There’s a great old article you can still find on the Net: The Paranoid Style in American Politics, by Richard Hofstadter. It was originally a lecture at Oxford, reprinted in Harper’s Magazine in 1964.
Great stuff, great ideas. The style is very adaptable, it has showed up as full-throated hysteria over Masons (the Bavarian Illuminati!), Catholics (rampant Popery!), European monarchs (those Hapsburgs!), international bankers, gold-gamblers, immigrants (those Catholics again!), munitions manufacturers, progressives, communists, and socialists. Surprise! It’s back! Hofstadter characterized it as paranoid, not because its adherents are “certifiable lunatics” in the clinical sense, but rather because it “evokes the sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy” that typifies the style.
There is the irrational, nebulous character of the menace that presents itself; the leap from some reasonably factual basis into the sheerest fantasy; the implacable, almost supernatural power of the enemy. The style has existed for ages. In the 1950’s it showed itself in the right wing extremism of McCarthyism and the John Birch Society.
Mainstream conservatism in those days was much more of a centrist concept, more disposed to operate within the accepted patterns of democratic, representative politics. The Goldwater crew, William F. Buckley, et al. These conservatives kept the Birchers pushed to the fringes of discourse, and they finally carried the day with the election of Ronald Reagan as president, the “Reagan Revolution.”
Those fringe elements have recently surged back into the limelight, the whole Tea Party thing especially (there are others so infected). We can blame the mainstream conservatives for this, it was they who pushed the center so far to the right and have shouted so long and loud about how the government is the real problem. I can get pretty paranoid myself when confronted with their hubris, distortions and lies. “Lower taxes! Less government regulation! Free markets! Smaller government! States rights!” In a pig’s eye.
That’s what the mainstreamers talk about in public anyway. What they really want is to reduce the Federal Government to “something that is small enough to drown in a bathtub.” I forget who said that, it was back in the Reagan era. The real agenda, of course, is corporatism, the ascendency of the big corporations. Figuring that out is basic police work: who benefits? The talk of “States Rights” is a distraction. If the Fed’s are powerless, who has the juice to restrain the corporations? No one.
Now these new Tea Party, far-right paranoids are back with a vengeance. They may have been encouraged by the mainstream conservatives, and certain politicians and news media outlets, but in large measure the movement is spontaneous explosion of the paranoid style. They do frequently parrot the Republican Party line about lower taxes and smaller government, etc, but they often take the ball a lot further down the field, far enough that they are beginning to scare the bejezzus out of the mainstreamers.
What do they want? Certainly they are not being rational. They seem to demand that our government cut them off from important benefits, like Social Security, Medicare and unemployment insurance. They complain that President Obama has raised their taxes (he has actually lowered them), that he wants to take their guns (nothing like that has happened, nor is it contemplated), they seem incensed that he has taken small steps to make it easier for them to afford health care. They long for a return to “Constitutional Governance,” but it is never clear what they mean by this. Certainly they never mention either of the two, great Constitutional errors of our time: corporate personhood and the unitary executive.
When these new paranoids gather it is like some giant zombie party. No one seems to be able to say what they want (beyond freedom!), or what they believe in (beyond America!). It’s all unfocused rage at someone who is taking away their freedom (!!!). Looking at the crowds, and listening to them, “they” are under-educated, uninformed, relatively prosperous White Americans.
Something, indeed, is being taken from them. What they are losing, and who is doing the taking, are good questions, fit subjects for debate. Obama? Immigrants (again)? Socialists? Liberals? No, no, no and no. Look again, people! And “you” are helping them.
It’s a great article, you should look it up. It reads like it was written this morning.