The Paranoid Style


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There has been something of a debate among the American Left as to the true nature of the anti-healthcare reform movement. One position is that while there have always been crazies on the Right, the current era represents something new, in which the crazies have taken over the party, backed by unprecedented amounts of money, not to mention the corporate support provided by FOX News. Krugman, wistful for the Nixon era, when leading figures in both parties were capable of speaking rationally about policy” puts it this way:

the right-wing fringe, which has always been around — as an article by the historian Rick Perlstein puts it, crazy is a pre-existing condition” — has now, in effect, taken over one of our two major parties. Moderate Republicans, the sort of people with whom one might have been able to negotiate a health care deal, have either been driven out of the party or intimidated into silence.

A key part of this argument is that White racism against Obama is behind the crazy. From

another Paul Krugman column:

That is, the driving force behind the town hall mobs is probably the same cultural and racial anxiety that’s behind the birther” movement, which denies Mr. Obama’s citizenship. Senator Dick Durbin has suggested that the birthers and the health care protesters are one and the same; we don’t know how many of the protesters are birthers, but it wouldn’t be surprising if it’s a substantial fraction.

And cynical political operators are exploiting that anxiety to further the economic interests of their backers.

Does this sound familiar? It should: it’s a strategy that has played a central role in American politics ever since Richard Nixon realized that he could advance Republican fortunes by appealing to the racial fears of working-class whites.

The other side of the debate emphasizes the similarities rather than the differences. For instance, Rick Perlstein, in the piece Krugman refers to, asks crazier then, or crazier now?” Answering, that the similarities across decades are uncanny.”

Before the black helicopters” of the 1990s, there were right-wingers claiming access to secret documents from the 1920s proving that the entire concept of a civil rights movement” had been hatched in the Soviet Union; when the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act was introduced, one frequently read in the South that it would enslave” whites. And back before there were Bolsheviks to blame, paranoids didn’t lack for subversives — anti-Catholic conspiracy theorists even had their own powerful political party in the 1840s and 50s.

Perlstein here must be referring to the classic 1964 article by Richard Hofstadter, The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” in which Hofstadter argued that the crazy of McCarthy, Goldwater supporters, and the John Birch Society wasn’t anything new.

In May 1798, a minister of the Massachusetts Congregational establishment in Boston, Jedidiah Morse, delivered a timely sermon to the young country, which was then sharply divided between Jeffersonians and Federalists, Francophiles and Anglomen. Having read Robison, Morse was convinced of a Jacobinical plot touched off by Illuminism, and that the country should be rallied to defend itself. His warnings were heeded throughout New England wherever Federalists brooded about the rising tide of religious infidelity or Jeffersonian democracy. Timothy Dwight, the president of Yale, followed Morse’s sermon with a Fourth-of-July discourse on The Duty of Americans in the Present Crisis, in which he held forth against the Antichrist in his own glowing rhetoric. Soon the pulpits of New England were ringing with denunciations of the Illuminati, as though the country were swarming with them.

More recently, Glenn Greenwald compares the current crazy to that of the Clinton era, and finds that not much has changed:

Clinton was relentlessly accused by leading right-wing voices of being a murderer, a serial rapist, and a drug trafficker.

At one level, this debate seems to simply be a glass half-empty, glass half-full type of argument, with more than enough evidence for either side to choose from. Both sides agree that the Right has long used similar strategies, and both sides agree that the contemporary media environment has made it harder to ignore the crazies. But at another level there is an important difference in focus. By emphasizing the uniqueness of the contemporary situation critics simultaneously over-emphasize both the craziness of the protesters and the power of the corporate media. By focusing on the similarities of the current situation to what we have seen in the past, commentators like Hofstadter, Perlstein, and Greenwald allow us to focus on crazy as a political strategy and to begin to think about the best ways to combat it. Writing on this topic, Gary Younge says we can beat them,

These people gain the kind of purchase that shifts them from an irritant to an obstacle only when there is a vacuum of leadership and the absence of good alternatives. It is only under these conditions that they are able to cast unreasonable doubt in the reasonable minds of those who seek clarification, encouragement or a stake in any substantive change. This is precisely what has happened with the healthcare debate over the past few months.

Obama’s Health Care speech was a good start, but much more remains to be done.