In 2006 John Dean, former Nixon White House counsel, in Conservatives Without a Conscience, wrote about the rise of authoritarianism in the Republican Party and how that positioned them to benefit from fear among the voters. His argument is both persuasive and prescient given the sustained Republican effort to scare white voters since Obama was elected in 2008.
According to Dean the Republican takeover of the House in 1994 brought a surge of authoritarians into Congress and the House Republicans became even more focused on authority than in the past. Furthermore this culture has slowly migrated to the Senate over the years. This authoritarian structure is one reason Republicans more frequently vote as a unified bloc compared to Democrats.
Social scientist John T. Jost examined data from 44 years of studies on the attitudes of over 22,000 conservatives. He concluded that conservatives have a heightened psychological need to manage uncertainty and threat. He found the primary motivators of political conservatives are fear, intolerance of ambiguity, need for certainty or structure in life, overreaction to threats, and a disposition to dominate others. Additional work (esp. by Bob Altemeyer) describing authoritarian personality traits found the following characteristics are common (and admired) among those who are disposed to follow authoritarian leaders:
- Uncritically accept statements and acts of perceived authorities
- Willing to subsume their conscience to the goals of authority figures
- Aggressive and bullying on behalf of authority
- Inclined to control others through punishment
- See the world as a dangerous place that needs them to protect morality
- Believe themselves to be more moral and upstanding than others
- Hostile to many minorities yet unaware of their prejudices
- Conventional, narrow minded, mean spirited, and dogmatic
- Often contradictory or inconsistent and unaware of their inconsistencies
- Lack of self-awareness of these traits
Since Obama’s election the Right has raised one alarm after another, most aimed at arousing fear among white voters, as Rachael Maddow has so artfully discussed. It has been alleged that Obama was conspiring with the UN to take our guns away, that he was preparing concentration camps to lock up anyone who resisted or for indoctrinating our youth, that he wants the economy to fail so he can declare an emergency and proclaim himself king, that he’s going to raise taxes to create a socialist/welfare state for blacks, that health care reform would create “death panels” to cut short the lives of the feeble and elderly. These tales are cunningly crafted to raise the anxiety of a public already struggling with the floundering economy.
And it has worked spectacularly well. At the recent politicized 9-11 Memorial rallies there were signs expressing fear and outrage at every one of those false issues. The corporate funded Tea Party movement (Taxed Enough Already) plays on resentment over taxes and fears about government spending. (In fact Federal income taxes are now the lowest they’ve been in 60 years, and US taxes are among the lowest of all industrialized nations.) People are upset, fearful, and angry. Thousands have attended Tea Party rallies. Republicans outnumbered Democrats at the polls in mid-term primaries this year for the first time in 70 years (yet overall participation was amongthe lowest ever). The anger over false and imagined dangers has reached such a fever pitch that there is open talk of armed rebellion (the 2nd amendment solution) if the Tea Partiers don’t prevail at the ballot box.
The tidal wave of manufactured anger is so powerful that even moderate Republicans, who have spent a lifetime serving our country honorably, have been cast aside. Other Republican leaders have failed to condemn the excessive claims and seditious comments, either because they agree with them or because they believe they can ride this wave to power in November. I have asked every Republican I know to repudiate the “by ballot or bullet” slogans, but so far not a single one has done so. As we have seen, authoritarian personalities are incapable of seeing how these ideas conflict with their own principles and our Constitution.
What can progressives do in the face of this dangerous national trend of using fear to drive people toward fascist-like authoritarianism? Although there is evidence that some conservatives can be made aware of the consequences of their actions and the harm their lack of critical self-examination can cause, this is a slow process. We do not have time to re-infuse respect for reason into Conservatism.
We can use the ballot box. We need to talk to progressives and independents and show them how important it is to keep the liars and fear merchants, and those who use them to satiate their own lust for power, from taking over America. Progressives are a diverse group with many reasons to be dissatisfied by the pace of progress the last 2 years. But, when judging candidates this fall, don’t compare them to your ideal or to your list of unfinished priorities. Compare them to the alternative. Remember, if only one out of a hundred Florida Democrats had brought someone else to the polls with them in 2000, then Gore would have won. Our challenge is great, but if one in 10 of us brings another progressive with them to the polls in November it will make a huge difference. In most states there is still time to register people, so find like minded people and get them registered.
Voting is not enough. If it matters to you, then do something about it. The corporate interests behind the Tea Party will be spending massive amounts to affect the elections this year. I know times are tough, but it is very easy to donate money these days. Even if all you can give is $5, do it. Every dollar helps, and campaigns count the number of contributors as well as the total dollars.
But there is more you can do.You can volunteer, even if only for an hour or two. It’s easy. They’ll train you, and it can often be done from home. You can write letters to editors, show your support with signs and bumper stickers, and talk to your neighbors. I’ll even send you a list of talking points that use Tea Party buzz words to support progressive ideas. You can make a difference. YES YOU CAN.
Freedom isn’t free. We have to work at it. It is up to us to keep fear and ignorance from taking over our government this fall.