Thursday, September 16, 2010

The Paranoid Style Never Goes Out of Style

I risk beating a dead horse here, but it's still deflating to see Richard Hofstadter's "Paranoid Style in American Politics" cited over and over again by present-day pundits and writers. Yesterday on Salon, Laura Miller proclaimed that the essay "never seems to get old." The current up-swing in anti-Muslim sentiment, she writes, is another manifestation of the paranoia cycle Hofstadter describes. Journalist Will Bunch's new book on the Tea Party movement similarly relies on Hofstadter in its analysis of the movement's rank-and-file.

I am not dismissing "The Paranoid Style" as a piece of work -- it is an excellent essay. Furthermore, I admire its author a lot. Hofstadter was the kind of public intellectual that is rare today, unfortunately. But working historians moved beyond his psychologically-centered analysis of the Right decades ago. Why? First, the value of Freudian analysis has dimmed considerably in the humanities. Let's just leave that issue alone for now. More importantly, scholars like Hofstadter had a particular way of looking at American history that has fallen out of favor within the profession. He was among the "Consensus school" of historians of the 50s and early 60s who believed the country was on a historical path toward becoming an ever-more just, tolerant, and liberal society. Its recent triumph over fascism was a validation of that belief, and the nation's conflict with Communism would bear it out once again. What the right-wing anticommunist fringe of Hofstadter's era didn't appreciate was that Communism was dangerous to the nation only if it failed to live up to its liberal democratic ideals, enshrined in a post-New Deal political order. As the United States became a more equitable society, such conservatives lashed out at the process of leveling out of their own personal insecurities.

The problem with this mode of analysis, as scholars like Michael Rogin, Leo Ribuffo, Michael Kazin, Alan Brinkley, and a whole host of contemporary historians of post-1945 conservatism have pointed out, is its assumption that the nation truly is on a developmental arc in the first place, let alone a liberal democratic one.  It obscures powerful contra-narratives created by conservatives out of their own understanding of American history, which have co-existed with those of liberals for decades. These are the narratives about personal freedom, limited government, and human imperfection that the Tea Party or other hard-Right conservatives are tapping into to attack the Obama Administration. These narratives include tacitly (or actively) racist and classist interpretations of American history and individualism, echoes of the Reagan-era critique of Cadillac-driving Welfare Queens. But these narratives are constructed not out of anxiety, but from the impressions and personal experiences that form the world views of everyone, no matter their politics.

The reason to dispense with Hofstadter "status anxiety" crutch is because it encourages progressives to see the Tea Party and their ilk as freaks. They are not a spectacle at the end of the American political boardwalk for the rest of us (who know so much better) to gawk at. If we read American history from outside the friendly confines of the Consensus School, we discover something very different indeed about progressive or liberal values -- that the belief in racial and gender equality, economic justice, an active government that intervenes on behalf of individual rights and the greater good, and a social safety net are the outlier ideas through much of our existence. In many ways, we are the freaks.

No comments:

Post a Comment