Columns » Ernest Dumas

Richard Hofstadter and today's paranoid politics

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Richard Hofstadter died way too soon because, more than anyone today, the great historian of American political thought would have a keen fascination with the wacky politics of the day.

Hofstadter's most popular work was a collection of essays on the flaky intellectual currents in American history. It was published in 1965 under the title of one of his essays, "The Paranoid Style in American Politics."

It was his notion that a small minority of people of any society, not just the United States, is susceptible to suggestions that the country is being victimized by a giant conspiracy of secret forces that have a plan to take over the country and undermine its values and institutions. The secret agents have variously been Jews, Catholics, Mormons, Freemasons, immigrants, international bankers, socialists, communists, European potentates and the United Nations. (Add unions to the list today.)

The animosities and passions of the small quotient of true believers, Hofstadter said, can occasionally leverage big changes in the political order, but only once, in the mid-1890s, did it nearly wrest power from the centrist parties that have always governed by compromise and consensus.

That is, only one time until today, when the tea-party forces have commandeered the Republican Party and are close to being the governing power. There are eerie similarities between today and the 1890s, when a latter-day Arkie, William Hope "Coin" Harvey, sent much of the South and West into a frenzy over the free coinage of silver. The nutty and paranoid silverites captured the Democratic Party from the centrists in 1896 and nearly elected William Jennings Bryan, who expected to be crucified on a cross of gold. But that is another column. Remind me.

The latent paranoia, Hofstadter concluded, is usually triggered and reaches a crescendo after fierce economic traumas like a depression or intense social conflicts like racial integration (and gay rights perhaps?). Daniel Bell, the great sociologist, who died the other day at the age of 91, once described the mindset better than Hofstadter, at least insofar as paranoids were not left-leaning populists like Coin Harvey but right-wingers.

The true believers down through history, Bell wrote in 1963, believe that America has been taken away from them and their kind, and they are determined to repossess it and prevent the final subversion of the country. American values have been eaten away by intellectuals and elitists; capitalism is being undermined by socialist schemers; our minds are being softened up for socialism or communism by chemical agents like fluoride in our water supplies; national security is being undermined by agents of foreign interests; and a tide of immigrants who are hostile to free institutions and our values are mongrelizing the country, running up our taxes, filling the jails and poorhouses, multiplying violence and filling the voter rolls so that they can lay their inexperienced and ignorant hands upon the helm of government.

How many of those sound familiar? Remember the screams "Give us back our country!" at the town-hall meetings across the state in 2009 when people were yelling about the health-insurance reform bill and taxes?

The 88th Arkansas General Assembly makes a wonderful laboratory for the study of the paranoid style. The fluoridation scare entered the dialogue this year for the first time since Arkansas leaders of the National States Rights Party raised it in 1960. Back then, fluoridation and integration were the twin socialist plots to bring down America. Now it seems to be water and bike trails, and the provocateur is the United Nations.

A committee of the House of Representatives killed the fluoridation bill or else it might have got traction in the full body, which now has 44 Republicans, most of whom are committed to stick together on capricious legislation to punish the people who are trying to do the country in and their unwitting agents, the children. The anti-immigrant caucus has swelled to a near majority in both houses, but so far good committees have kept the legislation bottled up.

Mike Huckabee has jumped in front of this mob, as he is wont to do. He used to praise the illegal immigrants for their hard work, called for the government to allow them to pay a reasonable fine and wanted to let them attend college on in-state tuition. His latest book, which came out last month, ridicules Democrats for holding such ideas.

The dispossessed believe that the critical moment for the nation has arrived, and if the subversion is to be halted draconian steps must be taken.

The financial crash of 2008, the bailouts and the election of a silver-tongued black president with mixed parentage triggered the current hysteria.

Last week, a Republican congressman from Georgia who had said the president was a socialist who intended to set up a Gestapo security force and a Marxist dictatorship held a town-hall meeting and invited questions. The first one was from an elderly man who asked, "Who's going to shoot Obama?"

Rep. Paul Broun laughed heartily along with the rest of the crowd and said he understood the frustration with Obama. When the incident went viral, he repudiated the question.

Despite the dramatic 2010 election, the paranoids are a distinct minority. But scary? You bet.

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