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

The history behind current events.
Sept. 23 2009 1:17 PM

The Obama Haters

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

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"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.

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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.