can see how conscience gets short-circuited... Bad
behavior may produce guilt, but it is easily washed away. So then
more bad behavior can result, again, and again, each time getting
removed very easily through religion. There is a terrible closing
to this reality. The lack of guilt over things he has done in
the past can actually contribute to the self-righteousness of
the authoritarian. And this self-righteousness has proven, in
experiments, to be the main factor that unleashes the right-wing
authoritarian's aggressive impulses... I have called them 'God's
designated hitters.' We end up with the irony that the people
who think they are so very good end up doing so very much evil,
and, more remarkably, they are probably the last people in the
world who will ever realize the connection between the two.
The factor that makes rightwingers faster than most people to
attack others, and that seems to keep them living in an "attack
mode," is their remarkable self-righteousness. They are so
sure they are not only right, but holy and pure, that they are
bursting with indignation and a desire to smite down their enemies.
Social Dominators-Leaders - characteristics
o typically men
o opposes equality*
o desirous of personal power*
o intimidating and bullying
o faintly hedonistic
o cheats to win
o highly prejudiced (racist, sexist, homophobic)
o tells others what they want to hear
o takes advantage of "suckers"
o specializes in creating false images to sell self
o may or may not be religious (
o usually politically and economically conservative/Republican
Right-Wing Authoritarian-Followers - characteristics
o men and women
o submissive to authority*
o aggressive on behalf of authority
o highly religious
o moderate to little education
o trust untrustworthy authorities
o prejudiced (particularly against homosexuals, women, and followers
of religions other than their own)
o uncritical toward chosen authority
o inconsistent and contradictory
o prone to panic easily
o highly self-righteous
o strict disciplinarian
o severely punitive
o demands loyalty and returns it
o little self-awareness
o usually politically and economically conservative/Republican
Any government has an inherently authoritarian nature.
Benjamin Franklin - when asked what sort of government had been
created at the Constitutional Convention
A republic, if you can keep it.
Joseph de Maistre a French nobleman and political polemicist
A prisoner, a parricide, a man who has
committed sacrilege is tossed to [the hangman]: he seizes him,
stretches him, ties him to a horizontal cross, he raises his arm;
there is a horrible silence; there is no sound but that of bones
cracking under the bars, and the shrieks of the victim. He unties
him. He puts him on the wheel; the shattered limbs are entangled
in the spokes; the head hangs down; the hair stands up, and the
mouth gaping open like a furnace from time to time emits only
a few bloodstained words to beg for death. [The hangman] has finished.
His heart is beating, but it is with joy: he congratulates himself,
he says in his heart "Nobody quarters as well as I.".
. . Is he a man? Yes. God receives him in his shrines, and allows
him to pray. He is not a criminal. Nevertheless, no tongue dares
declare that he is virtuous, that he is an honest man, that he
is estimable. No moral praise seems appropriate for him, for everyone
else is assumed to have relations with human beings: he has none.
And yet all greatness, all power, all subordination rest on the
executioner. He is the terror and the bond of human association.
Remove this mysterious agent from the world, and in an instant
order yields to chaos: thrones fall, society disappears.'
political scientists Charles W. Dunn and J. David Woodard reported
in their study 'The Conservative Tradition in America'
Authoritarian conservatism begins with
basic conservative beliefs - order, distrust of change, belief
in traditional values - and branches in the direction of favoring
state power to protect these beliefs.
political scientists Charles W. Dunn and J. David Woodard reported
in their study 'The Conservative Tradition in America'
Traditional conservatives are more moderate
in their opposition. Traditional conservatives are much more likely
to accept some state power than are libertarians.
Neoconservatism first surfaced in the public during the Reagan
administration. More recently its interest in, and influence on,
American foreign policy has drawn a great deal of attention. One
of the more colorful (and accurate) descriptions of the typical
neoconservative comes from Philip Gold, who justifiably described
himself as having "impeccable conservative credentials and
long experience in the national security field," as well
as being "a grumpy old Marine (a former intelligence officer),
who has grown infuriated with and appalled by the conservative
embrace of disaster" served up by neoconservatives. Gold,
a former Georgetown University professor, described neoconservative
foreign policy wonks as "a new aristocracy of aggression
that combines 19th-century Prussian pigheadedness with a most
un-Prussian inability to read a man or a ledger book, and a near
total lack of military-let alone combat-experience. Ask these
people to show you their wounds and they'll probably wave a Washington
Post editorial at you.
Christian Science Monitor
[Neoconservatives are] mostly liberal
Jewish intellectuals who became disenchanted with the left in
the 1960s and 1970s. By the 1980s they had become Republicans,
having found a home for their aggressive policies in the Reagan
Christian Science Monitor
What distinguishes neoconservatives from
other conservatives is their desire for militarily imposed nation-building.
They believe the United States should use its unrivaled power
- forcefully if necessary - to promote its values around he world.
Neoconservatives do not trust multilateral institutions to keep
world peace; rather they believe the United States must do it.
An American empire is a perfectly plausible scenario for neoconservatives;
containment is a policy they believe is outmoded. Neoconservatives
view Israel as a key outpost of democracy in a region ruled by
despots. They want to transform the Middle East with democracy,
starting with Iraq
[J. Edgar Hoover, the first director of the FBI], who held his
post for almost a half century, protected the nation's "internal
security" from mobsters, Nazis, communists, hippies, and
antiwar protesters. He intimidated (and blackmailed) members of
Congress and presidents (about whom he gathered information);
and he helped foster McCarthyism by feeding often dubious information
to the maniacal red-hunting senator. Hoover influenced the Supreme
Court by using background investigations to disparage potential
nominees he did not like and to promote those he did. He also
aided Nixon's efforts to remove Justice Abe Fortas from the Court,
and hoped to do the same (but failed) with Justice William O.
Douglas. Hoover trained his FBI agents in the black arts of burglary
and other surreptitious skills, and had them employed at his whim.
He was a racist who sought to disable the civil rights movement;
he refused to hire black FBI agents; and he tried to get Martin
Luther King, Jr., to commit suicide. He rigged the Warren Commission
investigation in a manner that still colors the nation's understanding
of President Kennedy's assassination. How many innocent people
were framed by Hoover's FBI - a prototype of authoritarian government
- will never be known.
Conservative historian Paul Johnson describing McCarthyism
When the hysterical pressure on the American
people to conform came from the right of the political spectrum,
and when the witch hunt was organized by conservative elements.
Fundamentalist movements are led by authoritarian
males who consider themselves to be superior to others and, within
religious groups, have an overwhelming commitment to subjugate
women and to dominate their fellow believers.
Jimmy Carter summarized the characteristics of fundamentalism
as "rigidity, domination, and exclusion".
It is human nature to be both selective
and subjective in deriving the most convenient meaning by careful
choices from the biblical verses.
Christian conservatives tend to emanate from strict religious
backgrounds, and often prevent their children from being exposed
to broader and different views by sending them to schools with
like-thinking children, or by home schooling them. This, in turn,
results in an authoritarian outlook that remains strong during
adolescence - the period when authoritarian personalities are
formed and then taken into adult life.
Christian conservatives' primary tool in reinforcing authoritarianism
is preaching fear.
Pat Robertson in a fundraising letter
The feminist agenda is not about equal
rights for women. It is about a socialist, anti-family political
movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their
children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism, and become
The woman should be in submission to the
Christian conservatives ... want to control the right of women
to have abortions; to ban all forms of gay marriage; to prevent
the teaching of safe sex in schools; to encourage home schooling;
to ban the use of contraceptives; to halt stem cell research with
human embryos; to / stop the teaching of evolution and/or to start
the teaching of intelligent design; to bring God into the public
square and eliminate the separation of church and state; to overturn
the legality of living wills; to control the sexual content of
cable and network television, radio, and the Internet; and to
eliminate an "activist" judiciary that limits or impinges
on their agenda, by placing God-fearing judges on the bench who
will promote their sincerely held beliefs.
By constitutional design the federal judiciary is authoritarian,
with lower court judges bound to follow higher court rulings.
Thus, any five conservatives on the Supreme Court can make the
law of the land, because all lower federal judges are bound by
Eighteen months after winning his seat in Congress, [Newt Gingrich]
who campaigned on keeping his family united asked for a divorce.
[His wife] Jackie, who was in the hospital recovering from a second
cancer operation, was confronted by her husband carrying a yellow
legal pad filled with a list of his wishes regarding how the divorce
should be handled. He wanted her to sign it, then and there, even
though she was still groggy from surgery. When Gingrich abandoned
his family he left them near destitute.
Mary Kahn, a reporter who covered [Newt] Gingrich
Newt [Gingrich] uses people and then discards
them as useless. He's like a leech. He really is a man with no
conscience. He just doesn't seem to care who he hurts or why.
L. H. Carter, once a close friend and adviser to Newt Gingrich
The important thing you have to understand
about Newt Gingrich is that he is amoral. There isn't any right
or wrong, there isn't any conservative or liberal. There's only
what will work best for Newt Gingrich. He's probably one of the
most dangerous people for the future of this country that you
can possibly imagine.
Senate majority leader Mike Mansfield, a mild-mannered Montana
Democrat, developed a system to preserve the Senate's tradition
of unlimited debate without tying the Senate into procedural gridlock.
Mansfield in effect introduced the modern filibuster.
For decades before the advent of Mansfield's
system in order to conduct a filibuster a senator had to be recognized
by the presiding officer and then had to maintain the floor by
talking. Because one man (or woman) can talk for only so long
without sitting, eating, sleeping, or addressing other human necessities,
the senator running it was permitted to yield to a colleague to
continue it, thus operating like a tag team. Groups of senators
would agree in advance to relieve one another to prevent loss
of the floor and to make it possible to continue round-the-clock.
They would sleep on sofas in the Senate cloakroom; some even wore
a device known to long-distance bus drivers as a motorman's pal,
enabling them to relieve themselves without leaving the Senate
floor. Thus, whenever there was a filibuster, all other Senate
business came to a halt until they either got the unwanted proposal
removed from the Senate's agenda or a cloture vote ended it.
Mansfield's proposal changed all this.
The Senate, by long tradition a highly collegial body, does most
all of its business, of necessity, by unanimous consent. Under
Mansfield's "two-track" system, the Senate agreed, by
unanimous consent, to spend its mornings on the matter being filibustered,
and afternoons on other business. Professors Catherine Fisk and
Erwin Chemerinsky pointed out in a study that this system worked
for everyone. On the one hand, the two-track system strengthened
the ability of the majority to withstand a filibuster by enabling
it to conduct other business. On the other hand, it made it easier
for the minority, which no longer had to hold the floor continuously
to prevent something less than a supermajority from cutting it
off. In time, the mere prospect of a filibuster became enough
to block consideration of a given matter. Based on successive
changes of the Senate rules, the supermajority needed for a cloture
vote was reduced to a vote by sixty senators. Thus, when a senator
informs the leadership of plans to filibuster-and the leadership
knows that he or she has the support of at least sixty senators
and, therefore, the ability to invoke cloture and override the
threatened filibuster-the matter will not even go to the floor
for a vote. The modern filibuster has therefore become silent,
since its mere threat results in stopping a debate in its tracks.
Probably about 20 to 25 percent of the
adult American population is so right-wing authoritarian, so scared,
so self-righteous, so ill-informed, and so dogmatic that nothing
you can say or do will change their minds. They would march America
into a dictatorship and probably feel that things had improved
as a result.
Right-wing authoritarian followers are
much more active than the rest of the country. They have the mentality
of 'old-time religion' on a crusade, and they generously give
money, time and effort to the cause. They proselytize; they lick
stamps; they put pressure on loved ones; and they revel in being
loyal to a cohesive group of like thinkers. And they are so submissive
to their leaders that they will believe and do virtually anything
they are told.
Glenn Greenwald commenting on John Dean's book 'Conservatives
Without Conscience' - Firedog Lake Salon (www.firedoglake.com)
What Bush followers crave more than anything
else is submission to a powerful authority as a means of alleviating
their fears of ambiguity, certainty and complexity... the characteristic
which defines the Bush movement, the glue which binds it together
and enables and fuels all of the abuses, is the vicious, limitless
methods used to attack and demonize the "Enemy," which
encompasses anyone-foreign or domestic-threatening to their movement.
What defines and motivates this movement are not any political
ideas or strategic objectives, but instead, it is the bloodthirsty,
ritualistic attacks on the Enemy du jour - the Terrorist, the
Communist, the Illegal Immigrant, the Secularist, and most of
all, the "Liberal.