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.

Time Magazine with Glenn Beck on the cover. Click image to expand.

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.

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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.

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