Conservatives and Conscience

By David Swanson

John Dean, former legal counsel to Richard Nixon, is 95% recovered from a long bout of conservatism, and he doubts that many others can make the same recovery, but I don’t.

Dean’s published two excellent books on the Bush-Cheney administration’s abuses of power. The first was “Worse Than Watergate.” The new one is “Conservatives Without Conscience.” The title is a play on former Senator Goldwater’s “The Conscience of a Conservative,” and Dean originally intended to co-write it with Goldwater.

In the new book, on pages 70 and 71, Dean lists in two columns the beliefs and characteristics of “Conservatives Without Conscience” and “Conservatives With Conscience”. From my earliest memories, I have been disgusted by the very idea of conservatism, but – with the exception of one of the characteristics – I turn out to be a Conservative With Conscience. That is to say, a “Conservative With Conscience”, as defined by Dean, turns out to be a progressive, a leftist, or even a – dare I say it? – liberal, or at least not in disagreement with those people.

If I were to list the characteristics of a progressive, I would add a number of things that are not in Dean’s list, but I wouldn’t need to change or remove the existing items. One almost gets the impression that Dean is clinging to the idea of an unshameful, non-destructive conservatism simply out of….well, conservatism. I say “almost”, because there is an area in which Dean’s thinking in this book clashes drastically with my own and with that of many on the left, an area in which he is still a conservative and an authoritarian. A “Conservative With Conscience” actually turns out to be a liberal without a movement, without populism, without any faith that masses of people can do anything to improve their lives.

Dean begins his book with a lengthy preface which ends with these words: “Much of what I have to report is bad news. But there is some good news, because while authoritarians have little self-awareness, a few of them, when they learn the nature of their behavior, seek to change their ways. Thus by reporting the bad and the ugly, it may do some good. At least that is my hope.” Dean places his hope in actually saving members of the Bush administration from their authoritarianism, not in urging the public to force Congress to impeach them and remove them from office.

Dean stresses this point again in the final pages of the book: “It was not public opinion that forced Nixon from office….Nixon resigned ‘because [Nixon’s] attorney had forced the disclosure of evidence so damaging that it seemed certain he would be convicted of high crimes by the Senate.’…The reason Nixon did not go to trial was not his loss of support on Capitol Hill…but rather because he lost the support of his defenders, principally on the White House staff.”

But the strength of the evidence disclosed does not dictate conviction in the Senate or even impeachment in the House or even the initiation of an investigation. Dean himself has noted elsewhere that Bush is the first president to have confessed to an impeachable offense (violation of FISA). You don’t get much stronger evidence than a repeated public confession, but the current House and Senate are not prepared to act. Why? It’s not, I would argue, because Cheney or Addington has failed to receive Dean’s therapy. It’s because – given the increased corruptness of our media and of our electoral system – there is an even greater need than there was under Nixon for millions of Americans to rise up in protest, and millions of Americans have failed to do so.

By “Conservative With Conscience” Dean clearly intends a conservative with some sense of decency or ethics, or — again — a conservative with some liberalism. But the choice of the word “conscience” is not accidental. Dean intends by it a restraining force, an angel on the shoulder reminding one to be good when one has carelessly become bad, an echo of a parent’s voice, or what Freudians called a super ego. While I see myself in Dean’s description of a conservative with a conscience, I do not have or want a conscience. I do not think that Jean-Paul Sartre was joking when he said – presumably with some pride – that he did not have a super ego. I think that situation is becoming increasingly common, and that it should be encouraged. We should do good as a matter of course, not as a matter of restraint on our principal endeavors.

The thesis of Dean’s book, which draws on a variety of psychological research, is that those driven by fear, intolerance of ambiguity, a need for certainty or structure, overreaction to threats, and a disposition to dominate others tend to become conservatives, and now even more so than in the past, because the Republican party has been taken over by extreme authoritarians addicted to obedience and/or domination. Of course, those in power are more inclined to domination, while the minority of Americans who still support them are drawn to obedience.

Many Americans will tell you that it makes them uncomfortable to think of their president as a liar or a crook. Their need for authority figures extends to pretending that whoever is president is honest and good. This corrosive habit of “thought” has found fertile ground in the Democratic Party, at least among candidates and strategists, many of whom oppose criticizing Bush and Cheney. Others are eager to oppose Republicans on some points but focus their real energies on promoting authoritarianism and submissiveness, often using the military or religion to do so.

Last weekend at Democracy Fest in San Diego, I sat on a panel with former Ohio congressional and senatorial candidate Paul Hackett, whose whole shtick is playing on Democrats’ self-hatred. He warned that Democratic candidates don’t know how to speak the military’s language. To fix this, he said, everyone should encourage their kids to join the military. His explanation of how Democrats don’t speak militarese included examples of Democrats referring to Marines as soldiers rather than Marines, which Hackett said was unacceptable to young Marines who sing the Marine hymn before bed each night, including the part about Marines guarding the gates of Heaven. And as far as young people who are lied to by recruiters and told they won’t be sent to Iraq, and who are then sent to Iraq, Hackett said they should stop whining and get over it – which, of course, some of them can’t do because they’re now dead.

This kind of Republican-come-to-rescue-the-insufficiently-militaristic-Democrats-from-themselves performance is a staple of American election campaigns. (Does anyone remember Wesley Clark? Ever heard of Jim Webb?) But Dean’s analysis should help the Democrats see that what hacks like Hackett are offering is not free thinking, but rather obedience to a particular authority. In Hackett’s case the authority is the Marine Corps, on whose behalf he’s lashing out at the world. In the cases of Bush, Cheney, and others in the Bush White House, the obedience is also to the military industrial complex, combined with obedience to the religious loonies. In the case of Bush supporters who have not yet abandoned him, the obedience is to the President. If that obedience could be transferred to the Constitution and the rule of law, we’d be much better off. Authoritarianism seems to rely on human authority, but in the case of religious books, text seems to sometimes play a central role. However, religious texts themselves promote authoritarianism, while the U.S. Constitution opposes it.

An action like Lt. Watada’s and other soldiers’ obeying the law by refusing illegal orders, is an action that most soldiers obsessed with obedience have not undertaken. Most soldiers happily disobey the law out of obedience to some sadistic moron with the right stripes on his uniform. Clearly one of the reasons that parents should NOT encourage their kids to join the military is that the military encourages authoritarian thinking, which is bad for democracy. For the same reason, parents should encourage their kids to avoid religion.

In the long run, we can reduce the influence of authoritarian structures like religions and militaries, and improve early childhood care and education. In the short run, we can persuade many Americans that they have been misled. We’re well on the way to doing so already. Investor’s Business Daily recently warned that 25% of Republicans are planning to vote for Democrats this year, and that that could lead to – horror of horrors – impeachment.

Sunday, July 23rd, is the four-year anniversary of the meeting at #10 Downing Street that produced the Downing Street Minutes, which were made public about 15 months ago. A year ago on this date, citizens held hundreds of public forums and house parties around the country to increase awareness of the Downing Street Minutes, which showed that Bush and his gang of thugs intentionally lied about the reasons for attacking Iraq. Now, of course, dozens of other smoking guns have been stacked in the corner beside that one (and posted on the left side of http://www.afterdowningstreet.org ).

Those who continue to claim that Bush meant well and really believed his own hype are willfully blind. We should be so outspoken about Bush’s and Cheney’s lies and the need to impeach, remove, indict, convict, and imprison them that those still clinging to their blanket of faith in Bush’s goodness see themselves as having been deceived.

On Wednesday, July 19th, hundreds of impeachment teach-ins were held around the country. At the one I spoke at, people expressed surprise at the size of the crowd and shock at the poll statistics I presented. People don’t know the size of the impeachment movement. As they learn it, those who only join majority movements will join this one in greater numbers.

And as more and more of us become increasingly eager to take the necessary action to force change in Washington, we will make plans to occupy the place with an impeachment encampment. Here’s a way we can do that: http://www.campdemocracy.org

http://www.afterdowningstreet.org/node/13136