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Video: 50 year study says conservatives 'followers'

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Published: Tuesday July 11, 2006

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In an interview with MSNBC's Keith Olbermann, former Nixon counsel John Dean explained a largely unknown 50 year academic study. The data shows that conservatives are much more likely to follow authoritarian leaders.

Dean discovered the ongoing study while researching his new book, "Conservative Without Conscience."

Dean believes that the study helps to explain why the Republican party has been driven further right.

A rush transcript follows the video.

Rush Transcript

DEAN: Goldwater Republicanism is really R.I.P. It's been put to rest by most of the people who are now active in moving the movement further to the right than it's ever been. I think that Senator [Goldwater], before he departed, was very distressed with Conservatism. In fact, it was our conversations back in 1994 that started this book. That's really where I began. We wanted to find answers to the question, "Why were Republicans acting as they were?" -- Why Conservatives had taken over the party and were being followed as easily as they were in taking the party where [Goldwater] didn't want it to go.

OLBERMANN: What did you find? -- In less than the 200 pages that the book goes into.

DEAN: I ran into a massive study that has really been going on 50 years now by academics. They've never really shared this with the general public. It's a remarkable analysis of the authoritarian personality. Both those who are inclined to follow leaders and those who jump in front and want to be the leaders. It was not the opinion of social scientists. It was information they drew by questioning large numbers of people -- hundreds of thousands of people -- in anonymous testing where [the subjects] conceded their innermost feelings and reactions to things. And it came out that most of these people were pre-qualified to be conservatives and this, did indeed, fit with the authoritarian personality.

OLBERMANN: Did the studies indicate that this really has anything to do with the political point of view? Would it be easier to impose authoritarianism over the right than it would the left? Is it theoretically possible that it could have gone in either direction and it's just a question of people who like to follow other people?

DEAN: They have found, really, maybe a small, 1%, of the left who will follow authoritarianism. Probably the far left. As far as widespread testing, it's just overwhelmingly conservative orientation.

OLBERMANN: There is an extraordinary amount of academic work that you quote in the book. A lot of it is very unsettling. It deals with psychological principles that are frightening and may have faced other nations at other times. In German and Italy in the 30's, come into mind in particular. But, how does it apply now? To what degree should it scare us and to what degree is it something that might be forestalled?

DEAN: To me, it was something of an epiphany to run into this information. First, I'd never read about it before. I sort of worked my way into it until I found it. It's not generally known out there, what's going on. I think, from the best we can tell, these people -- the followers -- a few of them will change their ways when the realize that they are doing -- not even aware of what they are doing. The leaders, those inclined to dominate, they're not going to change for a second. They're going to be what they are. So, by and large, the reason I write about this is, I think we need to understand it. We need to realize that when you take a certain step of vote a certain way, heading in a certain direction, where this can end up. So, it's sort of a cautionary note. It's a warning as to where this can go. Other countries have gone there.

OLBERMANN: And the idea of leaders and followers going down this path or perhaps taking a country down this path requires -- this whole edifice requires and enemy. Communism, al Qaeda, Democrats, me... whoever for the two-minutes hate. I overuse the Orwellian analogies to nauseating proportions. But it really was, in reading what you wrote about, especially what the academics talked about. There was that two-minutes hate. There has to be an opponent, an enemy, to coalesce around or the whole thing falls apart. Is that the gist of it?

DEAN: It is one of the things, believe it or not, that still holds conservatism together. There is many factions in conservatism and their dislike or hatred of those they betray as liberal, who will basically be anybody who disagrees with them, is one of the cohesive factors. There are a few others but that's certainly one of the basics. There's no question that, particularly the followers, they're very aggressive in their effort to pursue and help their authority figure out or authority beliefs out. They will do what ever needs to be done in many regards. They will blindly follow. They stay loyal too long and this is the frightening part of it.

OLBERMANN: Let me read something from the book. Let me read this one quote then I have a question about it. "Many people believe that neoconservatives and many Republicans appreciate that they are more likely to maintain influence and control of the presidency if the nation remains under ever-increasing threats of terrorism, so they have no hesitation in pursuing policies that can provoke the potential terrorists throughout the world." That's ominous, not just in the sense that authoritarians involved in conservatism and now Republicanism would politicize counter-terror here which we've already argued that point on many occasions. Are you actually saying that they would set up -- encourage terrorism from other countries to set them up as a boogey man to have, again, that group to hate here -- more importantly, afraid of?

DEAN: What I'm saying is that there has been fear mongering, the likes of which we have not seen in a long time in this country. It happened early in the cold war. We got accustomed to it. We learned to live with it. We learned to understand what it was about and get it in proportion. We haven't done that yet with terrorism. And this administration is really capitalizing on it and using it for its' political advantage. No question, the academic testing show -- the empirical evidence shows -- when people are frightened, they tend to go to these authority figures. They tend to become more conservative. So, it's paid off for them politically to do this.

OLBERMANN: This all seems to require, not merely, venality or immorality but a kind of amorality where morals don't enter into it at all. "We're right. So anything we do to preserve our process, our power -- even if it by itself is wrong -- it's right in the greater sense." It's that wonderful rationalization that everybody uses in small doses throughout their lives. But, is this idea, this sort of psychological sort of review of the whole thing, does it apply to Dick Cheney? Does it apply to George Bush? Does it apply to Bill Frist? Who are the names on these authoritarian figures?

DEAN: You just named three that I discuss at some length in the book. I focused in the book, not on the Bush Administration and Cheney and The President because they had really been there done that, but what I wanted to understand is what they have done is made it legitimate to have authoritarianism. It was already operating on Capitol Hill after the '94 control by the Republicans in Congress. It recreated the mood. It restructured Congress itself in a very authoritarian style, in the House in particular. The Senate hasn't gone there yet but it's going there because more House members are moving over. This atmosphere is what Bush and Cheney walked into. They are authoritarian personalities. Cheney much more so than Bush. They have made it legitimate and they have taken way past where anybody's ever taken it in the United States.

OLBERMANN: Our society's best defense against that is what? Do we have to hope, as you suggested, the people that follow, wise up and break away from this sort of lockstep salute to, "of course, they're right, of course there are WMDs, of course there are terrorists, of course there is al Qaeda, of course everything is the way the president says it." Or do we rely on the hope that these are fanatics and fanatics always screw up because they would rather believe in their own cause than double-check their own math.

DEAN: The lead researcher in this field told me, he said, "I look at the numbers of the United States and I see about 23% of the population who are pure right-wing authoritarian followers." They're not going to change. They're going to march over the cliff. The best thing to deal with them -- and they're growing, and they have a tremendous influence on Republican politics -- The best defense is understanding them, to realize what they are doing, how they're doing it and how they operate. Then it can be kept in perspective and they can be seen for what they are.


 

 
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