The Paranoid Style in (All) American Politics

Richard Hofstadter sort of wrote the book on paranoia in American politics with his 1964 essay in Harpers: The Paranoid Style in American Politics (full text). In the first paragraph, Hofstadter wrote that the paranoid “style of mind… is not necessarily right wing,” but (written during the heydey of the John Birch Society) he did focus more on contemporary right-wing rather than historical left-wing examples. It’s been nearly a half-century, but the partisan dichotomy has stuck around.

Today there is no doubt that paranoia and conspiracy continue to thrive among the right wing. The most prominent example would be Glenn Beck. I actually used to watch him regularly, but I grew too disgusted after the episodes about George Soros being some kind of international puppetmaster. And of course there’s the well-known Birther movement and a whole ecology of lesser-known conspiracies including everything from chemtrails to faked moon landings.

2013 02 11 Glenn Beck

One of the biggest drawbacks to right-wing conspiracy theories is that they provide a convenient cover for genuine complaints. It’s still shocking to me that with a media that is composed almost entirely (90% or more, judging by donations) of Democrats the topic of “media bias” continues to be written off as though you were talking about little green men. The same thing happens with global warming: reasonable questions about weighing the costs and benefits of various predicted consequences and proposed containment strategies get dismissed in the same category as denialism. Everyone understands that if a study is funded by oil companies we may want to look twice, but no one seems to understand that studies funded by conservationist groups have essentially the same conflict of interest.

Questioning whether systemic incentives might warp the message when it comes to reporting the news or discussing policy responses to global warming is not the same thing as suggestng that there’s a mysterious cabal of hooded figures behind the scenes. It’s simply an observation that incentives and social structures matter.

JournoList is a great example. There was no centralized control to intentionally keep everyone on-message, but having a bunch of politically like-minded journalists all talking to each other in a private, communal setting is clearly a recipe to marginally exacerbate group-think. (Occasional spats don’t detract from that fact.) For another illustrative example, look at the way Super Freakonomics was savaged by environmentalists. The authors assumed that global warming is real, and then had an open-ended discussion about the costs and benefits of possible responses. Because they deviated from the orthodox proscriptions, they found themseleves in the crosshairs. These are serious problems, but liberals don’t have to address them because the passing resemblance to a conspiracy theory is enough to trigger visions of wide-eyed lunatics and justify mocking evasion. Thus: real problems get papered over thanks to a convenient excuse provided by crazies on the Right.

The Right doesn’t have a monopoly on traditional conspiracy theories, of course. In some cases you can find obvious analogues on both sides. The Left’s fascination with the Koch Brothers is a pretty obvious mirror image of the Right’s obsession with George Soros. But the overwhelming perception is still that the crazies live mostly on the Right, and that’s dangersouly misleading.

2013 02 11 The Truth Is Out There

There’s a very particular kind of paranoia on the Left that tends to fly underneath the radar, and I think it’s worth dragging into the light. Not in the spriit of “You started it!” nor in a dead-end quest for absolute moral equivalence (“All sides of all fights are always equally valid.”) but because this particular paranoia is bad for America.

Let me get started by pointing out that the Wikipedia article does a really good job of outlining the major characteristics of the paranoid style in American politics with excerpts from Hofstader’s article. For starters, the paranoia is associated with a kind of high-stakes Manichaeism. Manichaeism is an ancient religion that at one time competed with Christianity to supplant pagan religions around the world and it views that world as a battleground between the forces of ultimate good and evil.

The paranoid spokesman, sees the fate of conspiracy in apocalyptic terms — he traffics in the birth and death of whole worlds, whole political orders, whole systems of human values. He is always manning the barricades of civilization… he does not see social conflict as something to be mediated and compromised, in the manner of the working politician. Since what is at stake is always a conflict between absolute good and absolute evil, what is necessary is not compromise but the will to fight things out to a finish.

Paranoid politics is also absolutist in terms of political adversaries. Opponents are seen as easily identifiable, purely evil, and supremely powerful, thus making them fit and appropriate targets for limitless hatred and derision.

The enemy is clearly delineated: he is a perfect model of malice, a kind of amoral superman — sinister, ubiquitous, powerful, cruel, sensual, luxury-loving. Unlike the rest of us, the enemy is not caught in the toils of the vast mechanism of history, himself a victim of his past, his desires, his limitations. He wills, indeed, he manufactures, the mechanism of history, or tries to deflect the normal course of history in an evil way. He makes crises, starts runs on banks, causes depressions, manufactures disasters, and then enjoys and profits from the misery he has produced. The paranoid’s interpretation of history is distinctly personal: decisive events are not taken as part of the stream of history, but as the consequences of someone’s will.

Finally, and as a consequence of the previous two, paranoid politics invariably turn their practitioners into the very thing that they claim to hate and fight against.

It is hard to resist the conclusion that this enemy is, on many counts, the projection of the self; both the ideal and the unacceptable aspects of the self are attributed to him… Secret organizations, set up to combat secret organizations, give the same flattery. The Ku Klux Klan imitated Catholicism to the point of donning priestly vestments, developing an elaborate ritual and an equally elaborate hierarchy. The John Birch Society emulates Communist cells and quasi-secret operation through “front” groups, and preaches a ruthless prosecution of the ideological war along lines very similar to those it finds in the Communist enemy. Spokesmen of the various fundamentalist anti-Communist “crusades” openly express their admiration for the dedication and discipline the Communist cause calls forth.

All of these characteristics closely match the Left’sbelief that you can explain virtually all policy differences with the Right once you understand that people on the Right are racist, sexist, homophobe bigots who enact viciously oppressive policies out of ignorant fear.

Manichaeistic world view? Check. We’ve got the side of tolerance and euality and virtue fighting against the forces of ignorance and oppression and greed. This battle cannot end until the forces of dark are dispersed entirely. Would you stop for anything less? Of couse not.

Absolutist view of political adversaries? Check. The GOP is easily identifiable on many levels: party affiliaion, cultural halmarks (e.g. Fox News), and of course the fact that they are white, heterosexual, Christian males who have not overtly declared their hostility to the patriarch. If you are not against the patriarch, you are for the patriarchy. Most importantly, liberals are completely unwilling to consider the possibility that a wide majority of conservatives hold the policy views they do for humane and sincere reasons.

When Republicans imposed voter ID laws, this was taken as proof of a vicious desire to oppress minorities. The idea that conservatives might actually care about the integrity of our voting system was sneeringly dismissed out of hand, even though stunned UN election observers had a hard time believing how little security there was in American elections. The headline of this Foreign Policy article says it all: “Foreign election officials amazed by trust-based U.S. voting system.” It’s logically possible to support voter ID laws beacuse you think common sense measures should be taken to ensure election integrity. It’s also logically possible to support voter ID laws because you’re a raving lunatic racist. Liberals don’t hesitate to make the call in favor of all Republican being raving lunatic racists. Whenever conservatives oppose affirmative action, this is also taken as sufficient evidence of nefarious discrmiination. It’s just the man trying to hold you down. And yet the reason conservatives give for opposing affirmative action is often: it does more harm than good. Instead of giving them the benefit of the doubt, liberals carry on with the assumption that conservatives are racist and liars. This despite ever-accumulating evidence that the conservative view of affirmative action is correct.

If a GOP policy can ever be interpreted–correctly or not–as having an adverse impact on minorities the Democratic position is that it will have that impact and that the adverse impact is actually the intended result of the Republicans because they are just evil, evil people.

Becoming the very thing you hate? Check. Liberals anxious to purge the world of the stain of discrimination adopt the tactics of intimidation, pressure, and coercion that they seek to eradicate. The debate over gay rights is the starkest example of this. There are homosexuals who feel that redefining marriage is either a bad idea, or at least a serious enough step that we ought to have a real and difficult conversation about it. This is reasonable. After all, why should we assume that adopting a heterosexual institution for a homosexual culture is the best thing for homosexuals? You’re not allowed to ask that question because this isn’t about having an open-ended conversation. Whether it’s gay rights or global warming, no deviation from a rigid dogma is tolerated because we’re on a crusade and any discord is a sign of weakness. Thus a rigid, top-down, authoritarian power structure  eerily reminiscent of liberal views of oppressive majorities begins to emerge.

This is all fairly new to me. Up until just a couple of weeks ago I saw the inflammatory and dogmatic political tactics of liberalism as an intentional attempt to weaponize sensitive issues. After spending more time talking to the people who employ these methods one-on-one, however, I’ve come to an ever scarier recognition: they really believe it.

This is a truly paranoid world view. It’s like something right out of the Twilight Zone. You live in a country where the majority self-identify as conservative, and yet you believe that the majority (or at least a very large minority) of these people are essentially different from you and yours. Can you call a view that seriously writes off tens of millions of Americans as morally and intellectually degenerate anything but paranoid? Can it be anything but dangerous?

It’s bad enough that any time a conservative opposes a liberal policy touching on the topic of minority rights the accusation is that the conservative must be hateful. That’s a lamentable and cynical but ultimately rational political ploy. But for liberals to honestly believe that they inhabit a country where there are tens of millions of raving bigots who just live to stick it to blacks, or to women, or to hispanics, or to gays… that’s truly tragic.

Nothing I’ve written here should absolve the genuinely hateful, ignorant, and bigoted speech of some conservatives. When you get Todd Aiken talking about “legitimate rape”: I’m not going to defend that or downplay it. It’s unworthy of anything but contempt, and it’s a significant statement from a national candidate. That says something really, truly sad about the state of the Republican Party.

But when liberals use that brush to tar other statements that aren’t as indefensible: that’s where the problem becomes bipartisan. For example, when Paul Ryan explained his belief that abortion should be illegal even in case of rape (a position I do not share), he stated that “the method of conception doesn’t change the definition of life.” That statement was immediately taken by many on the left to be statement that rape was just a method of conception and therefore morally equivalent to any other method of conception. According to this view, Paul Ryan–Republican vice presidential candidate–just stated that rape, consensual sex, and in vitro fertlization are all basically the same thing. (Just look at the Google results.)

In the end I don’t view the Right and Left as equal and opposite poles. Instead, they are feeding off of each other. Conservatives know that they will be accused of discrimination no matter what the truth is, and some lash out in anger by deliberately deploying racially insensitive rhetoric. Which, of course, liberals gleefully seize upon as evidence of their original claims. Conservatives point to the obvious glee with which the bait is accepted as proof of their accusations, and the cycle escalates.

I have kids who are 4 and 6. They are good kids and usually get along, but when they fight: this is what it looks like.

The paranoid conspiracy theories of the Right are well-known, but the Left’s own delusions are just as dangerous, and the two of them are feeding off of each other in a way that threatens the fabric of our society.