A conservative friend of mine once told me he didn’t believe in democracy. After telling me he voted for Bush because he didn’t think we should switch leaders during wartime, he said: “Look at history. Our culture is in decline. Our leaders are corrupt. Do you really think democracy can work in this decadent society?” The implication was clear: We need a dictator, not just to protect us from our enemies, but to save us from ourselves.
As the new Democratic Congress prepares to take office, a chorus of pundits is calling for bipartisanship. We’re told that all sides have something to contribute to the debate over exactly how much of the Constitution we should throw away. But like my friend, the modern Republican Party is not conservative but authoritarian.
How could American citizens hold such anti-democratic views? Following the Second World War, Theodor Adorno asked the same question in “The Authoritarian Personality.” Would a significant number of Americans be susceptible to “fascistic” ideologies? Participants in this extensive psychological study were ranked based on their response to statements such as:
“Obedience and respect for authority are the most important virtues children should learn.”
“Homosexuality is a particularly rotten form of delinquency and ought to be severely punished.”
“Too many people today are living in an unnatural, soft way; we should return to the fundamentals, to a more red-blooded, active way of life.”
The study took pains to distinguish principled conservatism from the authoritarian fear of weakness and identification with strength. The book’s essential insight is still relevant today: Authoritarians see threats everywhere and demand strong leaders to protect them precisely because those threats are inside them and therefore never disappear.
Ted Haggard’s recent disgrace is a prime example. While tirelessly blasting gays in public, this prominent leader of the Christian right was apparently having meth-fueled orgies with a homosexual prostitute. He’s hardly alone; Rush Limbaugh bemoaned America’s moral decay while sending his maid to pick up black-market drugs, and alcohol seems to have released Mel Gibson’s inner anti-Semite and Mark Foley’s hidden pervert.
These revelations are not surprising. Since their rigid morality denies impulses that other people develop socially acceptable means of expressing, authoritarians must project these compulsions outward: “It’s not me that’s sick; it’s everyone else!” It’s especially handy if society has a ready stock of acceptable scapegoats, e.g. Muslims, immigrants, atheists and queers. As Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Penn.) showed, anti-gay bigots are often more obsessed with gay sex than the horniest homosexuals.
American Christian conservatives are especially susceptible to authoritarian ideology. Their Puritanical upbringing sows a rich field of repression and a corresponding need for strong control. As a southern Republican on CNN said, “There are some people, and I’m one of them, that believe George Bush was placed where he is by the Lord. I don’t care how he governs, I will support him.”
The Bush Administration feeds this base’s fears – the terrorists are everywhere, they’re watching, they’re ready to pounce at any sign of weakness. As Attorney General Alberto Gonzales recently reminded us, questioning the President’s illegal domestic spying program “is itself a grave threat to the liberty and security of the American people.”
Some Democrats have internalized the authoritarian right’s bullying. Hillary Clinton is bending over backward to show how conservative she can be. Two Michigan Daily columnists recently argued that the Democratic Congress needs to appear bipartisan on terror and Iraq, parroting the Right’s own criticism of anyone who doesn’t share their hysteria. The call for bipartisanship fits the insipid pseudo-tolerance many liberals espouse: “Let’s listen and understand the bully. He was probably abused as a child.”
There are fundamental democratic values that simply cannot be compromised. Bigotry is wrong. Torture is wrong. Unilateral war is so wrong we fought two world wars and invented the United Nations to try to end it. The NSA spying program must be curtailed, the CIA secret prisons closed and congressional investigative power asserted with rigor. Bipartisanship with conservatives is fine, but the authoritarian movement that has taken over the Republican Party must be destroyed.
The American system is not so perfect that the temptation to surrender freedom to a Caesar is foreign to us. Ideologies that deny choice, whether those of terrorists or of the American authoritarians obsessed with them, do not deserve our respect, our understanding or our tolerance. And it is up to each of us to demand that liberty is never abandoned for the reassuring slumber of blind obedience.
Toby Mitchell can be reached at email@example.com.