Friday, March 23, 2012

John Dean on the Dilemma of the Right

White House Counsel John Dean in 1972
Nixon’s Former Counsel On The Crisis Of Conservatism 

The contest to determine who will represent the Grand Old Party in November’s presidential election has devolved into a quasi-farcical tit-for-tat over who is the rightful bearer of the mantle of “true conservatism.”

Rick Santorum is pretty sure he holds that distinction (notwithstanding the fact that four years ago he placed the coveted crown on the head of current rival Mitt Romney). For his part, Mitt Romney claims to imbue his conservatism with an element of severity—a far cry from the Senate hopeful who, in 1994, flexed his moderate muscles during a debate with Ted Kennedy.

Newt Gingrich—the mad scientist of the Republican right—thinks it’s quite obvious that he has the creds, thank you very much. “I’m clearly the more conservative candidate, by any rational standard,” he told Fox News anchor Sean Hannity last November.

It’s kind of like watching three children fight over a toy they stole: It would be entertaining if it wasn’t so pathetic.

Truth be told, the self-appointed gatekeepers of contemporary conservatism have little in common with the stalwarts of their adopted movement: men and women (though mostly men) whose reverence for tradition, belief in a Hobbesian social contract, and penchant for personal freedom and limited government has served as an effective counterweight to post-New Deal Democrats from Harry Truman to Jimmy Carter.

The late Senator Barry Goldwater once remarked: “Conservatives seek the wisdom of the past, not the worst of it.” Yet we are faced today with a collection of pseudo-conservatives and reactionaries who would dredge up the worst our history has to offer— backroom abortions, industrial pollution and unfettered greed—to further a cause that has increasingly detached itself from rational discourse.

John Dean—a self-described Goldwater conservative who served as chief counsel to Richard Nixon—saw the writing on the wall more than a decade ago and set out to find out where his party went wrong. His 2006 book, Conservatives Without Conscience, proposes that the Republican Party has been co-opted by an authoritarian vanguard fronted by religious radicals who are undermining the values and goals of their predecessors. According to Dean:

“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 spoke with Dean earlier this week to get his thoughts on the GOP presidential candidates and the future of the Republican Party. I came away from the conversation more convinced than ever that conservatism as a movement is being held hostage by what Goldwater called “a bunch of kooks."

Each of the three main Republican presidential hopefuls—Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney—has at one point or another claimed to be a “true conservative.” Who do you think most closely reflects true conservatism?

I don’t think that any of the current candidates are anything close to traditional conservatives; they are trying to see who can be the most radical not the most conservative. The conservative label has gotten so vague as to what it means. For instance, I’ve listened to tapes of Nixon’s conversations with [Russell] Kirk [a renowned conservative political historian and author of the 1953 book The Conservative Mind] and there is no religious discussion whatsoever in those conversations. The religion that runs through today’s conservatism is pretty foreign to conservatives like Barry Goldwater, who was a good Episcopalian, and [the late] William F. Buckley, who was a good Catholic. These people were horrified by the religious right. It seems to me this is a pandering to a part of the base, and their social policy is being driven by their religious beliefs rather than what is good social policy. We’re seeing it with this whole revived contraception debate, which most Americans thought had been settled a long time ago.
"Mr. Conservative," Barry Goldwater

You mentioned William F. Buckley, founder of the National Review and former host of the show Firing Line. He was a conservative intellectual, representing a political movement that doesn’t seem to value intellectualism anymore. Has American conservatism been dumbed down?

I’ve seen a lot of evidence of anti-intellectualism in the conservative movement. This is something that’s been observed since the time of Ronald Reagan and it’s growing. The thinking conservatives like Buckley and his National Review crowd were absolutely flummoxed by what they saw happening to the movement. [The National Review] still appeals to some of the more rational conservatives but that’s a dwindling group. It’s just not the base today. [But] the thing that’s most striking to me about conservatives today is that they just don’t care about honesty and truthfulness. They just create their own realities and keep repeating them over and over … and they don’t care about what is actually going on or any rational or scientific explanation. That’s how they can take all these remarkably inconsistent positions philosophically and politically. Santorum is a classic example. He can be arguing for limited  government on the one hand and then propose social policies that are 180 degrees away from it and he doesn’t see the conflict. I find it very frightening.

You posited in Conservatives Without Conscience that the Republican Party has been co-opted by “authoritarian conservatives.” Can you relate those findings to any of the current GOP candidates?

John Dean
[Robert] Altmeyer [an expert on authoritarianism, a main source for Dean's book] told me that somewhere between 20-25 percent of the American people are authoritarian personalities, and so they are followers. They'll follow over the cliff; right or wrong when they are told, they get in line and along the way they go. It's kind of scary. Fortunately there are not more of them. To keep it in the vernacular of the science I relied on, Rick Santorum is a classic “double high” authoritarian. He's the kind of guy that will jump out and try to lead the crowd and say “follow me,” and he may or may not really believe what he is claiming, but he finds it works for his leadership...and so he just keep pushing it.  I hear constantly people say: “How is it that someone like Santorum can argue for small government yet he wants to get into every woman's bedroom and tell them what they can do, why don't they understand the conflict?” And I discussed this at length with a number of the social scientists who've looked at authoritarian personalities and these people just don't see it that way. They have separate compartments that everything fits in and it doesn't mix with rational thinking. They do this with utter abandon. It's how they get their marketplace philosophy confused with their social policy, where they want hands off the market [but] they want hands all over on social behavior.

Modern conservatives like to think they are interpreters and protectors of the founders' vision for our country and the Constitution, which they say is being sullied and trampled upon by progressives – or for that matter, anyone who supports social change. Did the founders set out to create a sort of rigid, inflexible document that is impervious to change? 

For conservatives today, on the's almost a civic religion for them, where these founders were sort of apostles who carried the word and captured it in the Constitution; but I think the founders would be amazed if they knew the reverence which people try to give their words and their document... it's quite striking. [The founders] created a government that they thought would be modified and developed and amended and corrected and fixed. They saw it as a grand experiment...not as conservatives today see it, that you can't change anything in government. As a practical matter you can't even amend the constitution.  The last time we did it was tardy by years, when we took care of voting for 18 year-olds and presidential succession. It's almost an impossible process.  So, this link of the contemporary conservative to the founders seems to me almost a quasi-civic religious belief they have in these men and their wisdom.

The current GOP candidates, the party's leadership in Congress, and the vast majority of Republican legislators on Capitol Hill embrace an almost religious aversion to raising taxes.  Is it anti-conservative to raise taxes?

No certainly not. It wasn't for Reagan was it?  No, I don't know where this whole...well, no I do know where it comes from, there is a group that has profited wonderfully because of the tax policies that Grover Norquist and his group [Americans for Tax Reform]  have motivated; it's one the reasons we have the one percent and the 99 percent. It's this tax policy that really emerged in the post Reagan years.

It seems amazing to me that this is a man, Norquist, who has won no election, and has no electoral authority whatsoever, for all intents and purposes holds the Republican Party hostage on tax policy.

Well he's well funded, that's why. It's not like he is this wonderfully charismatic character that convinces people...what he does is he brings money to a local election. He's worked his way where he has members of Congress and now state officials too, scared shitless that they are going to get opponents to come in with a lot of money that his group will put up and knock them out in primaries and everything else, so they sign the pledge. And it's been a very effective tool. It started at the federal level and now it's at the state level. Their idea to trim government back is to starve the beast that's where this really all started is it'a a way to make good on the conservative pledge to shrink government is to starve it. This is clearly the intention. Government is a necessary evil.None of us particularly like government but what's the alternative. It's a part of civilization. 

It seems to me political discourse has become increasingly vitriolic since I was a kid growing up in the 1970s, particularly from the right. How and when did conservative rhetoric become so nasty?

You can thank Newt Gingrich. He came to Washington [after being elected Speaker of the House in 1995] and said “don’t bring your wives and families, it’s going to be a different city.” When I worked on Capitol Hill everyone knew everybody, all members of Congress, or almost all of them, lived in the District of Columbia or had homes there. Their kids all went to the same schools, they saw each other at church. They knew each other. When I was working for MSNBC during the Clinton impeachment, I would discover many times that two members of Congress didn’t even know each other, they’d never even met; they’re in Washington three days a week spending most of that time raising money, which explains why it’s so easy for them to go out and trash each other. It’s just become an awful system. As I pointed out in an essay on this subject last year, conservatives are now demanding and enforcing absolute GOP party discipline, and trying to impose it at all levels of government, tolerating no exceptions. They recognize no comity or courtesy in any cross-party situations that are not to their advantage. They have made civility the exception, rather than the rule. They will lie and mislead to accomplish what is necessary, and conservative “thinkers” have abandoned intellectual honesty for the cause.

At the end of February, Senator Olympia Snowe, a centrist Republican who served on Capitol Hill since the 1980s, said she would not seek reelection, citing “an atmosphere of polarization” and “my way or the highway” ideologies. Is there still a place for more traditional conservatives in the GOP?

The Republican party has become increasingly fractured. There is really no moderate wing of the party anymore—those people have been pushed out and are all independents. Barry Goldwater, today, would be considered a RINO, a Republican in Name Only; and Nixon, on policy at least, is just so far to the left that he would be considered a liberal by today’s Republicans.

Can the Republican Party retain its relevance under such circumstances?

There was a time when the party was very instrumental for the mechanics of getting elected, particularly in presidential politics. You needed the party’s machinery. You don’t need that anymore. Today a candidate can raise so much money by himself. The functions of the party have decreased considerably. We talk about having a two-party system, but it’s pretty weak. The independents now are really in control because the bases of the parties, which control them, are pretty clearly defined on where their positions are. Neither of the very highly vocal factions on the left or the right have sufficient numbers to take control. There are now more independents than there are members of either party, and it’s independents that ultimately decide elections.

The column originally appeared in abridged format at The Philly Post