An excerpt of the introduction to "Conservatives Without Conscience." Get your copy of "Conservatives Without Conscience" from BuzzFlash.
While not exactly naive to the ways of Washington, I was amazed, if not at times dumbfounded, by these events, and the remarkable hypocrisy displayed during them, as I watched from my ringside seat. Ostensibly, Clinton was impeached and being tried for lying about a sexual liaison. If truthfulness about extramarital affairs had been a requisite for everyone in Congress to hold their seats before they voted to oust Clinton, neither the House nor the Senate could have formed a quorum. While the people responsible for Clinton's impeachment called themselves conservatives, this was not a conservatism with which I was familiar. In past years problems of this nature had been resolved without threatening the nation's well-being. During Watergate, for example, Barry Goldwater, Hugh Scott, and John Rhodes traveled to the White House to tell Nixon it was time to resign. And in 1987, notes Washington Post reporter Peter Baker, "Democratic leaders agreed to forgo impeachment proceedings against Ronald Reagan for the Iran-Contra affair once former senator Howard H. Baker, Jr. took over as White House chief of staff, pledging to put things back on track."7 In both these cases constitutional crises had been avoided. But now, so-called conservatives who controlled the House of Representatives had pushed the process for political spite and cheapened an extremely important constitutional check by using impeachment solely to attack a president of whom they did not approve. Conservative demagogues shamed themselves in ways far worse than Clinton had himself, and their behavior was certainly more threatening to the democratic process than anything the president had done.
At the height of Watergate, conservative historian Daniel J. Boorstin gave an extended interview to Congressional Quarterly in which he noted that radio and television enabled countless Americans to follow the proceedings. "We used to think of the conscience as being a private, intimate, still, small voice within," he said. "Now the conscience of democracy becomes the whole community sitting in their living room watching what has been done." The conscience of a democracy, Boorstin said, was "what could be called the conscience of the marketplace-the people's feeling of outrage at the violations of common decency, of legal and constitutional rules." This, warned Boorstin, should be distinguished from "what might be called the judgment of the marketplace. The judgment of the marketplace is lynch law, and that is something we must beware of."8 If Boorstin's analysis was applied to Clinton's impeachment, the House of Representatives would be seen as having rejected the "conscience of the marketplace," and having imposed the judgment of a lynch mob.
Conservatives attracted to conspicuously false history, as occurred with Silent Coup, and conservatives with the mentality of a lynch mob, were foreign to me, but they certainly got my attention. In now writing about them, by myself, I am not proceeding as this project was initially conceived. It started as a joint undertaking with the late U.S. senator Barry M. Goldwater of Arizona, whom I had the good fortune of knowing almost his entire political career. His oldest son, Barry, Jr., has been my close friend since the early 1950s, when we were roommates at Staunton Military Academy in Virginia, which was also the senator's high school alma mater. Senator Goldwater was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1952, resigned in 1964 to pursue an unsuccessful bid for the presidency as the Republican Party's standard-bearer, and was reelected to the Senate in 1968, where he served until his retirement in 1985. After leaving the Senate he remained active and interested in Republican politics until his death in 1998.
I discovered Senator Goldwater's political thinking during my college years, when, like countless other college students of the early 1960s I read his book The Conscience of a Conservative and experienced a political awakening. The senator made conservatism respectable, unlike the witch-hunting Senator Joe McCarthy and the screwball absurdities of the John Birch Society. Senator Goldwater's conservatism was sensible and straightforward, and therefore appealing. Given the influence he had on my thinking, as well as my admiration for him, it is not surprising that I still consider myself to be a "Goldwater conservative" on many issues. Be that as it may, while my core beliefs have not changed significantly in the past forty years, the Grand Old Party to which I once belonged has moved so far to the right, that on the contemporary political spectrum I now often fall to the left of the Republican center. Like many Republicans uncomfortable with the right-wing extremists who control the party, I reregistered as an Independent.
It was not Senator Goldwater's politics, however, that prompted me to call him after the 1994 midterm elections, when the Republicans won control of Congress for the first time in forty years. I called to solicit his thoughts about the Silent Coup lawsuit, and to talk to him about the conservatives who were so aggressively promoting, and buying into, this false history. Following the senator's unsuccessful bid for the presidency in 1964 he had filed a defamation lawsuit against the publisher of FACT magazine, Ralph Ginsberg, who had claimed during the 1964 presidential campaign that the senator was crazy, a judgment he based on a ludicrous and highly partisan poll of psychiatrists. Although it took years, Senator Goldwater eventually won. His case made new law, which I told him would help my wife and me, as public figures, prevail in our suit.9 He was aware of the attacks on Mo, and he immediately put our situation into a larger context, while counseling that we vigorously pursue the litigation.
"I heard that jackass Liddy on one of the talk-radio shows," the senator told me. "I don't think anyone believes him, John. He's a fool." "Frankly, I find it offensive that he calls himself a conservative," the senator added.
"Why's that?" I asked.
"Why? I'll tell you why. Because he thinks like a thug, not like a conservative. Conservatives seek the wisdom of the past, not the worst of it," he snapped. He continued, "I was talking with [former Arizona Republican congressman and former minority leader of the House of Representatives] Johnny Rhodes, just a few days ago. He's still got the ear of the House Republican leaders. I asked him to tell those fellows back in Washington that I don't go along with their incivility. I told them they should back off on their attacks on Hillary Clinton. They're acting like jerks too, not conservatives. If they don't, I'm going to blast them. They're driving decent people out of public service. And they're turning off voters. It's dirty politics, and it should end."
"Why do you suppose that they do this?" I asked.
Without hesitation he said, "It's these so-called social or cultural conservatives. And I don't know what in hell possesses them. I'd like to find out."*
Senator Goldwater had no tolerance for such politics, and had never attacked his own political opponents personally. He was tough as nails, yet courtly in his courtesy. During the 1964 presidential race against President Lyndon Johnson, for example, one of Johnson's top aides and close friends, Walter Jenkins, was arrested in the men's room of the YMCA near the White House for engaging in a homosexual activity. After the Johnson White House whisked Jenkins into a hospital and hushed up the story, the senator's campaign people learned of the incident and wanted to use it against LBJ. Senator Goldwater refused, despite the brutal campaign ads the Johnson people were running against him.
When I called Senator Goldwater I had only recently learned more about Chuck Colson's involvement with Silent Coup. I asked the senator for his thoughts on Christian conservatives like Colson, and their increasing presence in Republican politics, and he minced no words. "Goddamn it, John," he began, with a combination of anger, frustration, and sorrow, "the Republicans are selling their soul to win elections." He saw trouble coming. "Mark my word," he said, "if and when these preachers get control of the party, and they're sure trying to do so, it's going to be a terrible damn problem. Frankly, these people frighten me. Politics and governing demand compromise. The government won't work without it. But these Christians believe they are acting in the name of God, so they can't and won't compromise. I know, I've tried to deal with them." He had absolutely no doubt that these people had made Washington more divisive than it had ever been, and he was concerned that their divisiveness was spreading throughout the country.10
My conversations with Senator Goldwater evolved into a plan to write a book together about so-called social conservatives. We would attempt to understand their strident and intolerant politics by talking with people like Chuck Colson, Pat Robertson, and Jerry Falwell. We would learn more about their thinking, and try to determine whether they appreciated what they were doing to conservatism and to Republican politics. We would title our book Conservatives Without Conscience, an obvious allusion to Senator Goldwater's classic. But we had not progressed very deeply into our work before I realized it could become a burden for the senator, whose physical health was rapidly failing. I slowed the project down and soon had to place it on the shelf, hoping to resume when the senator felt better. Sadly, that did not happen, but because I wanted answers, I could not abandon our task. I wanted to understand why these so-called conservatives acted in such a conspicuously unattractive manner. What caused their aggression and the hostility that was changing the nature of politics? Our litigation and my experiences during the Clinton impeachment proceedings continued to provide insights into conservative thinking, and it was not attractive. But it was my even closer look at Washington after the 2000 election, when writing about Bush and Cheney, that convinced me I had to find answers. The serious deterioration and disintegration of conservative principles under Bush and Cheney, in all branches of the federal government, with the striking shift toward a very un-American-type of authoritarianism, compelled me to complete the project I had begun with Senator Goldwater.
Unfortunately, I no longer had the senator's experience, wisdom, or insights to draw upon. But I did have notes from our conversations, as well as access to his files, which he had pointed me to before his death. His personal political papers, housed at the Arizona Historical Foundation in Phoenix, are a treasure trove of raw material relating to American conservatism, and they served as an important resource for this book. While I have quoted from the senator's papers when appropriate, I have not taken the liberty of attempting to speak for him. I have also discovered, after reading a plethora of books on the subject, that nearly every question Senator Goldwater and I had discussed about the religious right has been answered in other works-all but one.11 That remaining question is rather basic: Why do those in the religious right act as they do? Are they motivated by religion or conservatism? Stated a little differently, is this what happens when Christians become politically active? Or do their actions simply reflect one type of person who is drawn to conservatism? In the pages that follow I have set forth the answers I found to these and many other questions about the current conservative sensibility.
Conservatives without conscience do not have horns and tails; if they did they would be easier to identify. Many of them can be quite pleasant, but at heart they are tough, cold-blooded, ruthless authoritarians. They are limited in their ability to see the world from any point of view other than their own, and they are narrow in their outlook. George W. Bush and Dick Cheney are prototypical conservative leaders without conscience. The excessive secrecy of the Bush administration, in particular, was apparent even before the 9/11 terrorist attacks, but because the mainstream media ignored this issue, I wrote about it myself in Worse Than Watergate: The Secret Presidency of George W. Bush. Unlike the consequences of Nixon's secrecy, those of Bush and Cheney have been lethal. Realizing that only a partisan would remain silent, I wanted to make people aware of what was happening, for I recognized that this was a dangerous presidency. In Worse Than Watergate I did not analyze Bush and Cheney's behavior, because I was not sure then what was driving them. However, after studying the matter, I believe that one can reasonably conclude that how they think, their policies, and their style of governing are based to an alarming extent on their own authoritarian personalities, which tolerate no dissent, use dissembling as their standard modus operandi, and have pushed their governing authority beyond the law and the Constitution.
"In his landmark book, Privacy and Freedom, Alan Westin...defines democracy and authoritarianism in terms of information policy," wrote Robert G. Vaughn, a professor at American University's Washington College of Law. Summarizing Westin's work, Professor Vaughn continued, "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."12 I did not use that quote when writing about Bush and Cheney's insistence on secrecy because I did not then really understand the true nature of authoritarianism, yet I was struck time and again by the authoritarian nature of the Bush/Cheney administration. Now I realize that Bush and Cheney have given authoritarianism a new legitimacy in Washington, and it is taking us where we should not want to go.
Conservatism is not inherently moralistic, negative, arrogant, condescending, and self-righteous. Nor is it authoritarian. Yet all of these are adjectives that best describe the political outlook of contemporary conservatism. I make these observations not as an outsider, but as a conservative who is deeply troubled by what has become of a treasured philosophy. Conservatism has been co-opted by authoritarians, a most dangerous type of political animal.
How do people-particularly those who have never put their life on the line for their country-engage in, or condone, attacks on Senator John McCain's life-defining experiences as a Vietnam POW or question Senator Max Cleland's courage in building a new life after his loss of three limbs in Vietnam? What causes them to dispute Senator John Kerry's valor during voluntary combat duty in Vietnam or to contest Representative Jack Murtha's war record in Vietnam? Do they believe that by belittling the competence of White House counsel Harriet Miers, by forcing her to withdraw as a nominee for the Supreme Court, they are engaged in legitimate political debate? Why do they remain silent, or even defend, a president who has shamed the nation forever by endorsing an unprecedented and unnecessary use of torture against our enemies? These questions have clear answers. My aim is to explain how and why these conservatives operate as they do, with the thought that others may realize that this current breed of authoritarian conservatism, the behavior of both authoritarian leaders and their credulous followers, constitute a hazardous way for politics and governing. In fact, these people cannot be trusted to exercise the powers of government responsibly.
I have not written this book with the slightest expectations of ending the vile attacks of these authoritarian conservatives or of changing their Machiavellian attitudes. They cannot be stopped because their behavior is simply a function of the way they are and how they think, their dispositions, and the way they deal with the world. However, they can be understood, exposed, and watched, and there is compelling reason to do so. While their attacks on me and my wife may be considered harmless in the scheme of things, their larger undertaking is of great concern.
Certainly, not all conservatives are the same, and not all of them are authoritarians or without conscience. In addition, many of them do not actually know very much about the belief system to which they supposedly subscribe. While some conservatives will take visceral offense at this book, for I have recast the dominant contemporary conservatism in its true light as "authoritarian conservatism," my hope is that for others-particularly this movement's "followers," a category into which most conservatives fall-it will encourage reflection. As I see it, there are three kinds of conservatives: the good, the bad, and the evil. And this book is about the bad and evil ones. Many of my friends are conservatives, and they will remain my friends after reading this book, and some may even thank me for writing it. Moderates, progressives, and liberals may appreciate that someone with inside knowledge of conservatism has finally explained what the hell has happened to these people.
For those interested in learning more about the disposition, beliefs, and actions of those who presently dominate American politics, some understanding of conservatism is required. Providing this information is easier said than done, as contemporary conservatism is a jungle of twisted thoughts and strange growths. From earlier travels I know the terrain, but I know only a few of the people now occupying it. Now that I have explained how they got my attention, it is necessary to clarify what conservatism is and what it is not, which I believe will show why it has been so easily manipulated and corrupted by authoritarians.
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 without conscience and who are taking America in an undemocratic direction. Finally, I have placed some additional information and analysis in appendices.
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.
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