This Conservative Says Santorum, Romney Are Not True Conservatives

John Dean talks about the GOP’s dilemma.

The contest to determine who will represent the Grand Old Party in November’s presidential election has devolved into a quasi-farcical tit-for-tat over who is the rightful bearer of the mantle of “true conservatism.”

Rick Santorum is pretty sure he holds that distinction (notwithstanding the fact that four years ago he placed the coveted crown on the head of current rival Mitt Romney). For his part, Mitt Romney claims to imbue his conservatism with an element of severity—a far cry from the Senate hopeful who, in 1994, flexed his moderate muscles during a debate with Ted Kennedy.

Newt Gingrich—the mad scientist of the Republican right—thinks it’s quite obvious that he has the creds, thank you very much. “I’m clearly the more conservative candidate, by any rational standard,” he told Fox News anchor Sean Hannity last November.

It’s kind of like watching three children fight over a toy they stole: It would be entertaining if it wasn’t so pathetic.

Truth be told, the self-appointed gatekeepers of contemporary conservatism have little in common with the stalwarts of their adopted movement: men and women (though mostly men) whose reverence for tradition, belief in a Hobbesian natural order, and penchant for personal freedom and limited government has served as an effective counterweight to post-New Deal Democrats from Harry Truman to Jimmy Carter.

The late Senator Barry Goldwater once remarked: “Conservatives seek the wisdom of the past, not the worst of it.” Yet we are faced today with a collection of pseudo-conservatives and reactionaries who would dredge up the worst our history has to offer— backroom abortions, industrial pollution and unfettered greed—to further a cause that has increasingly detached itself from rational discourse.

John Dean—a self-described Goldwater conservative who served as chief counsel to Richard Nixon during the Watergate scandal (and did jail time for his former boss)—saw the writing on the wall more than a decade ago and set out to find out where his party went wrong. His 2006 book, Conservatives Without Conscience, proposes that the Republican Party has been co-opted by an authoritarian vanguard fronted by religious radicals who are undermining the values and goals of their predecessors. According to Dean:

“Conservatism is not inherently moralistic, negative, arrogant, condescending, and self-righteous. Nor is it authoritarian. Yet all of these are adjectives that best describe the political outlook of contemporary conservatism.”

I spoke with Dean earlier this week to get his thoughts on the GOP presidential candidates and the future of the Republican Party. I came away from the conversation more convinced than ever that conservatism as a movement is being held hostage by what Goldwater called “a bunch of kooks.”

Each of the three main Republican presidential hopefuls—Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney—has at one point or another claimed to be a “true conservative.” Who do you think most closely reflects true conservatism?
I don’t think that any of the current candidates are anything close to traditional conservatives; they are trying to see who can be the most radical not the most conservative. The conservative label has gotten so vague as to what it means. For instance, I’ve listened to tapes of Nixon’s conversations with [Russell] Kirk [a renowned conservative political historian and author of the 1953 book The Conservative Mind] and there is no religious discussion whatsoever in those conversations. The religion that runs through today’s conservatism is pretty foreign to conservatives like Barry Goldwater, who was a good Episcopalian, and [the late] William F. Buckley, who was a good Catholic. These people were horrified by the religious right. It seems to me this is a pandering to a part of the base, and their social policy is being driven by their religious beliefs rather than what is good social policy. We’re seeing it with this whole revived contraception debate, which most Americans thought had been settled a long time ago.

You mentioned William F. Buckley, founder of the National Review and former host of the show Firing Line. He was a conservative intellectual, representing a political movement that doesn’t seem to value intellectualism anymore. Has American conservatism been dumbed down?
I’ve seen a lot of evidence of anti-intellectualism in the conservative movement. This is something that’s been observed since the time of Ronald Reagan and it’s growing. The thinking conservatives like Buckley and his National Review crowd were absolutely flummoxed by what they saw happening to the movement. [The National Review] still appeals to some of the more rational conservatives but that’s a dwindling group. It’s just not the base today. [But] the thing that’s most striking to me about conservatives today is that they just don’t care about honesty and truthfulness. They just create their own realities and keep repeating them over and over … and they don’t care about what is actually going on or any rational or scientific explanation. That’s how they can take all these remarkably inconsistent positions philosophically and politically. Santorum is a classic example. He can be arguing for limited  government on the one hand and then propose social policies that are 180 degrees away from it and he doesn’t see the conflict. I find it very frightening.

It seems to me political discourse has become increasingly vitriolic since I was a kid growing up in the 1970s, particularly from the right. How and when did conservative rhetoric become so nasty?
You can thank Newt Gingrich. He came to Washington [after being elected Speaker of the House in 1995] and said “don’t bring your wives and families, it’s going to be a different city.” When I worked on Capitol Hill everyone knew everybody, all members of Congress, or almost all of them, lived in the District of Columbia or had homes there. Their kids all went to the same schools, they saw each other at church. They knew each other. When I was working for MSNBC during the Clinton impeachment, I would discover many times that two members of Congress didn’t even know each other, they’d never even met; they’re in Washington three days a week spending most of that time raising money, which explains why it’s so easy for them to go out and trash each other. It’s just become an awful system. As I pointed out in an essay on this subject last year, conservatives are now demanding and enforcing absolute GOP party discipline, and trying to impose it at all levels of government, tolerating no exceptions. They recognize no comity or courtesy in any cross-party situations that are not to their advantage. They have made civility the exception, rather than the rule. They will lie and mislead to accomplish what is necessary, and conservative “thinkers” have abandoned intellectual honesty for the cause.

At the end of February, Senator Olympia Snowe, a centrist Republican who served on Capitol Hill since the 1980s, said she would not seek reelection, citing “an atmosphere of polarization” and “my way or the highway” ideologies. Is there still a place for more traditional conservatives in the GOP?
The Republican party has become increasingly fractured. There is really no moderate wing of the party anymore—those people have been pushed out and are all independents. Barry Goldwater, today, would be considered a RINO, a Republican in Name Only; and Nixon, on policy at least, is just so far to the left that he would be considered a liberal by today’s Republicans.

Can the Republican Party retain its relevance under such circumstances?
There was a time when the party was very instrumental for the mechanics of getting elected, particularly in presidential politics. You needed the party’s machinery. You don’t need that anymore. Today a candidate can raise so much money by himself. The functions of the party have decreased considerably. We talk about having a two-party system, but it’s pretty weak. The independents now are really in control because the bases of the parties, which control them, are pretty clearly defined on where their positions are. Neither of the very highly vocal factions on the left or the right have sufficient numbers to take control. There are now more independents than there are members of either party, and it’s independents that ultimately decide elections.

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