Conservatives Without Conscience

One of the many paradoxes of the Bush administration is that it is widely perceived as (and itself claims to be) politically "conservative," yet it has expanded the power of the Federal Government to act against U.S. citizens, on U.S. soil, in unprecedented and previously unthinkable ways. The self-proclaimed "conservatives" who cheer on these extremist policies spent the 1990s strenuously objecting to comparatively mild programs such as government eavesdropping with the approval and oversight of the FISA court and anti-encryption proposals designed to ensure federal law enforcement access to terrorists’ computer communications.

Here is but one example of the "conservative" ethos back then — John Ashcroft, in 1997, arguing against expanded Federal Government surveillance powers in the wake of the Oklahoma City terrorist attack:

The Clinton administration wants government to be able to read international computer communications – financial transactions, personal e-mail and proprietary information sent abroad – all in the name of national security . . . .

Granted, the Internet could be used to commit crimes, and advanced encryption could disguise such activity. However, we do not provide the government with phone jacks outside our homes for unlimited wiretaps. Why, then, should we grant government the Orwellian capability to listen at will and in real time to our communications across the Web?

The protections of the Fourth Amendment are clear. The right to protection from unlawful searches is an indivisible American value. . . .

Every medium by which people communicate can be exploited by those with illegal or immoral intentions. Nevertheless, this is no reason to hand Big Brother the keys to unlock our e-mail diaries, open our ATM records or translate our international communications.

Aschroft’s views were emblematic of the political circles which formed weekend militias in the 1990s to guard against what it believed was creeping federal government fascism and snooping black U.N. helicopters.  Yet these same circles now lend full-throated support to the most extremist Bush administration policies, including its indefinite detention of U.S. citizens with no charges, its compiling of a comprehensive data base detailing every call made or received by Americans and its eavesdropping on those calls with no judicial oversight of any kind. The administration now even believes it has the power to banish American citizens from the U.S. without any trial or charges of any kind.

There seems to be no limit, literally, on what Bush supporters are eager to defend when undertaken by the administration in the name of "protecting us." No power is too invasive or extreme, no action is too lawless, to provoke their objections. Even restrictions imposed by law are no impediment, as Bush supporters defend radical policies even when they are expressly prohibited by criminal statute. If anything, the principal criticisms — really, the only criticism — which they voice towards the administration is that it has been too restrained, too mild, that it has not gone far enough in exercising unchecked power, both abroad and domestically, in the name of fighting terrorism.

Explaining this fundamental reversal, along with the dynamic that causes so many Americans to support such blatantly un-American policies, is the core project undertaken by John Dean in his best-selling book, Conservatives Without Conscience. To do so, Dean advances two primary arguments:

First, what is currently described as the "conservative movement" bears virtually no resemblance to the conservatism pioneered by Dean’s close friend, Barry Goldwater. The current movement has nothing to do with restraining government power or preserving historical values. Instead, it has embraced radical and historically unprecedented theories of presidential power and has morphed into an authoritarian movement which largely attracts personality types characterized by a desire and need to submit to and follow authority.

Second, because those who submit to authority necessarily relinquish their own conscience (in favor of serving the conscience of their leader and/or their movement), those who are part of this movement are capable of acts which a healthy and normal conscience ought to preclude. They can use torture, break laws, wage unnecessary wars based on false pretenses, and attempt to destroy the reputation of plainly patriotic and honest Americans — provided that they are convinced that doing so advances the interests of the authority they serve and the movement of which they are a part.

The most significant contribution Dean makes to understanding the political forces which have dominated our country for the last five years is that he emphasizes and illuminates the psychological impulses underlying the Bush movement. Dean documents that the "conservative" movement is composed of various factions who actually share very little in common in the way of political beliefs and could not come close to agreeing on a core set of political principles and ideals which define their movement. In the absence of a set of core, shared beliefs, what, then, binds them and maintains their allegiance to this political movement?

The answer Dean provides is the shared hatred of common enemies. And their collective attacks on those enemies have become the conservative movement’s defining attribute. And that is sufficient to maintain allegiance because, argues Dean, what Bush followers crave more than anything else is submission to a powerful authority as a means of alleviating their fears of ambiguity, uncertainty and complexity.

Ultimately, as Dean convincingly demonstrates, 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 de jour — the Terrorist, the Communist, the Illegal Immigrant, the Secularist, and most of all, the "Liberal."

What excites, enlivens, and drives Bush followers is the identification of the Enemy followed by swarming, rabid attacks on it. It is a movement that defines itself not by identifiable ideas but by that which it is not. Its foreign policy objectives are identifiable by one overriding goal — destroy and kill the Enemy, potential or suspected enemies, and everyone nearby. And it increasingly views its domestic goals through the same lens. It is a movement in a permanent state of war, which views all matters, foreign and domestic, only in terms of this permanent war.

It is a movement devoted to the destruction of its enemies wherever they might be found. And it finds new ones, in every corner and seemingly on a daily basis, because it must. That is the food which sustains it.

The Bush administration’s ability to engage in extraordinary and radical behavior has not occurred in a vacuum. The administration is radical and can act seemingly without limits because its supporters and followers are radical and limitless in their allegiance to its abuses. Understanding the disturbing and dangerous human dynamic which fuels that movement is critical to understanding the movement itself, and ultimately, to defeating it. Dean’s book is a uniquely valuable tool for understanding what the so-called "conservative" movement has become.