The "Authoritarianism" Temptation

Rick Perlstein and John Dean on May 19, 2008

I don't doubt that something like an "authoritarian personality" exists. But—and this is my college and graduate-student engagement with poststructuralist theory speaking here— it's not really something you can "discover," hanging "out there" in the world to be plucked forth and weighed upon a scale, independent of the instruments we use to measure it. In the case of the scholarly tradition from which John drew his critique in Conservatives Without Conscience, beginning with the German sociologist Theodor Adorno—a Marxist who, though generally soulful and humane, was also susceptible to the potentially authoritarian habits of mind talk of "dialectical inevitability" can engender—the analyst can only but judge the level of "authoritarian-ness" on a scale he himself has devised. With the ideological stakes so high—because calling someone "authoritarian" more a normative judgement than a descriptive one: we are scourging, not thinking—the sociologist becomes judge, jury, and executioner, too tempted to place his thumb on the empirical scale.

B. Mac gets at some of this in his comment, but goes too far; it simply is the laziest possible thinking that a "liberal" must be necessarily unreliable as an analyst of conservatism. We each of us possess critical faculties to evaluate arguments on their own terms, based on their evidence and logic. We each of us should never surrender our skepticism toward any argument we confront, whether it flatters our predilections or challenges them. John Hagee and Jerry Falwell are bad students of liberalism because their arguments are not based on evidence and logic—are not intellectual, indeed are anti-intellectual, and make no sense. I'm a liberal—damned proud of it—but I hope my arguments about conservatism make sense on their own terms, on terms the reader can judge for his or her own self. I've always been attracted to the Enlightenment concept of the "republic of letters"—the idea that you should struggle to judge every piece of writing as if a name wasn't attached to it, independent of the identity of the author, simply based on how well it's argued. This was the reason many of the Founding Fathers wrote their political tracts under pseudonyms: the Englightenment belief that it strengthens an argument to write as if you can't rely on the reader's respect for your inherent—to take another sense of the root word under question here—authority.

And labeling entire traditions of thought and populations of people with pejoratives like "authoritarians" is politically counterproductive even if it weren't analytically suspect. In a similar way, social scientists and historians attracted to Adorno's terms spoke of conservatives as motivated by an ineluctable "status anxiety," terrified of being left behind in a complex modern world. On the one hand the same scholars described conservatives as inherently fearsome ("authoritarian") monsters, and on the other—often in the same utterance—as quivering puddles of fear. Neither are politically useful beliefs for progressives. They impose political ennervation. If our opponents are authoritarian monsters, well, then, we feel helpless in the face of these giants, and. If they are merely pathetic neurotics, then we don't have to to fight them. We have to "cure" them; or wait for them to simply catch up with the modern world in due time; or simply patronize them to death (and indeed Richard Hofstadter, the historian most susceptible to letting such categories get the better of him, did the liberal cause serious damage when he said things like  that the Goldwateter campaign was useful recreational therapy for conservatives to keep them out of mental institutions.

Not helpful: not intellectually, not politically; not stylistically. Pathologizing language makes us lazy as writers; it short-circuits thought. Obviously, via the 9/11 justification our own government—but with our own complicity as citizens, and that's another problem with pathologizing political language; it gets us off the hook, lets us think of our own side as inherently innocent—has brought upon us awful things. But in no way can the war on terror be usefully described as "terroristic." We must be more precise in our language. After all, the fact that labeling something "terrorism" dulls our ability to think about it sensibly is surely one of the lessons of these awful past six and a half years.

For instance, I don't think David Frum is "authoritarian," at least in any analytically useful sense; certainly not on the evidence that he came up with a Madison Avenue shorthand to divide the geopolitical scene more handily into categories or good and evil. (Franklin Roosevelt did that, too—he labeled his ideological opponents "malefactors of great wealth"—and he wasn't authoritarian either.) David Frum is simply conservative deeply invested, psychically and intellectually, in a political disposition that privileges order over flux in the social sphere; and flux over order in the economic sphere (which is not a contradiction, but comes out of a deep-seated conservative intuition that traditional norms and institutions can anchor a laissez-faire economy in a way that keeps economic "freedom" from destabilizing society). I think this had led David Frum, and his fellow contemporary conservatives, to govern disastrously, but that's a battle that a battle to be fought out in the political realm—simultaneously respecting, if you're a liberal, the fact that the world will always include conservatives; and if you're a conservative, the fact that the world will always include liberals. The point is, within the bounds of the civic and civil institutions our blessed Constitution sets up, to defeat your ideological adversaries in elections, to take away their power to govern, at least until the tables turn and they're able to do the same thing to you. After all, as I try to make crystal clear in the book, "Nixonland" was a two-sided engagement: two irreconcilable sets of Americans pathologizing each other, in ways that hemmed in civility and civic health on every side. For example, in coining the term "Nixonland" to describe Richard Nixon's "slander and scare" tactics, Adlai Stevenson and his speechwriter John Kenneth Galbraith felt themselves licensed to engage in slander and scare—arguing, for instance, that if you re-elected old Dwight David Eisenhower, he'd promptly kick off of a heart attack and President Nixon would launch a nuclear war.

The point is not to be ideologically relevatist. I know which side I'm on. My life's work is to wrest governing power from the ideology of conservatism; while respecting the ideological and psychological and dispositional legitimacy of conservatives. (Dag nab it, we'll deliver conservatives quality, affordable, high-quality government-guaranteed healthcare like the rest of the advanced industrial world whether they like it or not!) That's what draws me to Nixonland, and that's the North Star that guides my journeys. And my literary guides? Two great late, great liberal journalists, Paul Cowan and J. Anthony Lukas—writers with both compassion and commitment, empathy and energy. Read more, in fact, about Paul here—it's something of my methodological manifesto. And please do buy his classic book Tribes of America on Amazon, which I managed to bring back into print this year as a labor of love, with the above-linked essay as its introduction.

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