Making the rounds today through Minnesota, on the airwaves and at the U of MN, where I attended his lecture, John Dean, author, most recently, of “Conservatives Without Conscience,” wants everyone to know that Dick Cheney really calls the shots in the White House (“he lets Bush wake up every morning thinking he is president”), which he has set up in a very secretive, authoritarian manner. “It’s Nixon’s imperial presidency on steroids,” remarked Dean. With the prominence of Bush-Cheney and their followers, we are witnessing a revolution in conservatism, “a whole different political animal in these people.” Whereas his friend Barry Goldwater described the “Conscience of a Conservative,” Dean describes Conservatives who have forgotten the Conservative Conscience. And Dean thinks he has an explanation for what is going on with conservatism these days.
To make a long story short, Dean sees himself as a popularizer of a large body of technical social science research, dating back to WWII, concerned with the “Authoritarian Personality.” Dean argues that today’s conservatives, both the “base” of the Republican party as well as its leaders, exhibit textbook authoritarian personalities in their lemming-like willingness to obey authority— Bush/Cheney—wherever it takes them, never mind the consequences. The authoritarian personality is more or less attracted to others with the same character structure. While today’s conservatives blindly follow authority, says Dean, what is peculiar to this “type” is that they at the same time “think of themselves as running the world.” Hitler, he said (yes, he mentioned Hitler), was one of these types, albeit much more extreme. And he advances this thesis, discussed at length in his book, to explain why Fox News style conservatives exhibit so little “conscience” in their actions regarding spying, torture, civil liberties, presidential powers, and so forth.
Is there anything to this idea of “authoritarian” personality? Historically, the idea germinated from various investigations undertaken into Hitler’s psychological character as part of broader efforts to understand the psychology of Nazism. For instance, as Erich Fromm wrote in his book Escape from Freedom, “The love for the powerful and the hatred for the powerless which is so typical for the sado-masochistic character [the essence of the authoritarian character] explains a great deal of Hitler’s and his follower’s political actions” (230).
This level of analysis didn’t work then, and it’s not going to work now. We don’t face some monolithic force called “the authoritarian personality”; we face specific actors with specific agendas and ideologies that cannot be explained and summed up by saying that these people set aside their conscience and take refuge and comfort in authority. At best this describes something going on, but even so, it’s a very crude description. Dean shouldn’t be selling it, and I’m not buying it. Neither should you, dear readers.