Conservatives Without Conscience

a book by John Dean

Authoritarian Personality Traits

“Frist is Richard Nixon with Bill Clinton’s brains, and Nixon was no mental slouch. Frist is without question a social dominator [authoritarian] … No one describes Bill Frist’s dominating personality better than Frist himself in his first book, Transplant: A Heart Surgeon’s Account of the Life-and-Death Dramas of the New Medicine.” In his book, Bill wrote that he could “hardly help but be a demanding little tyrant. … I ruled not just over my family but over my friends – or should I say subjects – who always opted to come to my house.”


Authoritarianism is not well understood and seldom discussed in the context of American government and politics, yet it now constitutes the prevailing thinking and behavior among conservatives.

Empirical studies reveal that authoritarians are frequently enemies of freedom, antidemocratic, antiequality, highly prejudiced, mean-spirited, power hungry, Machiavellian, and amoral. They are also often conservatives without conscience.


Intellectuals who drifted from the far left to the center to the right, carrying their flagship magazine, Commentary, with them. They are mostly Jewish, and mostly New York based. Neocons tend to be militant internationalists. They publish their own inside the-Beltway weekly, The Weekly Standard.

Today's conservatives - especially social conservatives, as opposed to intellectuals and the more thoughtful politicians - define themselves by what they oppose, which is anything and everything they perceive to be liberal. That category includes everyone from Democrats to anyone with whom they disagree, and can, therefore, automatically be labeled a liberal.

Antipathy to liberalism has been present from the outset of the conservative movement but it only became a powerful unifying influence in the early 1980s.

Sidney Blumenthal, Washington Post

Conservatism requires liberalism for its meaning [for] without the enemy [of liberalism] to serve as nemesis and model, conservative politics would lack its organizing principle.

Many conservatives are simply entertained by reading conservative authors or hearing conservative talk-show hosts rant about liberals. The exaggerated hostility also apparently satisfies a psychological need for antagonism toward the out group, reinforces the self-esteem of the conservative base, and increases solidarity within the ranks.

[Stanley] Milgram's classic experiments revealed that 65 percent of seemingly ordinary people were willing to subject what they believed to be protesting victims to painful, if not lethal, electric shocks (450 volts of electricity). They did so simply because they were instructed to by a scientist dressed in a gray lab coat in the setting of a scientific laboratory. This apparent authority figure ordered that the jolts of electricity be administered to determine if the "learner" would memorize word pairings faster if punished with increasingly painful electric shocks when he failed to accomplish the task. Actually, this experiment was designed to test not learning but rather the willingness of those administering the electric shocks to obey the authority figure. The subjects were not told of the ruse - that the "learner" was only pretending to experience pain and, in fact, was not being shocked - until the end of the experiment.

[Stanley] Milgram described conscience as our inner inhibitory system - part nature, part nurture, and necessary to the survival of our species.* Conscience checks the unfettered expression of impulses. It is a self-regulating inhibitor that prevents us from taking actions against our own kind. Because of conscience, Milgram says, "most men, as civilians, will not hurt, maim, or kill others in the normal course of the day." Conscience changes, however, when the individual becomes part of a group, with the individual's conscience often becoming subordinated to that of the group, or to that of its leader In an organizational setting few people assess directions given by a higher authority against their own internal standards of moral judgment. Thus, "a person who is usually decent and courteous [may act] with severity against another person... conscience ... is diminished at the point of entering the hierarchical structure." Those who submit to an authoritarian order, and who adopt the conscience of the authority figure that issues the order ... have become an agent of the authority figure's conscience.

[Stanley] Milgram believed that Hannah Arendt's book Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963) was correct in its analysis. She took issue with the Israeli war crimes prosecutor's efforts to depict Eichmann as a sadistic monster for his horrific role in exterminating Jews during World War II. She ... described Eichmann as "an uninspired bureaucrat who simply sat at his desk and did his job,"' a compliant cog who had set aside his conscience. "Arendt's conception of the banality of evil comes closer to the truth than one might dare imagine," Milgram observed.

The lesson of [Stanley Milgram's] work was that ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terribly destructive process... [Stanley] Milgram revealed that for a remarkable number of people, it is very difficult to disobey authority figures, but quite easy for them to set aside their conscience.

Linguistics expert George Lakoff reports in 'Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think' that the language and thinking of contemporary conservatism is, essentially, authoritarian. The conservative's worldview draws on an understanding of the family that follows "a Strict Father model." (By way of comparison, he noted, the liberal worldview draws on a very different ideal, "the Nurturant Parent model.") Lakoff contends that the organizing ideal of conservatism is the strict father who stands up to evil and emerges victorious in a highly competitive world. In the terms of this model, children are born bad and need a strict father to teach them discipline through punishment.

'The Authoritarian Personality', a study undertaken at the University of California Berkeley ... introduced the idea of the authoritarian type" - people with seemingly conflicting elements in their persona, since they are often both enlightened yet superstitious, and proud to be individualists but live in constant fear of not being like others, whose independence they are jealous of because they themselves are inclined to submit blindly to power and authority.

Authoritarianism is consistently associated with right-wing but not left-wing ideology.

social psychologist and researcher Robert Altermeyer of the University of Manitoba in an article 'What Happens When Authoritarians Inherit the Earth? - A Simulation'

Authoritarianism was conceptualized to involve submission to established authorities who could be anyone. But, it turns that people who have "conservative" leanings tend to be more authoritarian than anyone else.


[Robert] Altermeyer characterizes right-wing authoritarians (RWA) as "especially submissive to established authority"; as showing "general aggressiveness" toward others when such behavior "is perceived to be sanctioned" by established authorities; and as highly compliant with "social conventions" endorsed by society and established authorities. All of these attitudes must be present in significant if varying degrees if an individual is to fall within Altermeyer's well-honed definition. Both men and women may score high on the RWA scale. These three elements of the rightwing authoritarian personality, while not elusive, still call for a little further explanation.


By "submissive," Altermeyer means these people accept almost without question the statements and actions of established authorities, and they comply with such instructions without further ado. 'Authorities" include parents (throughout childhood), religious officials, government officials (police, judges, legislators, heads of government), military superiors, and, depending on the situation, other people like "bus drivers, lifeguards, employers, psychology experimenters and countless others." High-scoring right-wing authoritarians are intolerant of criticism of their authorities, because they believe the authority is unassailably correct. Rather than feeling vulnerable in the presence of powerful authorities, they feel safer. For example, they are not troubled by government surveillance of citizens because they think only wrongdoers need to be concerned by such intrusions. Still, their submission to authority is not blind or automatic; these authoritarians believe there are proper and improper authorities (good judges and bad judges, good presidents and bad presidents), and their decision to submit is shaped by whether a particular authority is compatible with their views.


Authoritarian aggression, according to Altermeyer, is "a predisposition to cause harm to" others when such behavior is believed to be sanctioned by an authority. This harm can be physical, psychological, financial, and social, or "some other negative state which people would usually avoid." 'When the public tolerates right-wing authoritarian aggression, it too may be considered aggressive in its tacit approval of such conduct. An aggressive predisposition does not always result in aggressive action, however, since fear of retaliation or even social pressure may prevent it. Authoritarians are inclined to control the behavior of others, particularly children and criminals, through punishment. They have little tolerance for leniency by courts in "coddling" criminals. Targets of right-wing authoritarian aggression are typically people perceived as being unconventional, like homosexuals. Research finds that authoritarian aggression is fueled by fear and encouraged by remarkable self-righteousness, which frees aggressive impulses.


Right-wing authoritarians accept and follow the traditional norms of society. In religious matters they tend to be fundamentalist. Because authorities have already determined what is right and wrong, they reject moral relativism. Religion influences their attitudes toward sex other than for reproduction it is considered sinful, if not perverse. They embrace the ideal of the traditional family, with the woman serving as child rearer and subservient wife. They are "straight and narrow" in their dress and behavior, and believe themselves the country's true patriots.

Altermeyer's data provides additional information about the dispositions of right-wing authoritarians. Here are a few examples that provide further perspective. These have not been deliberately isolated as negative characteristics; rather, they are traits that authoritarians believe to be positive.

* They travel in tight circles of like-minded people.

* Their thinking is more likely based on what authorities have told them rather than on their own critical judgment, which results in their beliefs being filled with inconsistencies.

* They harbor numerous double standards and hypocrisies.

* They are hostile toward so many minorities they seem to be equal-opportunity bigots, yet they are generally unaware of their prejudices.

* They see the world as a dangerous place, with society teetering on the brink of self-destruction from evil and violence, and when their fear conflates with their self-righteousness, they appoint themselves guardians of public morality, or God's Designated Hitters.

* They think of themselves as far more moral and upstanding than others-a self-deception aided by their religiosity (many are "born again") and their ability to "evaporate guilt" (such as by going to confession).

It is authoritarian followers who filled churches across the United States on "Justice Sunday" to lobby for right-wing judges in federal courts; who can be seen on C-Span seated at dinner tables, after paying ten times the cost of their meals, to listen to Bill Frist or Karl Rove give a speech at the Federalist Society; who are the well-scrubbed young people who join college Republican clubs, whose parents or grandparents are delegates at GOP presidential conventions. By and large these Americans have never been troubled by the execution of a prisoner, and there has never been a war in which the United States engaged that they did not support. If they work inside the Beltway, you can recognize them by the American flag pins on their suit lapels or dresses, and you can be relatively certain they are carrying a copy of the U.S. Constitution in their pocket or pocketbook. According to Bob Altermeyer,

Authoritarian followers, in all probability, trusted President Bush's justifications for invading Iraq-when all those who had been in Iraq searching for weapons of mass destruction said there was no evidence they existed. The High RWAs were likely the Americans who told pollsters they believed such weapons had been found after the invasion, when none had been found. They were probably the ones who accepted without pause the administration's revised claim that the war had been necessary to remove Saddam Hussein from power. Because of their high levels of dogmatism, most of them will probably never realize that this war was unjustified, an enormous error with horrendous costs. They will find someone else to blame for the war's costs other than themselves and the leaders they follow. Many of them would attack France, Massachusetts, or the moon if the president said it was necessary "for freedom." And authoritarian followers formed the rock core of the millions who marched to the polls in November 2004, often at the instruction of their church, and rejected George Bush.

Both right-wing authoritarians and social dominators can be accurately described as conservatives without conscience. Needless to say, conscience itself cannot be measured directly. But stated beliefs and expressed behavior often reflect the workings of a conscience. For example, social dominators freely admit on tests that measure moral issues of right and wrong behavior that such matters are irrelevant to them. That suggests little conscience, a fact which is often corroborated by behavior.

Robert Altermeyer

Nothing shows lack of conscience better than bold-faced lying.

Robert Altermeyer

If you ask rightwing authoritarians, they will say they have very strong consciences indeed, which is one of the reasons they are so good compared to others. But empirical studies have shown that they are not as good as they believe themselves to be when compared to others. When tested for cheating, right-wing authoritarians, notwithstanding their protestation to the contrary, did not prove themselves to be so

theologian Ronald J. Sider in 'The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience'

Whether the issue is divorce, materialism, sexual promiscuity', racism, physical abuse in marriage, or neglect of a biblical world view, the polling data point to widespread, blatant disobedience of clear biblical moral demands on the part of people who allegedly are evangelical, born-again Christians.

Robert Altermeyer

Right-wing authoritarians shed their guilt very efficiently when they do something wrong. Typically they turn to God for forgiveness, and as a result feel completely forgiven afterwards. Catholics, for example, use confession. Fundamentalist Protestants use a somewhat different mechanism. Many who are 'born-again' believe that if you confess your sins and accept Jesus as your personal savior you will go to heaven-no matter what else you do afterwards.

... When a great deal of misbehavior is engaged in by born-again Christians it troubles their fundamentalist consciences very little, for after all, they are the Saved. So by using their religious beliefs effectively, right-wing authoritarians have high moral standards in many regards, but pretty ineffective consciences.

... One of the things a conscience is supposed to do is make us act better, but when you have a means of eliminating guilt, there is not much incentive to clean up your act. You can see how conscience gets short-circuited... Bad behavior may produce guilt, but it is easily washed away. So then more bad behavior can result, again, and again, each time getting removed very easily through religion. There is a terrible closing to this reality. The lack of guilt over things he has done in the past can actually contribute to the self-righteousness of the authoritarian. And this self-righteousness has proven, in experiments, to be the main factor that unleashes the right-wing authoritarian's aggressive impulses... I have called them 'God's designated hitters.' We end up with the irony that the people who think they are so very good end up doing so very much evil, and, more remarkably, they are probably the last people in the world who will ever realize the connection between the two.

The factor that makes rightwingers faster than most people to attack others, and that seems to keep them living in an "attack mode," is their remarkable self-righteousness. They are so sure they are not only right, but holy and pure, that they are bursting with indignation and a desire to smite down their enemies.

Social Dominators-Leaders - characteristics

o typically men
o dominating*
o opposes equality*
o desirous of personal power*
o amoral*
o intimidating and bullying
o faintly hedonistic
o vengeful
o pitiless
o exploitive
o manipulative
o dishonest
o cheats to win
o highly prejudiced (racist, sexist, homophobic)
o mean-spirited
o militant
o nationalistic
o tells others what they want to hear
o takes advantage of "suckers"
o specializes in creating false images to sell self
o may or may not be religious (
o usually politically and economically conservative/Republican


Right-Wing Authoritarian-Followers - characteristics

o men and women
o submissive to authority*
o aggressive on behalf of authority
o conventional*
o highly religious
o moderate to little education
o trust untrustworthy authorities
o prejudiced (particularly against homosexuals, women, and followers of religions other than their own)
o mean-spirited
o narrow-minded
o intolerant
o bullying
o zealous
o dogmatic
o uncritical toward chosen authority
o hypocritical
o inconsistent and contradictory
o prone to panic easily
o highly self-righteous
o moralistic
o strict disciplinarian
o severely punitive
o demands loyalty and returns it
o little self-awareness
o usually politically and economically conservative/Republican

Any government has an inherently authoritarian nature.

Benjamin Franklin - when asked what sort of government had been created at the Constitutional Convention

A republic, if you can keep it.

Joseph de Maistre a French nobleman and political polemicist

A prisoner, a parricide, a man who has committed sacrilege is tossed to [the hangman]: he seizes him, stretches him, ties him to a horizontal cross, he raises his arm; there is a horrible silence; there is no sound but that of bones cracking under the bars, and the shrieks of the victim. He unties him. He puts him on the wheel; the shattered limbs are entangled in the spokes; the head hangs down; the hair stands up, and the mouth gaping open like a furnace from time to time emits only a few bloodstained words to beg for death. [The hangman] has finished. His heart is beating, but it is with joy: he congratulates himself, he says in his heart "Nobody quarters as well as I.". . . Is he a man? Yes. God receives him in his shrines, and allows him to pray. He is not a criminal. Nevertheless, no tongue dares declare that he is virtuous, that he is an honest man, that he is estimable. No moral praise seems appropriate for him, for everyone else is assumed to have relations with human beings: he has none. And yet all greatness, all power, all subordination rest on the executioner. He is the terror and the bond of human association. Remove this mysterious agent from the world, and in an instant order yields to chaos: thrones fall, society disappears.'

political scientists Charles W. Dunn and J. David Woodard reported in their study 'The Conservative Tradition in America'

Authoritarian conservatism begins with basic conservative beliefs - order, distrust of change, belief in traditional values - and branches in the direction of favoring state power to protect these beliefs.

political scientists Charles W. Dunn and J. David Woodard reported in their study 'The Conservative Tradition in America'

Traditional conservatives are more moderate in their opposition. Traditional conservatives are much more likely to accept some state power than are libertarians.

Neoconservatism first surfaced in the public during the Reagan administration. More recently its interest in, and influence on, American foreign policy has drawn a great deal of attention. One of the more colorful (and accurate) descriptions of the typical neoconservative comes from Philip Gold, who justifiably described himself as having "impeccable conservative credentials and long experience in the national security field," as well as being "a grumpy old Marine (a former intelligence officer), who has grown infuriated with and appalled by the conservative embrace of disaster" served up by neoconservatives. Gold, a former Georgetown University professor, described neoconservative foreign policy wonks as "a new aristocracy of aggression that combines 19th-century Prussian pigheadedness with a most un-Prussian inability to read a man or a ledger book, and a near total lack of military-let alone combat-experience. Ask these people to show you their wounds and they'll probably wave a Washington Post editorial at you.

Christian Science Monitor

[Neoconservatives are] mostly liberal Jewish intellectuals who became disenchanted with the left in the 1960s and 1970s. By the 1980s they had become Republicans, having found a home for their aggressive policies in the Reagan administration.

Christian Science Monitor

What distinguishes neoconservatives from other conservatives is their desire for militarily imposed nation-building. They believe the United States should use its unrivaled power - forcefully if necessary - to promote its values around he world.

Neoconservatives do not trust multilateral institutions to keep world peace; rather they believe the United States must do it. An American empire is a perfectly plausible scenario for neoconservatives; containment is a policy they believe is outmoded. Neoconservatives view Israel as a key outpost of democracy in a region ruled by despots. They want to transform the Middle East with democracy, starting with Iraq

[J. Edgar Hoover, the first director of the FBI], who held his post for almost a half century, protected the nation's "internal security" from mobsters, Nazis, communists, hippies, and antiwar protesters. He intimidated (and blackmailed) members of Congress and presidents (about whom he gathered information); and he helped foster McCarthyism by feeding often dubious information to the maniacal red-hunting senator. Hoover influenced the Supreme Court by using background investigations to disparage potential nominees he did not like and to promote those he did. He also aided Nixon's efforts to remove Justice Abe Fortas from the Court, and hoped to do the same (but failed) with Justice William O. Douglas. Hoover trained his FBI agents in the black arts of burglary and other surreptitious skills, and had them employed at his whim. He was a racist who sought to disable the civil rights movement; he refused to hire black FBI agents; and he tried to get Martin Luther King, Jr., to commit suicide. He rigged the Warren Commission investigation in a manner that still colors the nation's understanding of President Kennedy's assassination. How many innocent people were framed by Hoover's FBI - a prototype of authoritarian government - will never be known.

Conservative historian Paul Johnson describing McCarthyism

When the hysterical pressure on the American people to conform came from the right of the political spectrum, and when the witch hunt was organized by conservative elements.

Jimmy Carter

Fundamentalist movements are led by authoritarian males who consider themselves to be superior to others and, within religious groups, have an overwhelming commitment to subjugate women and to dominate their fellow believers.

Jimmy Carter summarized the characteristics of fundamentalism as "rigidity, domination, and exclusion".

Jimmy Carter

It is human nature to be both selective and subjective in deriving the most convenient meaning by careful choices from the biblical verses.

Christian conservatives tend to emanate from strict religious backgrounds, and often prevent their children from being exposed to broader and different views by sending them to schools with like-thinking children, or by home schooling them. This, in turn, results in an authoritarian outlook that remains strong during adolescence - the period when authoritarian personalities are formed and then taken into adult life.

Christian conservatives' primary tool in reinforcing authoritarianism is preaching fear.

Pat Robertson in a fundraising letter

The feminist agenda is not about equal rights for women. It is about a socialist, anti-family political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism, and become lesbians .

Pat Robertson

The woman should be in submission to the man.

Christian conservatives ... want to control the right of women to have abortions; to ban all forms of gay marriage; to prevent the teaching of safe sex in schools; to encourage home schooling; to ban the use of contraceptives; to halt stem cell research with human embryos; to / stop the teaching of evolution and/or to start the teaching of intelligent design; to bring God into the public square and eliminate the separation of church and state; to overturn the legality of living wills; to control the sexual content of cable and network television, radio, and the Internet; and to eliminate an "activist" judiciary that limits or impinges on their agenda, by placing God-fearing judges on the bench who will promote their sincerely held beliefs.

By constitutional design the federal judiciary is authoritarian, with lower court judges bound to follow higher court rulings. Thus, any five conservatives on the Supreme Court can make the law of the land, because all lower federal judges are bound by their decisions.

Eighteen months after winning his seat in Congress, [Newt Gingrich] who campaigned on keeping his family united asked for a divorce. [His wife] Jackie, who was in the hospital recovering from a second cancer operation, was confronted by her husband carrying a yellow legal pad filled with a list of his wishes regarding how the divorce should be handled. He wanted her to sign it, then and there, even though she was still groggy from surgery. When Gingrich abandoned his family he left them near destitute.

Mary Kahn, a reporter who covered [Newt] Gingrich

Newt [Gingrich] uses people and then discards them as useless. He's like a leech. He really is a man with no conscience. He just doesn't seem to care who he hurts or why.

L. H. Carter, once a close friend and adviser to Newt Gingrich

The important thing you have to understand about Newt Gingrich is that he is amoral. There isn't any right or wrong, there isn't any conservative or liberal. There's only what will work best for Newt Gingrich. He's probably one of the most dangerous people for the future of this country that you can possibly imagine.

Senate majority leader Mike Mansfield, a mild-mannered Montana Democrat, developed a system to preserve the Senate's tradition of unlimited debate without tying the Senate into procedural gridlock. Mansfield in effect introduced the modern filibuster.

For decades before the advent of Mansfield's system in order to conduct a filibuster a senator had to be recognized by the presiding officer and then had to maintain the floor by talking. Because one man (or woman) can talk for only so long without sitting, eating, sleeping, or addressing other human necessities, the senator running it was permitted to yield to a colleague to continue it, thus operating like a tag team. Groups of senators would agree in advance to relieve one another to prevent loss of the floor and to make it possible to continue round-the-clock. They would sleep on sofas in the Senate cloakroom; some even wore a device known to long-distance bus drivers as a motorman's pal, enabling them to relieve themselves without leaving the Senate floor. Thus, whenever there was a filibuster, all other Senate business came to a halt until they either got the unwanted proposal removed from the Senate's agenda or a cloture vote ended it.

Mansfield's proposal changed all this. The Senate, by long tradition a highly collegial body, does most all of its business, of necessity, by unanimous consent. Under Mansfield's "two-track" system, the Senate agreed, by unanimous consent, to spend its mornings on the matter being filibustered, and afternoons on other business. Professors Catherine Fisk and Erwin Chemerinsky pointed out in a study that this system worked for everyone. On the one hand, the two-track system strengthened the ability of the majority to withstand a filibuster by enabling it to conduct other business. On the other hand, it made it easier for the minority, which no longer had to hold the floor continuously to prevent something less than a supermajority from cutting it off. In time, the mere prospect of a filibuster became enough to block consideration of a given matter. Based on successive changes of the Senate rules, the supermajority needed for a cloture vote was reduced to a vote by sixty senators. Thus, when a senator informs the leadership of plans to filibuster-and the leadership knows that he or she has the support of at least sixty senators and, therefore, the ability to invoke cloture and override the threatened filibuster-the matter will not even go to the floor for a vote. The modern filibuster has therefore become silent, since its mere threat results in stopping a debate in its tracks.

Robert Altermeyer

Probably about 20 to 25 percent of the adult American population is so right-wing authoritarian, so scared, so self-righteous, so ill-informed, and so dogmatic that nothing you can say or do will change their minds. They would march America into a dictatorship and probably feel that things had improved as a result.

Robert Altermeyer

Right-wing authoritarian followers are much more active than the rest of the country. They have the mentality of 'old-time religion' on a crusade, and they generously give money, time and effort to the cause. They proselytize; they lick stamps; they put pressure on loved ones; and they revel in being loyal to a cohesive group of like thinkers. And they are so submissive to their leaders that they will believe and do virtually anything they are told.

Glenn Greenwald commenting on John Dean's book 'Conservatives Without Conscience' - Firedog Lake Salon (

What Bush followers crave more than anything else is submission to a powerful authority as a means of alleviating their fears of ambiguity, certainty and complexity... the characteristic which defines the Bush movement, the glue which binds it together and enables and fuels all of the abuses, is the vicious, limitless methods used to attack and demonize the "Enemy," which encompasses anyone-foreign or domestic-threatening to their movement. What defines and motivates this movement are not any political ideas or strategic objectives, but instead, it is the bloodthirsty, ritualistic attacks on the Enemy du jour - the Terrorist, the Communist, the Illegal Immigrant, the Secularist, and most of all, the "Liberal.