Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

Book Review: Conservatives Without Conscience

While on my break from blogging (and news/media overload), I did quite a bit of reading–trying for “big picture” perspectives on life, religion, and politics–especially, but not exclusively in the U.S. context.   One book I found very helpful was John W. Dean’s Conservatives Without Conscience which chronicles the rise of “authoritarian conservatism” in post-WWII America and analyzes how it came to dominate the contemporary Republican Party and, to the extent that Republicans have had the upper hand since 1980, the U.S. as a whole.

I must stress that this informative work is not a “liberal screed.”  John W. Dean was the White House counsel to Richard Nixon and the first insider to break with Nixon over Watergate–his testimony was crucial in the Watergate hearings.  Dean is a Goldwater conservative who signed onto the modern conservative movement in college in its beginnings and worked on Goldwater’s staff.  Until he recently re-registered as an Independent, he remained a Republican and still holds to many conservative views on smaller government, traditional values, the wisdom of the past as guide to (controlled, gradualist) changes in the future, caution in international alliances, etc.

So, Dean’s description and analysis of a conservative movement that has become cancerous with “authoritarianism” is an internal criticism–like my criticisms of some aspects of political liberalism or the Democratic Party rather than an outside criticism like my criticism of Republicans and conservatives.  It is all the more damning an indictment for being written by an insider.  Dean uses the many post-WWII psycho-social studies of authoritarian mindsets to analyze what has gone wrong in modern conservatism–and how it has actually betrayed its early roots. (He shows how in many instances conservatives and liberals have actually changed places: e.g., with liberals now wanting more power in Congress and less in the Executive Branch–as the Constitution intended–and conservatives now arguing for powerful “unitary executives” and a rubber-stamp Congress!)

I don’t agree with all of Dean’s conclusions–I am a political liberal after all.  But his description and analysis of how we got into this mess is very illuminating. It is also a warning because similar distortions and corruptions of liberalism as a movement are very possible–authoritarianism (which, in its most extreme cases leads to totalitarianism) is a disease which can kill democracies from within.


April 19, 2008 - Posted by | Uncategorized

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