Thursday, September 06, 2007

'Conservatism' as Unprincipled Opportunism

I am currently reading John W. Dean's Conservatives Without Conscience. Let me reveal some of my own mistaken biases: since I'm old enough to have been aware and politically active in the Watergate era I thought, "Oh John Dean, that Blind Ambition guy who was in Nixon's White House; he's just an ex-politico, what can he know?" Well, I was wrong. John W. Dean is an excellent researcher and thinker and Conservatives Without Conscience covered a lot of the ground I've been writing about myself. This guy Dean is a very serious thinker. (Why he's just got to be smart if he's writing about what I'm writing about!) I highly recommend his books.

But let me here develop an idea that he only hints at in his book. He writes at length about how so-called conservatives themselves so very frequently argue that there is no way to define 'conservatism'; they go so far as to revel in this supposed fact and celebrate their right to contradict themselves. Of course it IS difficult to give a definition of a belief system like conservatism or liberalism, there is no question about that; but when you get so MANY so-called conservatives opining that they cannot define their own belief system (see Dean, 2006, pp. 2-10) you should really begin to think about this.

It is hugely convenient for so-called conservatives to take this position. If you trumpet the fact that you cannot define what you stand for and you make an asset out of being able to take contradictory positions--what are the consequences of this stance? It allows you to be unprincipled and opportunistic in your pursuit of a coalition of followers as well as in your pursuit of political power. And it is precisely this that has occurred since Buckley and his colleagues created modern American 'conservatism' in the post World War II era. I have commented upon this earlier calling it the "witch's brew" of pseudo-conservatives (if you wish to see these search in my blog under "witch's"). So-called conservatives have been given a huge pass here by allowing them to mix the most contradictory elements and yet get away with giving the whole mess a single label.

They are for "limited government" but they support the Reagan-Bush-Cheney theory of the unitary executive! (On this see Charlie Savage's Takeover: The Return of the Imperial Presidency and the Subversion of American Democracy; Savage won a Pulitzer for his articles about signing statements and is a very thoughtful, careful fellow.) They revere the great American Constitution but support the dismantling of its checks and balances. They are defenders of "individual freedom" but will rush back to Washington to pass special legislation telling Terry Schiavo's relatives how to manage her feeding tube. They support a "culture of life" but, unlike the Catholic Church which also opposes abortion, they are big supporters of the death penalty. They are the champions of small government but never met a defense department or national security budget increase they didn't like. They support bringing "freedom and democracy" to the rest of the world, just not where it is inconvenient as in the case of the democratically elected Hamas government. They are most emphatically Christians but seem to have 'forgotten' Christ's teachings about feeding the hungry, caring for the sick, and sheltering those without shelter. They revere the Ten Commandments including the sixth, "Thou Shalt not Kill", except when it comes to Pat Robertson calling for "taking out" Hugo Chavez. They are absolutely against government interference in the economy except when it comes to passing legislation which weakens labor unions.

They are indeed a mass of blatant contradictions which truly reduces itself to an unprincipled, opportunistic grasping for popular and political power. And their strategy has been remarkably successful in America, especially since Reagan.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

More Important Findings about Authoritarianism and Who Rules America

I have ordered but not yet received John Dean's book Conservatives Without Conscience. This is an important book because while researching it Dean went through the social science literature and discovered Bob Altemeyer's 40 year body of work on authoritarianism. He integrated these social science findings into his book and brought renewed and much deserved attention to Altemeyer's work. As a psychologist myself I have heard often of how we are supposed to be involved in a longer term program of research in order to make a significant scientific contribution but this admonition is usually more observed in the breach than it is followed. Altemeyer is the model of long term programmatic research! He has been at it for 40 years and has accumulated a wealth of findings.

Altemeyer has researched mainly authoritarian followers or what he calls people who score high on his Right Wing Authoritarianism (RWA) Scale. In the 1990s a Swedish psychologist Jim Sidanius developed a measure of Social Dominance Orientation (SDO). He has mainly reported on this in professional journals but has published a book as well called Social Dominance: An Intergroup Theory of Social Hierarchy and Oppression. Persons high on SDO want to dominate others socially and are against increased equality. Research has shown that persons who score high on RWA and others who score high on SDO are each relatively highly prejudiced against minorities.

Since the RWA scale and the SDO scale do not correlate very highly with one another they explain different sources of prejudice. Altemeyer wondered how many persons might get both high RWA score and high SDO scores and it turns out that about 8% of his sample are "Double Highs", this minority scores highly on both right-wing authoritarianism and social dominance. Both Altemeyer and John Dean have drawn attention to these Double Highs as persons who might rise to leadership in the American Right. I suspect Dean identifies Dick Cheney as a double high.

RWAs believe in submission to their perceived authorities, are dogmatic followers of the conventions endorsed by these authorities, and are more willing to advocate and commit aggression to suppress dissidents and deviants. SDOs, on the other hand, are less ideological and they seek power in a more cynical fashion. Double Highs can appeal to the RWA followers for support because they hold enough of their views and are willing to do what is necessary to achieve socio-political power. So Double Highs would likely include George W. Bush who flaunts his born again Christian credentials to gain votes and, with the help of the ultimate Machiavellian, Karl Rove, is frequently willing to do whatever is necessary to defeat his opponents and gain political power.