When John Dean announced his new book, Conservatives Without Conscience, on the TV news program Countdown with Keith Olbermann Monday night (transcript), I experienced A Big Jell: a sense of everything coming together to make conservative behavior comprehensible*.
Thesis. Dean’s thesis (as presented in the book’s preface excerpt) is that modern conservative behavior is explained by “the growing presence of conservative authoritarianism”:
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. Regrettably, empirical studies reveal, however, that authoritarians are frequently enemies of freedom, antidemocratic, antiequality, highly prejudiced, mean-spirited, power hungry, Machiavellian, and amoral.
Resonance. This finding resonates with Dean as he assesses its role in Watergate, about which he has unique historical perspective: “authoritarian thinking was the principal force behind almost everything that went wrong with Nixon’s presidency.”
This finding resonates with me because, as much as I’d like to hem and haw that conservatism correlates with authoritarianism but isn’t defined by it, I can’t think of a single hardline conservative person I know who isn’t authoritarian in outlook and behavior.
OMG. It’s not an insult to identify authoritarian thinking in someone, just a hard-to-miss observation: anyone’s behavior reveals whether he or she “favors unquestioning obedience to authority,” or else says “Hell, no” to the unquestioning part, or else is in an OMG transition from one point of view to the other.
(My earlier post, Why I became a liberal Christian, briefly recounts my own OMG transition from a conservative worldview to my current one.)
These days I swing anti-authoritarian. As a yute, I was extraordinarily compliant. But as a grownup, I think this is a vital part of being grown up: Always question authority. Is the authority sensible? Is it informed? Is it honorable? Is it just? Is its worldview internally consistent? Do its words and deeds cohere? If not, then no freakin’ sale.
Community. Then, what I thought was safety and responsibility — always complying with authority — I now realize is horribly dangerous. Obedience is not praiseworthy of itself; it must be discerning, it must be wise.
Now I’ve learned that the only sustainable wisdom is consensus wisdom. It is the priceless distillate of sweat, study, careful thinking, and apprehending the still, small communiques from the holy —
averaged out over many people, over many years.
In contrast, the so-called wisdom of the “chosen few” — often characterized by secrecy and exclusivity and exercise of might, often led by a handful of authoritarian leaders who tolerate no dissent — is almost always shot through with bullshit.
So how do we make common cause again? How do we spread the viral realization that what we as humans have in common far outweighs the ways in which we differ? And that we should focus our time, talent, and treasure on the in common?
And that unquestioning obedience to unsound authority always leads to grief?
I believe God gives us conscience for a reason. It must never be switched off and checked at the door.
2006-08-23 update: Glenn provides a thorough review of Conservatives Without Conscience, going into significant detail and well worth reading for further understanding.
2007-03-06 update: Today Glenn diagnoses Ann Coulter’s behavior (who recently called John Edwards “a faggot”) in the context of the larger conservative movement. This column was triggered by a conservative pundit’s observation of Coulter that “she’s very popular among conservatives.” (See Salon, March 6, 2007: The right-wing cult of contrived masculinity.)
As when I wrote this original entry, the groupthink behavior under discussion is otherwise incomprehensible to me, so for me Glenn’s explanatory opinions help build a framework for understanding the pathology. (I’d rather understand it than demonize it, which I guess outs me as a liberal right there.)
2007-03-19 update: Dean’s primary undergirding scientific research for his observations and conclusions about authoritarianism is that of Bob Altemeyer at the University of Manitoba, as he carefully credits in his foreward. I see that Altemeyer has taken the unusual step of publishing his own summary of his decades of research as a free online book, The Authoritarians.