History Lesson

The Obama Haters

We still don’t understand how fringe conservatism went mainstream.

A few years ago, in this column, I proposed a moratorium on drive-by references to historian Richard Hofstadter’s classic essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.” Too often, pundits invoked the title of that Goldwater-era exploration of right-wing fringe politics without giving much attention to the essay’s actual content, let alone the context in which Hofstadter wrote it.

Not surprisingly, my plea worked about as well as a stop sign before a runaway 18-wheeler. Lately, from the rise of Sarah Palin to the spring’s “tea parties” to the “birther” frenzies and health care town halls of this summer to the Joe Wilson contretemps, allusions to Hofstadter have never seemed more widespread.

It’s hard to deny that the title recommends itself. Today’s ultraconservative activists exhibit many core elements of the style that Hofstadter identified: the penchant for “conspiratorial fantasy,” the apocalyptic stakes imagined to be involved in policy debates, the imperviousness to rational persuasion. Nonetheless, Hofstadter’s thesis ought to be used carefully and sparingly. All too often, pundits wheel out Hofstadter’s intellectual authority as a substitute for fresh analysis; sometimes they appear to be endorsing a psychological diagnosis of conservative activists—a reading of Hofstadter’s work that he pointedly disavowed (“I am not speaking in a clinical sense, but borrowing a clinical term for other purposes. I have neither the competence nor the desire to classify any figures of the past or present as certifiable lunatics”), but that his choice of words inevitably, and unfortunately, encouraged.

So, if “the paranoid style” is destined to stay with us as a concept, it’s worth re-examining its meaning and the context in which Hofstadter developed it.

For Hofstadter, the essay (first given as a lecture at Oxford in 1963, published in short form in Harper’s in 1964, expanded for the book in 1965) represented the final statement, if not exactly the culmination, of a decade of explorations into the American far right. It was during the heyday of Sen. Joe McCarthy—who claimed that Cold War espionage “must be the product of a great conspiracy, a conspiracy on a scale so immense as to dwarf any previous such venture in the history of man”—that a claque of intellectuals began to examine the sources and motives of these outré movements that were suddenly visible in American politics.

The thinkers who investigated the historical, psychological, and sociological roots of right-wing extremism ranged from social psychologists such as Gordon Allport to continental theorists such as Theodor Adorno to best-selling popularizers such as Eric Hoffer—many of them unsettled by the trauma of European fascism and its echoes in the McCarthy movement. (In the 1960s, with the rise of conspiratorial thinking in the New Left, many turned their attention to the paranoid style on the left as well.) A handful of these thinkers, collaborating in a Columbia University faculty seminar, wrote up their theories for a volume called The New American Right (1955), later updated as The Radical Right (1963).

Hofstadter’s contribution to The New American Right was “The Pseudo-Conservative Revolt,” which actually makes more of an effort than does “The Paranoid Style” to identify the sources and hallmarks of ultraconservative thought. Like many of his colleagues in the Columbia seminar, Hofstadter had by this point long ago dropped his youthful Marxism and come to regard the economistic worldview of the previous generation’s leading historians as inadequate. He and his peers sought to mine richer veins of social thought, going back to Weber and Freud, to dig deeper into motive, values, ideology, and the habits of mind of subcultures.

Hofstadter’s 1954 essay introduced the concept of “status politics.” It suggested that the far right’s obsessions—which he judged inexplicable solely by reference to conventional material interests—were tied to a distinctly modern anxiety: “[t]he rootlessness and heterogeneity of American life,” felt as the old order of the rural village collapsed. Once-dominant WASPs of native stock feared displacement by rising ethnic groups, while Irish and German Catholics embraced “hyper-patriotism,” “hyper-conformism,” and kindred values to strut their American bona fides. Patriotic societies, veterans’ groups, and McCarthyite causes helped these groups equate their own values with American ones.

“The Pseudo-Conservative Revolt,” furthermore, situated these individuals within a rapidly shifting culture. Contributing to their frightened, aggressive, and bitter disposition were, among other factors, the “the growth of the mass media of communication,” the “long tenure in power” of liberals, and the feeling during the Cold War of “continued crisis” rather than the periodic involvement in world affairs that the United States had enjoyed before 1939. Although Hofstadter didn’t plumb these factors in depth, and although at times he let his contempt for his subjects overwhelm his capacity to explicate their thought, he was still able to describe the impulses behind the new conservatism nonjudgmentally, as “a response, however unrealistic, to realities.”

Over the next decade, Hofstadter retained his interest in ultraconservatism. As the fury of McCarthyism gave way to the more quotidian conformity of the Ike Age (and the popular rejection of the cerebral Adlai Stevenson), Hofstadter trained his focus on the historical sources of America’s long-standing hostility toward the life of the mind, producing perhaps his most brilliant work, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (1963). Just at that moment, however, right-wing extremism came roaring back. In 1964, the far right won the Republican presidential nomination for its own standard-bearer, Barry Goldwater. And the assassination of President Kennedy on a trip to seething, ultraconservative Dallas—where mobs had just verbally and physically harassed Stevenson and where a John Birch Society newspaper ad on Nov. 22 menacingly charged the president with communistic sympathies—made the extremists appear newly dangerous.

Hofstadter hints at the influence of the assassination on his thinking in “The Paranoid Style.” He recounts a congressional hearing, following Kennedy’s murder, on a gun-control measure that so exercised three Arizona men that they “drove 2,500 miles to Washington from Bagdad, Arizona, to testify against it … with what might be considered representative paranoid arguments, insisting that it was an ‘attempt by a subversive power to make us part of one world socialistic government. ’ ” If nothing else, the assassination crystallized the worries about a resurgent right that led historians in the 1960s to look again at conspiracy-mindedness.

Ironically, the historical portion of Hofstadter essay, though seldom cited these days by journalists, was groundbreaking, though not very controversial. It traced the tendency in our political culture, on the left and right, to see all-powerful conspiracies devoted to subverting the American way. In contrast, the essay’s latter half, a portrait of the style and practices of the contemporary far right, is what usually gets cited.

No one would deny the cogent insights of the essay. Hofstadter identifies real aspects of a familiar right-wing type, from the hyper-competence he ascribes to his conspiring enemies (“he is a perfect model of malice; a kind of amoral superman”) to his taste for pseudo-pedantry (“McCarthy’s 96-page pamphlet McCarthyism contains no less than 313 footnote references, and Mr. Welch’s fantastic assault on Eisenhower, The Politician, is weighed down by a hundred pages of bibliography and notes”). And as countless admirers have noted, some of Hofstadter’s language about the right of that era—from anti-fluoridation cranks to John Birch Society members—perfectly describes today’s extremists. To wit: “The old American virtues have already been eaten away by cosmopolitans and intellectuals; the old competitive capitalism has been gradually undermined by socialist and communist schemers; the old national security and independence have been destroyed by treasonous plots, having as their most powerful agents not merely outsiders and foreigners but major states—men seated at the very centers of American power.” Direct links between the Goldwater-era conspiracism and today’s are easy to find: the right’s criticisms of President Obama’s health care reform, for example, carries the distinct whiff of Ronald Reagan’s early-1960s alarums against “socialized medicine.”

But while dead-on in many details and useful in anatomizing angry fringe groups, Hofstadter’s essay evaded the hardest questions. He never explained what moved particular people or subcultures to embrace the paranoid style. He’s probably correct that “the paranoid disposition is mobilized into action chiefly by social conflicts that involve ultimate schemes of values and that bring fundamental fears and hatreds, rather than negotiable interests, into political action”—in essence, status politics again—but he was frustratingly silent about who, precisely, is drawn to the Manichaeism he described.

Moreover, at a time when a magazine called Fact used a (methodologically bogus) survey of American Psychiatric Association members to conclude during the 1964 campaign season that Goldwater was clinically paranoid, Hofstadter’s psychological metaphor sounded like elite condescension—an impression of Hofstadter’s work that has endured among not just the conservatives he studied but also his own academic heirs. Indeed, for all the continual journalistic hosannas to the relevance of “The Paranoid Style,” professional historians have grown increasingly confirmed of late that Hofstadter, Bell, and company got conservatism wrong. For about 15 years now, ever since Ronald Reagan’s ascent became grist for the historian’s mill, there has been a “cottage industry” of dissertations and books seeking to understand how a fringe conservatism—famously dismissed by Hofstadter’s Columbia colleague Lionel Trilling as “irritable mental gestures that seek to resemble ideas”—went mainstream and gained power. These new studies of postwar conservatism often begin with a ritual denunciation of Hofstadter and his contemporaries. They deem the Columbians to be patronizing toward their subjects, too dismissive of the grass-roots right’s actual ideas, and above all too keen to place quasi-psychological neuroses, whether “status anxiety” or a nonclinical “paranoia” (whatever Hofstadter meant by that) at the center of their analyses. They fashion the right’s midcentury critics as hopelessly elite liberals, peering down their noses at the Southern and Western riffraff mindlessly rallying behind screwball ideas, demagogic leaders, or ethnic hatreds.

It’s true that Hofstadter often failed to grant the legitimacy of certain conservative principles that were at least defensible. What’s more, his Olympian tone, despite his leavening wit, could come across as supercilious. Yet as easy as it is for today’s historians to deride Hofstadter’s condescension—and to take pride in feeling superior to him in the process—these historians themselves fall into an identical dilemma, without resolving it any more satisfactorily than Hofstadter did. The dilemma is how you understand an extremist movement with analytic detachment without legitimizing what are often deeply misguided (and sometimes despicable) beliefs. How do you offer a sympathetic account of paleo-conservatives like Phyllis Schlafly without glossing over their anti-Semitism—or explain the Klan without explaining its racism away?

The problem is compounded by writing about current politics: When Hofstadter examined the distant past—the paranoid style in the anti-Masonic movement of the 19th century, for example—he didn’t worry that he might be seen as insufficiently judgmental toward a dim historical curiosity. But in the wake of the Kennedy assassination, even the most dispassionate historian would be hard pressed to muffle every note of contempt, anger, or even crankiness of his own.

This is, I think, the main problem with using Hofstadter and “The Paranoid Style” to understand the birthers and town hall screamers and Glenn Beck acolytes of today. It’s difficult enough to write about McCarthyites and Goldwaterites with the proper proportions of imaginative sympathy and moral judgment. But when we’re caught in the throes of our own contentious moment, it hardly seems possible to separate the political need to fight irrationalism and zealotry from the psycho-sociological project of distilling the motives of extremists. It’s natural, even necessary, to try to make sense of a movement that appears—to many of us, at any rate—delusional. But the most that history, or historians, can do is what Hofstadter did in the first half of the “Paranoid Style”: point to the many antecedents of today’s right-wing fantasies and, by putting them in historical context, making them more comprehensible and perhaps less fearsome.

Those who talk about being frightened today or act as if Obama is the first president to suffer the slings of what Franklin Roosevelt called “nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror” would do well to note that on the back cover of my 1996 reissue of The Paranoid Style in American Politics and Other Essays is a quote from Hofstadter’s sole equal among his generation of political historians, Arthur Schlesinger:

Recent months have witnessed an attack of unprecedented passion and ferocity against the national government. … Unbridled rhetoric is having consequences far beyond anything that antigovernment politicians intend. The flow of angry words seems to have activated and in a sense legitimized what the historian Richard Hofstadter called the “paranoid strain” in American politics.

Schlesinger published his comment in the Wall Street Journal on June 7, 1995.

The “paranoid” style did not return suddenly this summer. On the contrary, Hofstadter was surely correct when he wrote that while “it comes in waves of different intensity, it appears to be all but ineradicable.”