In a number of posts earlier here, I’ve referrenced or quoted the work of American historian Richard Hofstadter, notably his “Anti-Intellectualism in American Life” and his famous essay, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics”. I’ve done so because Hofstadter’s observations can be uniquely illuminating as regards facets of American culture and politics.
George Packer, writing in the New Yorker also finds Hofstadter’s work of great value.
POPULISM AND PARANOIA
Step out of the A.I.G. bonus frenzy, the bailout conundrum, and other matters of the moment to think a bit about American history. It’s all related.
Last year, Vintage reissued Richard Hofstadter’s classic 1965 essay collection “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.” The title essay has joined the American political lexicon, partly because (as Sean Wilentz points out in his introduction) Americans keep living up to it. Among Hofstadter’s examples of paranoid rhetoric from the early sixties, here’s an Arizona gun owner testifying against federal control over mail-order firearms: “a further attempt by a subversive power to make us part of one world socialistic government.” These days, the apocalyptic rhetoric of the lone gun nut has become the staple political analysis on Fox News (for example, try to watch this recent performance by Glenn Beck, which displays every pathology from Hofstadter’s essay).
The modern American right, which is congenitally vulnerable to paranoia, gives into its own tendencies most readily when Democrats are in power and its own sense of dispossession is greatest. The John Birch Society thrived under Kennedy; talk-radio demagogues and the militia movement came into their own during the Clinton years; the prospect of a big Democratic win last year had a lot of conservative pundits and some Republican candidates describing Obama as a radical, a socialist, or worse. In some quarters the language has gotten more intemperate since he took office and started governing like the center-left politician that he’s always been. It isn’t just language that’s symptomatic of the paranoid style. It’s the certainty of a conspiratorial hand behind every decision; the evangelical fervor that sees every political dispute as an ultimate contest of good against evil.
Lately, the media has seized upon the word “populist” with all the mindless fury of a mob of…populists. To restore some meaning to the word besides popular outrage, turn to Hofstadter again…
…For example, the (populist) idea that Timothy Geithner is too close to Wall Street to protect the taxpayers could eventually turn into the (paranoid) idea that Timothy Geithner was appointed in order to protect the bankers at the expense of the taxpayers.
continue reading here
And Packer addresses some criticisms leveled against the piece above:
h/t Andrew Sullivan