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Conservatives Without Conscience

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I’m reading Conservatives Without Conscience (published in 2006) right now. It’s by John Dean, a lifelong Conservative (and former counsel to Richard Nixon), and it’s his attempt to figure out what happened to the Republican Party over the last couple of decades.

Originally he was going to write the book with his friend and sometime mentor Senator Barry Goldwater (R-AZ), but as Senator Goldwater’s health and vigor failed, Dean shelved the book. But he kept their notes, and finally was moved to write it. (At the link you’ll find hardbound copies in good shape for $1, and it’s a highly readable and fascinating book—order a copy. whether you’re conservative or liberal. You’ll be glad you did.)

As I started to read it, I started putting in Book Darts when I found something worth re-reading—and now I have dozens of Book Darts in place. Some places marked:

“Authoritarian governments are identified by ready government access to information about the activities of citizens and by extensive limitations on the ability of citizens to obtain information about the government. In contrast, democratic governments are marked by significant restrictions on the ability of government to acquire information about its citizens and by ready access by citizens to information about the activities of government.” (page xxxvii, quoting Robert G. Vaught, a professor at American University’s Washington College of Law, summarizing Alan Westin’s work.)

In Chapter 1, I explain how conservatives think, and highlight the structural weaknesses that have allowed it to be pulled from its roots by authoritarian conservatives. Chapter 2 explores authoritarians, many of whom are conservatives without conscience. This material is derived from almost half a century of scientific study, which has been inexplicably ignored outside of academia and so has not been readily available to the general reader. In Chapter 3, I illustrate how authoritarians operate in their own images, when I examine neoconservatives and Christian conservatives, who currently dominate Republican politics and policy. And in Chapter 4, I conclude with examples of the ugly politics and evil policies resulting from current authoritarian rule, the work of people who are conservatives with conscience and who are taking American in an undemocratic direction. (page xxxix)

In 1965, conservative political scientist Harry Jaffa, a highly respected Lincoln scholar, concluded that no principle was more fundamental than the Declaration’s assertion that “all men are created equal.” This did not apply merely to equality under law, but to political equality. According to Nash, the gist of Jaffa’s positiion was that “no man is by nature the ruler of another, that government derives its just powers from consent of the governed—that is from the opinion of the governed.” Thus, majority rule could not be separated from “the principle of the natural equality of political right of all men” (itlaics in original). (page 14)

The war for independence was America’s longest war (lasting eight years) and its deadliest until the Civil War. Especially given its outcome, to call it a “moderate” or “limited” war borders on the absurd. For example, McCullough wrote in 1776, “The war was a longer, far more arduous, and more painful struggle than later generations would understand or sufficiently appreciate.” (page 15)

In their efforts to present conservatism as an American tradition, conservatives have also reinterpreted the U.S. Constitution. One of the key elements of the Constitution is the establishment of a unique republic, in that a federal system would coexist with state and local governments. Before it was ratified many opponents attacked its progressive and innovative nature, for far from representing the status quo, the Constitution was dramatically liberal. James Madison defended it in The Federalist Papers by explaining that the founders “have not suffered a blind veneration for antiquity,for custom” but rather employed “numerous innovations … in favor of private rights and public happiness.” Madison said that “precedent could not be discovered,” for there was no other government “on the face of the globe” that provided a model. Madison, the father of the Constitution, clearly saw his work as the opposite of conservatism. (page 15)

When I asked him [Barry Goldwater] years later what now “pricked” the conservative conscience, he said that he should have written that the conservative conscience is “pricked by anyone or any action” that debases human dignity. “Doesn’t poverty debase human dignity?” I asked. “Of course it does,” he replied, and went on to say that if family, friends, and private charity cannot handle the job, the government must. (page 18)

“Politics is the art of achieving the maximum amount of freedom for individuals that is consistent with the maintenance of social order,” Senator Goldwater wrote, and in blancing between these forces, he argued, “the conservative’s first concern will always be: Are we maximizing freedom?” (page 18)

Given the rather distinct beliefs of the various conservative factions, which have only grown more complex with time, how have conservatives succeeded in coalescing as a political force? The simple answer is through the power of negative thinking, and specifically, the ability to find common enemies. The adherents of early conservatism—economic conservatives, traditional conservatives, and libertarians—agreed that communism was the enemy, a fact that united them for decades—and hid their differences. 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. Another group that has recently been designated as an enemy is “activist judges,” regardless of their party or philosophical affiliation. Activist judges are best described as those whose rulings run contrary to the beliefs of a particular conservative faction. (page 23)

There’s much more, but this gives you an idea. It’s really a book worth reading, whether you’re conservative or liberal.

Written by LeisureGuy

8 October 2007 at 2:42 pm

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