Welcome to the Chart Project! This is the first and probably weightiest installment of a week-long series. All of these charts are works in progress, imperfect and perhaps dealing in gross overgeneralizations, but they result from my desire to try to visualize some of the dynamics at work in society and politics today.
Derrida and many post-structuralists would argue that Western civilization tends to see everything in terms of binary oppositions, and furthermore, that one half of the pair is seen as slightly superior: male-female, white-black, etc. Regardless, it’s certainly the case that much political reporting and commentary traffics in oversimplifications, false dichotomies and false equivalencies.
For instance, most media outlets will approach any political issue using this framework:
It's only natural to use a Republican-Democrat dichotomy as a launching point or frame of reference. However, this dichotomy breaks down in many instances. What about the conservative-liberal spectrum? Many Democratic politicians tend to be moderate, not nearly as liberal as the “liberals” in other nations, while the current movement conservatives who support George W. Bush are much further right than the Goldwater conservatives of a previous era.
American media coverage is full of over-simplified and misleading dichotomies. These days, race is a more complex issue than simply "black/white” because of our much more multicultural society (and even "white/non-white" often doesn't address important nuances). And while race is a serious issue in America, I’d contend that class in much more important, but is far more rarely discussed. What sort of diversity is there on a political program if both the Republican and the Democrat are backing corporate interests over the average citizen's, for example? Similarly, the problem with Meet the Press inviting John McCain and Joe Lieberman on after the November 2006 elections wasn’t just that Lieberman was technically no longer a Democrat. It was that he’s not a liberal. Most importantly, both he and McCain are diehard hawks on the Iraq war, the single most important political issue today, and the pivotal issue in the election! While “hawk” and “dove” are contentious terms as well, the hawk-dove divide is probably much more important currently than even liberal-conservative or Democrat-Republican. It’s unquestionable that most political coverage in 2002-2005 featured far more hawks than doves (and it’s still that way, in many cases). While some of this was due to a greater number of shrieking hawks during that period, it’s also true that they were over-represented beyond their numbers, and many intelligent, articulate doves were marginalized, derided or simply not booked.
(The only more important, ignored divide is accuracy-inaccuracy, partially because the false equivalency practiced by many media outlets presupposes Republicans and Democrats are equally credible and truthful on all issues. The exception is on the Iraq war, where as many have noted, even the stupidest hawks are presumed to be smarter and more “serious.”)
In any case, the main issue is that a simple Republican-Democrat dichotomy completely fails to address the dynamic at work with the current breed of authoritarian conservatives allied with George W. Bush. Rather than the chart above, it’d be more accurate to use something like this:
(Click for a larger image.)
Or even more accurately, this:
(Click for a larger image.)
It’s a mistake to presume that Bush, the neocons, the religious right and other authoritarian conservatives in the current movement share the same values or goals as the rest of society or even of conservatives past. They simply don’t. They are operating on a radically different paradigm. Law and order conservatives such as Alberto Mora may disagree with liberals on some issues, argue with them or vote against them. Still, Mora reveres the rule of law and believes in preserving (or improving) the judicial system, the military code of conduct, and the Geneva Conventions. John Dean’s recent book Conservatives Without Conscience offers a valuable glimpse into the current breed of authoritarians. As Glenn Greenwald puts it:
Dean contends, and amply documents, that the "conservative" movement has become, at its core, an authoritarian movement composed of those with a psychological and emotional need to follow a strong authority figure which provides them a sense of moral clarity and a feeling of individual power, the absence of which creates fear and insecurity in the individuals who crave it. By definition, its followers' devotion to authority and the movement's own power is supreme, thereby overriding the consciences of its individual members and removing any intellectual and moral limits on what will be justified in defense of their movement.
For authoritarian conservatives, truth derives from esteemed authority figures and generally not from principles, empirical data or any objective or non-partisan source. Ironically, even though they claim to believe in “absolute truth” and decry “relative truth,” they often deny or attack objective truth. As a rule, they are not part of the reality-based community. America was founded on Enlightenment ideals and what may be called “classic” liberalism, beliefs that “all men (and women) are created equal,” and that “they are endowed... with certain inalienable rights, among them life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” For all authoritarian conservatives’ proclamations about patriotism and condemnation of the patriotism of others, they aggressively attack the very foundations of our government and society. Rather than a fair society, with shared civil rights and equality of opportunity, they seek to install (or supplant, or worsen) a hierarchical system with themselves at the top (or otherwise privileged). They believe they are entitled to this position due to their clear superiority, just as others are clearly unworthy. Conformity is valued and can be aggressively pursued; for younger members, a sense of belonging is especially important. Identity is often not positively defined, but rather in opposition to perceived foes. Most authoritarian conservatives are socially intolerant, often not just social conservatives but social regressives, seeking to turn the clock back several decades or even centuries. Typically, they are xenophobic and radically change their response, sometimes instantaneously, toward any individual who strays from the pure party line (Katrina victims deserve no sympathy, for example, and even a Republican who questions Bush is summarily expelled from the club or attacked). While distrust, fear and hostility toward “the Other” is commonplace, at the extreme end of authoritarian conservatism, perceived foes are judged as sub-human. Thus we see the violent rhetoric of the rightwing blogosphere and other far right voices, who advocate killing liberals and moderates and any reporters who dare to report anything factual that makes the leader look bad. Obviously, fascism or totalitarianism is the ultimate political expression of unchecked authoritarian conservatism.
To return to the chart, generally speaking, liberals, independents, and moderate conservatives may fight, but these are horizontal attacks that do not intentionally seek to destroy the overall system above. Fights may be passionate, but they still exist within a basic framework of fairness and an equal opportunity to speak or otherwise participate in the system. In contrast, authoritarian conservatives do engage in horizontal attacks, but they also seek to undermine, destroy, or supplant the greater system itself. If we use the chart above as a guide, their hallmark is the diagonal attack. They don't just seek immediate advantage, they also seek to destroy greater principles that would prevent their permanent hierarchical power. Given this, it's hardly surprising that authoritarian conservatives rarely argue any issue on the merits. In some cases this may be due to inherent irrationality, but for figures who depend on bullying such as Ann Coulter, there's also a deep awareness that in a serious, fair discussion her position will lose. Consider the chart in terms of the following issues:
Surveillance: Both Democrats and Republicans want to eavesdrop on terrorists and suspects. However, Democrats have insisted that we follow the law, specifically the 4th Amendment of the Constitution and the 1978 FISA laws specifically drawn up for exactly these situations. Republicans have repeatedly insisted that Democrats are on the side of terrorists on this issue. This is utter bullshit, and these Republicans know it, because it’s been consistently pointed out to them. Nevertheless, they refuse to stop misrepresenting their perceived opposition. This is the hallmark of cowards, liars, and scoundrels. While at least some Republicans surely do seek to catch terrorists, this goal is secondary to the larger power-grab at play. Authoritarian conservatives are performing a diagonal attack, seeking to destroy the principle of the rule of law, and specifically, the clear requirement for a warrant intended by our founding fathers.
Torture: Everyone agrees on questioning prisoners. Yet authoritarian conservatives push this beyond the pale by advocating torture. They don’t seem to realize, or will not acknowledge, that besides torture being ineffective, immoral and anathema to American values, when America practices torture, it endangers our own troops and citizens. Some authoritarian conservatives surely do seek key information, but they are also performing a diagonal attack against human rights (and the rule of international and military law) that would protect everyone.
Habeas Corpus: One of the darkest days in recent memory was 9/28/06, when the GOP majority rammed through a new detainee bill that stripped prisoners of the “Great Writ” of habeas corpus, in clear violation of the United States Constitution, several centuries of law and basic common sense and moral decency. Stripping anyone of due process helps no one, and hurts the overall system. The general attitude towards prisoners by authoritarian conservatives is also striking. From the releases of prisoners to date, there’s a wealth of evidence showing the administration has arrested and held innocent people, often for years and without charge. Yet for authoritarian conservatives, it is simply inconceivable that the Bush administration has made a mistake. To them, everyone in Guantanamo is a terrorist. There are no terrorist suspects. And they cannot seem to even conceive that there are innocent people there, or remember the core American concept that one is innocent until proven guilty. The fact that the Bush administration or Pentagon says the prisoners are guilty means they’ve guilty, and how dare anyone suggest otherwise! There’s often some xenophobia at work here, but the issue goes deeper. While it may seem a harsh comparison, most authoritarian conservatives share one of the central traits of one of their most notorious members, Adolf Eichmann: a lack of imagination and its emotional equivalent, compassion. Authoritarian conservatives simply cannot conceive that they or someone they care for might ever be treated in the same way as a Guantanamo prisoner. They cannot extrapolate that if it would be wrong if it happened to them, it’s simply wrong and should not happen to anyone. Sub-humans and enemies just don’t deserve decent treatment, and who cares if five years of their lives, their health or sanity are lost? Authoritarian conservatives aren’t truly seeking to convict terrorists, otherwise they’d have brought charges sooner than 3-5 years after the arrests! Currently, the Bush administration asserts it’s able to eavesdrop without warrants, to arrest anyone at will, to hold them indefinitely without charges, to torture people, to use hearsay evidence obtained through torture against others, to hold trials denying the accused access to the evidence against them (thus undercutting any possible defense), and to execute those they find guilty. In short, they can arrest, hold and execute anyone they want. Surely a basically competent lawyer, especially in the more strict military courts, can convict an actual terrorist? The refusal of Condoleezza Rice and other Bush officials to apologize for their mistakes or even in some cases to release people already determined to be innocent is unconscionable. It’s also a familiar assertion of infallibility and a tactic to avoid responsibility. Authoritarian conservatives are performing a diagonal attack against the principles of due process, justice and humane treatment.
Checks and Balances: Most administrations have engaged in minor turf wars. Still, the federal government of America is predicated on the idea that while virtue and honor are great, they can’t be counted upon. Congress is expected to jealously guard its turf against the Executive Branch, as is the Judiciary. The “Rubber-Stamp Republican” 109th Congress abdicated its oversight responsibilities, valuing blind loyalty rather than challenging even the most reckless actions by the Bush administration. Pat Roberts deliberately stalling on his pre-war intel investigation is a prime example. Fixing a serious problem, and telling the public the truth, was not a remote possibility for Roberts because his own party’s dominance comes first, last and always. Authoritarian conservatives are performing a diagonal attack against any traditional checks and balances, and any restraint against their power.
Justice/The Rule of Law: As the recent story about attorneys being fired by the Bush administration for political reasons shows, for authoritarian conservatives, the legal system is not a tool for justice but instead one more political tool to abuse. Power moves eliminating honest brokers and oversight have been common under the Bush administration. Consider, for another example, the Bush administration discounting the advice of Justice Department lawyers who unanimously condemned Tom DeLay’s voter re-districting in Texas. The Bush administration followed up by changing the rules so that lawyers in those positions would not have any future input. Most of the issues considered above touch on justice and the rule of law in some fashion. The authoritarian conservative agenda is probably starkest on torture and habeas corpus because of the very grave consequences of their actions. Authoritarian conservatives seek to establish a hierarchy where imprisonment and punishment are meted out by unaccountable authority with unchecked power. It's a diagonal attack on Truth, Justice, and The American Way.
Science and Empirical Truth: Authoritarian conservatives have waged a well-documented war on science and empirical data. Global warming is a key example, but there's also battles over the FDA, Emergency Plan B, and pollution laws. Plus, they’ve had college dropouts rewriting NASA scientists for political purposes, and promoted the idea that the Bible's Great Flood created the Grand Canyon. Entire blogs are devoted to these issues (for a satirical look at this, see "Help Fight Math Illiteracy!" or the much pithier and funnier Tom Tomorrow). Authoritarian conservatives haven’t just fought for their policies, they’ve tried to make facts irrelevant to the decision-making process. Astoundingly, they are consistently performing a diagonal attack on the Scientific Method and empirical truth.
Class Warfare: Rank and file authoritarian conservatives will consistently vote against their economic self-interest. In some cases it’s because they buy BS arguments by their leaders and their leaders’ mouthpieces (see virtually every conservative think tank). Still, for some, social issues are simply more important to them. Keeping the homos at bay or stopping abortion is more critical than a decent living wage — and everything's the fault of those damn liberals, anyway. Rich authoritarian conservatives seek to increase their share of the pie and deny it to others, and are quite conscious of what they do. Wealth and power have been distributed with horrible unevenness throughout human history, even if the overall picture has improved (in some nations, at least). In this sense, it's not fully accurate to say that authoritarian conservatives are pushing to supplant the existing order, but they are trying to eliminate all attempts to shape a more just system (such as our progressive tax code). They favor policies that disproportionately (or only) favor the aristocracy, and fight to make the existing landscape even worse in terms of wealth distribution. Authoritarian conservatism, with its hierarchal nature, is the natural political match for a class system.
Fiscal Management: Spending their grandchildren’s inheritance like the proverbial drunken sailors is as close to military service as most of the Bush administration will ever get. Their atrocious fiscal mismanagement is also a stark reminder of the profound selfishness and recklessness of current movement conservatives. Since at least Reagan, a favorite authoritarian conservative trick is to run up the deficit, artificially creating a financial crisis, then using this manufactured crisis to justify cutting social spending. Reagan and George W. Bush also had the additional gall to pair these cuts for the needy with greater giveaways to the already ridiculously wealthy. The same crowd who inveigh so loudly against welfare for the poor always seem to heavily back corporate welfare (who hardly need such largess). In their view, government is a tool for giving out money and power to the already rich and powerful versus an entity representing the people and working for the common good. While some may view fiscal mismanagement as just politics, or another facet of class warfare, it’s been so severe it amounts to sabotage against all future administrations. Authoritarian conservatives are performing a diagonal attack against the very idea of an effective, efficient government, and to this end are trying to bankrupt it while simultaneously enriching themselves and their friends. It’s similar to a corporate raider engaging in a hostile takeover, then selling off the assets. Highly influential Republican Grover Norquist is famous for his psychopathic words, "I don't want to abolish government. I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub." Norquist deliberately pushes the false dichotomy of "big government versus small government," when of course the real issue is good, effective and representative government. Norquist is more a plunderer than many of authoritarian conservative brethren (such as close friend Karl Rove and VP Cheney), but it's undeniable that none of them want to reform or improve government. They want to destroy it where representative and effective, and exploit it where they can.
Media Coverage: The hostility of rightwing attacks on the media are well known in the liberal blogosphere, and even a few of the mainstream media have slowly clued in. For authoritarian conservatives, the real problem is never the problem. It’s reporting the problem that makes things messy. In their world, coverage of an unpleasant event that might make the leader look bad is solely due to a political agenda by the media. They seem to believe that all media coverage is arbitrary, with no relation to objective reality. It’s as if they think a negative report does not result from an actual negative event, or that bombings in Baghdad wouldn’t have actually occurred if only no one reported them. The Bush administration in particular believes a relentless public relations campaign is everything, and actual performance is all but irrelevant. Current movement conservatives subscribe to a magical, ostrich head-in-the-sand, delusional view of reality. Rush Limbaugh tells his dittoheads to enjoy themselves and not to bother reading the paper or watching the news this weekend, he’ll watch it for them and tell them the important stuff — and this appeals to them. They want to be told what to think versus informing themselves, questioning matters or joining a discussion. They do not add voices, only echoes. However, they also insist that everyone else must do the same. Authoritarian conservatives are performing a diagonal attack against objective sources of information and the principle of a free press.
Civil Rights and Dissent: At times, it seems the only amendment of the Constitution the Bush administration hasn't sought to overthrow is the 2nd. Complimenting their hostility toward the press, Bush's free speech zones and the recent revelations about the treatment of the Denver Three are further proof that this White House sees the 1st Amendment as an obstacle rather than a joy and treasure. No modern administration has ever demonstrated such hostility toward the right to dissent.
Meritocracy versus Cronyism: Whether it’s the recent politically-motivated U.S. attorney firings, the hiring of unqualified conservative loyalists for the CPA in Iraq, college dropouts without a science background editing NASA scientists, Mike Brown or a hundred other examples, the Bush administration has favored cronies, yes-men and loyalists over the competent and honest. This is in perfect line with the authoritarian tradition that advancement should be granted by an authority, a benefactor, a gatekeeper, as opposed to being earned through merit. This attitude dovetails into an assault on good management. In the Bush administration especially, honest brokers tend to be shunned and attacked. Bush's bubble is not solely a personality or character flaw. It's an intrinsic problem of the authoritarian model, because the White House under Bush has been authority-driven versus principle-driven. In Bush's case, he has granted enormous authority to Dick Cheney and his cabal. Cheney has driven almost every horrendous decision the administration has made, most notably the Iraq war, the failure to go after Al-Qaeda in early 2001, awful economic policies and a continuing war against transparency, oversight and accountability. As was Rumsfeld, Cheney is a vicious and unrelenting bureaucratic in-fighter. He’s used his large staff, many allies and every underhanded trick at his disposal to win almost every administration battle, aggressively subverting the process of vetting key information and using honest brokers. Either Cheney cares only about getting his way and nothing about what’s best for the country, and thus undermines the process, or he truly believes he is brilliant and infallible, and thus undermines the process. Even when disastrously wrong, which has been often, he seems not to care. He certainly hasn't apologized or even acknowledged his errors. Bush consistently makes horrible decisions because he and Cheney have chosen to undermine the apparatus that would aid good decision-making. (Wait, how many diagonal attacks is that, now?)
There are limitations to this chart, of course. For instance, even relatively moderate conservatives will often ally with authoritarian conservatives and will back disastrous Republican policies on the economy, taxes, foreign affairs and countless other issues. It's also possible to find some authoritarian Democrats, but they're certainly in the minority compared to Republicans. One could also certainly argue that many national politicians in both parties are beholden to corporations. On the other hand, there's really no such thing as an authoritarian liberal, because the essence of liberalism is equality (and I would add, meritocracy), in contrast to the artificial hierarchy favored by authoritarians.
On this note, it's important to note that authoritarian conservatives are part of the same continuum as monarchists, class elitists, defenders of wealth inequity and proponents of the ol’ boy network. The cosmetic details may change, but the consistent idea is that one’s merit should not be the determining factor for success. Rather, one’s standing should be determined almost exclusively by social ties and membership in the “club.” An unfair system must be preserved because those in power would lose much of it under a fair system. The privileged must keep their privilege, and sadly, authoritarian conservatives in positions of power seek to expand their privilege and deny it to others. Any programs that promote equality or equal opportunity must be opposed or crushed. The lower rung of authoritarian conservatives are often dupes, voting against their own self-interests in order to feel part of the club. Even though Communism under Stalin and "National Socialism" under the fascist rule of Hitler were in theory rival ideologies, both were totalitarian regimes. Both preached about worker's rights and such, but the reality was highly hierarchical systems based on obedience to authority and dogma.
America is not a fascist state as of yet — but it clearly possess what Dave Neiwert and others would call proto-fascist elements. Who could have guessed, ten years ago, that America would be where it is now? The Bush administration has gotten away with a great deal of their moves by exploiting cognitive dissonances — "Surely the Vice President would never do that if he knew…" "Surely if they're doing that there must be some good reason…" and so on. Who could believe they'd be so audacious? (Well, some of us, and others have come to realize it.)
Without giving way to the same sort of hysteria authoritarian conservatives stoke over Islamic extremists, it's important to note that authoritarian conservatives are dangerous and cannot be trusted with power. That's hardly a theoretical statement, as recent history shows us. It's fair to say that, ironically, authoritarian conservatives in America are profoundly anti-American and opposed to freedom.
Sadly, the current political struggle is not between conservatism and liberalism, it’s between a regressive authoritarianism and basic fairness. The damage done by the Bush administration to our international prestige, our national security, New Orleans, our finances, a host of agencies, the national political discourse and our judicial and legal systems will take years or even decades to reverse. But it can be done.
Anyway, it’s just a chart. But I find it useful for speaking about a consistent, dangerous pattern by authoritarian conservatives.
(Tomorrow will feature a much shorter piece on social tolerance.)