“The Paranoid Style in American Politics”
Americans are a famously ahistorical people. And so, like a bad dream scripted by George Santayana, the same tropes, for better and for worse, keep turning up.
The rhetoric in these parts has been ugly for the past couple of years and its pace seems to have accelerated since the calendar turned. What, I have found myself wondering, was so bad that only idiotic invective can adequately express it?
That left me no choice but to head for the history books. Or, in this unusual case, a paper.
I’ve spoken before about why it’s important to understand history. As Hofstadter says, we study history in large part to learn how things don’t happen. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s turn to the paper.
Actually, let’s turn to the environment in which the paper was written. It was 1964. An American President had been assassinated months before. An enemy, sworn to the destruction of the very premise of American society, stood armed with nuclear weapons and supported insurrections around the globe. Oh, and that enemy had beaten the United States to launching both a satellite and a man into orbit. The world was a scary place.
That was also the year that the Republican Party, then as now the nominal party of the monied establishment, nominated a then very different type of candidate. Barry Goldwater, US Senator from Arizona, won the nomination and began the process of introducing a fiery of brand of conservative politics to the general public.
He lost. Big.
But maybe he won the war. While the next GOP President was Richard Nixon, many believe that Goldwater paved the way for Ronald Reagan and the modern conservative ascendancy. If William F. Buckley, Jr. was busy building the foundation for such a development, Goldwater certainly elevated its ideas to a more visible place.
Yet, I would submit, there is a difference between conservatism and the nonsense currently afoot in the land. Let me demonstrate what I mean by nonsense.
Last month (February 2017) a bill was introduced in the Arizona Senate that would expand the definition of racketeering–a felony created to enable prosecution of organized crime–to include rioting. It redefined rioting to include any action that results in damage to the property of others and allows for prosecution and civil forfeiture of anyone planning or participating in an event deemed to turn into a riot. It is, in short, a model of prior restraint on free speech.
Why do the good people of Arizona need such a law on the books? Here’s what one Republican, Sen. John Kavanagh, of Fountain Hills, told The Arizona Capitol Times. “You now have a situation where you have full-time, almost professional agent-provocateurs that attempt to create public disorder,’’ he said. “A lot of them are ideologues, some of them are anarchists,’’ Kavanagh continued. “But this stuff is all planned.’’
That sounded vaguely familiar. In fact, I’m deep into a book right now about an almost 50-year old event in which the same things are said. How, I wondered, are these dopey ideas perpetuated? And why do they have their deepest roots in parts of the country that no committed troublemaker could even find on a map?
All this led me back to Dr. Hofstadter. Richard Hofstadter was a masterful scholar of American history who taught at Columbia University. He was a public intellectual, often called upon to explain things to an interested swath of the electorate. In 1964 the editors of Harper’s asked him to explain the state of our politics.
The result is the 8-page, two column paper that appeared in the November 1964 issue. You can read it here, free, and I encourage you to do so. But I know you’re busy so let me offer a précis.
“American politics has often been an arena for angry minds,” the professor begins. He then gets to the heart of the matter, what he calls the paranoid style–which is a descriptive term meant to evoke a mood, not a clinical diagnosis–noting it is an “old and recurrent phenomenon in our public life.” Somehow that’s not comforting.
The evidence goes way back. In the 1790s there was the anti-Masonic movement, whipped up by the New England clergy and, although regional, it spawned a third party and was so widely accepted that even Andrew Jackson was considered suspect by some. This was followed, in the 1840s, by an anti-Catholic movement that still erupts on occasion.
No less a personage than Samuel F. B. Morse, he of telegraph and Morse code fame, wrote of a conspiracy against the US which had Jesuit missionaries “traveling through the land.” Here’s how you knew they were Catholics: ” …the western country swarms with them under the name of puppet show men, dancing masters, music teachers, peddlers of images and ornaments, barrel organ players, and similar practitioners.”
Puppeteers. Not so different from clowns if you stop and think about it.
And so it goes. The great abolitionist Lyman Beecher was in on this anti-Catholic thing, too. In the 1890s the Populists took up that position claiming the Panic of 1893 was caused by Catholics. We got red scares in the 1920s and McCarthy in the 1950s. Now we have marauding Democrats and Islamic terrorists planning to lay siege to Flagstaff. That last bit is a joke for anyone prone to take me too seriously.
It’s downright silly except that the entire Federal government and most of the state governments are in control of people who believe such things. Hofstadter tells us that such thinking can be found in pre-Enlightenment Europe so in a way it has always been with us.
No, this is different you say. Really? Here’s Hofstadter:
“But the modern right wing…feels dispossessed. America has largely been taken away from them and their kind, though they are determined to try and repossess it and to prevent the final destructive act of subversion. The old American virtues have been eaten away by cosmopolitans and intellectuals….Their predecessors discovered conspiracies; the modern radical right finds conspiracy to be betrayal from on high.”
I think you have to agree that excerpt feels pretty contemporary and not 53 years old.
It is not the job of an historian to fix the current state of affairs so Hofstadter offers no prescriptions. The paranoiac, he tells us, despite a veneer of scholarship, avoids and resists anything that disrupts his world view. And politicians, he avers, who may only sympathize to a point, will not fight an electoral reality.
In a way there is no specific course of action other than to wait for the inevitable overstepping and the resultant backlash. Only then can pushing back succeed. At that point, the actions of individual actors do matter–think of Joseph N. Welch or Edward R. Murrow.
Let’s hope we have someone like them around when the time comes.
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