American politics has often been an arena for angry minds. In recent years we have seen angry minds at work mainly among extreme right-wingers, who have now demonstrated in the Goldwater movement how much political leverage can be got out of the animosities and passions of a small minority. But behind this I believe there is a style of mind that is far from new and that is not necessarily right-wind. I call it the paranoid style simply because no other word adequately evokes the sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy that I have in mind.
Richard Hofstader, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics”, Harper’s Magazine, November 1964.
Change the word Goldwater (In your heart, you know he’s right) to Tea Party and, as usual, this wonderfully insightful treatise by Hofstader describes the current political climate as accurately as it did 46 years ago. Whenever there is severe economic distress or social disorder, political rationality in a significant percentage of the U.S. populace is the first casualty.
The current President of the United States has been in office approximately 20 months. He inherited huge messes caused by the eight years of inept policies and lax government oversight of his predecessor, whose legitimacy of being in office was legitimately suspect. As a result, President Obama has had to intervene to stop the banking and investment industries from collapsing, end involvement in an unnecessary war, revive the failing economy, ensure access to increasing expensive health care to all citizens, and regain the trust and cooperation of our traditional allies. At the same time, he has had his citizenship and, his allegiance to the country he leads questioned, in addition to the fighting against the nonsense that now passes as political opposition and discourse.
This questioning is paradoxical – on the one hand, the President has assumed too much power and authority. On the other hand, he hasn’t been able to do enough because he’s too weak to “get things done”.
Those leading the questioning include a specious former governor from one of the most remote and least populated states, whose controversial term in office lasted only 18 months, a cable television talk show host – a long time drug and alcohol addict with no political experience, and an unofficial political party within a political party whose only agenda is to reduce taxes and “the size of government”, even though a large percentage of that government expense involves defense spending and Social Security. This opposition either wants Social Security ended, even though it’s the most effective government program in our nation’s modern history and benefits the poor and middle class, or the money held in trust invested in the capital markets, the same capital markets which the current president had to rescue from collapse at the start of his term. Increasing, not cutting, the bloated military expenditure, with its wasteful duplicate development programs and entrenched bureaucracy, is sacrosanct.
But they really aren’t unique. For years, the late Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina wanted all foreign aid expenditures, including infrastructure development and food aid, which benefitted U.S. business and foreign policy interests, to be eliminated, even though foreign aid was one-tenth of one percent of federal expenditures. Helms also wanted agricultural subsidies ended, except for tobacco, which surprisingly, was a main source of income for his state and sold internationally. In his dotage, he almost became a kindly folk-hero, if he wasn’t so mean-spirited and paranoid to his core. Every generation has its share of political crazies.
The current crop of crazies include:
Ron Paul, senate candidate in Kentucky -“”It’s not supposed to be that 51 percent of the people can vote to remove the First Amendment or the Second Amendment or the Fourth Amendment,” Paul said. “These things are protected by the Constitution, and I don’t want someone who believes that the Commerce Clause means anything. Since the ’30s and ’40s we have interpreted the Commerce Clause to allow the federal government to regulate everything, and I think that’s a mistake.”
Excuse me, Mr. Paul, as I wrote previously, it was the Commerce Clause that ended slavery and, as I wrote previously, was used properly to defend the rights of gay Americans to wed in California. And 51% of the American people cannot remove any constitutional amendment. That would require 3/4 of the state legislatures to approve the amendment. Remember the proposed Equal Rights Amendment, where the majority of the populace would be granted the same legal rights as the minority other sex? The ERA was only ratified by 35 of the 50 states and has not become law because it takes a minimum of 38 states’ approval? That President Obama won with 51% of the vote? Your revered late President Ronald Reagan took office with only 50.75% of the vote against the ineffectual President Jimmy Carter in 1980.
Then there is Sharron Angle, senate candidate in Nevada, who rightly doesn’t want her or her staff to talk to the press. Ms. Angle believes Muslims (such as the Christian Barack Obama) are trying to take over the United States. Ms. Angle believes that Dearborn, Michigan and Frankford, Texas are under Muslim, not U.S. law. “We’re talking about a militant terrorist situation, which I believe isn’t a widespread thing, but it is enough that we need to address, and we have been addressing it. My thoughts are these. First of all, Dearborn, Michigan, and Frankford, Texas, are on American soil, and under Constitutional law. Not Sharia law. And I don’t know how that happened in the United States.”
Excuse me, Ms. Angle – there is no Frankford, Texas and the same federal laws and programs applies to Dearborn, as it does to all other towns and cities. While the prophet Mohammad’s words have been misinterpreted since his death, his basic beliefs are similar to those of another radical figure of his time, Jesus Christ. Remember the one so radical he was nailed to a cross and left to die alone?
Pat Toomey – Senate Candidate in usually rational Pennsylvania. “My view is, I think the data is pretty clear. There has been an increase in the surface temperature of the planet over the course of the last 100 years or so. I think it’s clear that that has happened. The extent to which that has been caused by human activity I think is not as clear. I think that is still very much disputed and has been debated. If we go down the road of legislation like this cap and trade bill…”
Excuse me, Mr. Toomey – There is documented evidence that the polar ice caps are melting, animal species are disappearing and the Earth’s climate is warming from greenhouse gas emissions. As the eminence grise, Casey Stengel, used to say, “And you can look it up.” You might try watching the highly partisan National Geographic Channel one evening.
I would be having fun with this, if what these political candidates were espousing was part of a lunatic fringe. No, they could become three of the “greatest deliberative body”. How do you deliberate with someone who has delusional beliefs? What I find interesting and curious is that these politicians want to become part of the government institutions they claim to despise. If all three of the candidates above get elected, they represent 3 out of 100 senators. Very quickly, these government outsiders become insiders and they soon learn the limitations of being political novices in an institution where the rhetoric is for show, but cooperation and teamwork gets your constituents the dough.
Government service means serving the mundane needs of all of your constituents – including helping to obtain citizenship, resolving grievances with government agencies, introducing and getting legislation passed and promoting your state’s interests, such as getting defense contracts and earmarks awarded. And to get along, you have to go along – horse trading votes with other senators. The ability to focus on just one issue is gone when your time is allocated to the minute, in order to appear on the various committees you belong (not necessarily on the committees you wanted), the continuous process of fund raising and voting on the rare important and mostly not-so-important legislation. They become captive to their legislative aides, who do all the real work, behind-the scenes. The President, who they claim to hate, can make their lives difficult by refusing to sign any legislation that supports their and their followers specific interests, when those specific interests are not in the best interest of the whole country.
The talk about how they are going to change Washington D.C. becomes how daily life in Washington. D.C. has changed them. The idea that “government doesn’t create jobs. Industry creates jobs”, they learn is nonsense as the constant demands of big and small businesses for government assistance, becomes a drumbeat that pounds in their heads. Remember, it was extensive government intervention in creating jobs that rescued the country from the Great Depression, not private industry. The lack of previous federal government intervention in sub-prime homeowner loans has exacerbated the current depression. The refrain of “how government regulation has taken over business” is replaced by the reality that without government regulation, many large multinational businesses have no consciences and if they can dump toxic waste into the local water supply or cut back on environmental safeguards that reduce the likelihood of large oil spills, they will.
The disenfranchised , destitute, and unfortunate should be leading the roiling. But the leaders of this roiling are none of those these three. They are white, rich and privileged and becoming more rich and privileged at the expense of those who are not and those who are paranoid that they will become the disenfranchised, destitute and unfortunate, despite their wealth.
Richard Hofstader knew this 46 years ago. In national politics, paranoia always runs deep.