Deconstructing the “Paranoid Style in American Politics”

ParanoidIn the age of Trump, many are saying that we are witnessing a resurgence of a phenomenon that historian Richard Hofstadter once called “the paranoid style of American politics.” Over at The Baffler, UC-Davis historian Kathryn Olmsted traces the history of the “paranoid style” and how it may or may not be employed in today’s political climate.  Here is a taste of her piece:

Hofstadter also highlighted another common trope in right-wing rhetoric that’s relevant to today’s politics: the curious sense of loss among Americans on the right. Their anger, he argued, stemmed from their sense of dispossession, even though many of them were relatively well off. They believed, he said, that “America has been largely taken away from them and their kind, though they are determined to try to repossess it and to prevent the final destructive act of subversion.”

Many scholars today have commented on this sense of dispossession among Trump supporters. Sociologist Arlie Hochschild captured this sentiment in the title of her book on the worldview of rural white voters, Strangers in Their Own Land. The rural white people who Hochschild interviewed felt angry at “line-cutters”: immigrants and people of color who, they believed, had jumped the queue in front of patient, hard-working white Americans like them, and were rewarded with welfare checks and affirmative action jobs. Hofstadter might call this fear that someone will take your place in line—i.e., push you out of your rightful spot in the social order—just another form of status anxiety.

Finally, even back in the 1960s, Hofstadter remarked on the skepticism of science and contempt for expertise among Americans on the right. The paranoid spokesman, he said, was not open to new ideas, scientific studies, or scholarly arguments. “He has all the evidence he needs; he is not a receiver, he is a transmitter.” This phrase could have been written about the most passionate Trump supporters during the 2016 presidential race. The Oxford Dictionaries picked “post-truth” as their word of the year for 2016, or the word “chosen to reflect the passing year in language,” and defined it as circumstances in which “objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” Trump was not embarrassed that his sources or his facts might be wrong; “All I know is what’s on the internet,” he said at one point during the campaign.

Read the entire piece here.

Are Anti-Trumpers Paranoid?

Paranoid StyleI have argued that fear helps explain the evangelical embrace of Donald Trump in 2016.  When I speak, blog, and tweet about Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald TrumpI am often asked about the role fear might play in the political lives of anti-Trumpers.  Are Trump’s opponents afraid of what he will do to the country?  Of course they are.  But I did not write a general book about the relationship between fear and politics.  Instead, I wrote a book about why 81% of white evangelical voters pulled the lever for Donald Trump.

Historian and cultural critic Andrew Bacevich thinks that anti-Trumpers are paranoid and such paranoia is bad for the republic.  Princeton historian Julian Zelizer disagrees.  Here is a taste of his piece at CNN:

Making his opponents look paranoid has in fact been a conscious strategy of the President. This is why he warns that critical news is not real and how a “deep state” is driving the investigation against him.

Paranoia is certainly a relevant problem in US political history. But Hofstadter’s theory doesn’t capture most of what is going on with Trump’s opponents. Nor does the President when he sweeps aside the critics of his jaw-dropping press conference in Helsinki, Finland, as “haters.”

Brushing aside a majority of the President’s critics as showing signs of paranoia misses the new political reality of the Trump administration.

Read the entire piece here.

What Should We Make Of Populism?

hofstadter

Richard Hofstadter

Over at Politico, Joshua Zeitz wonders if American historians were wrong when they said populism was a “good thing.”  A taste:

Imagine, if you will, that millions of hard-working Americans finally reached their boiling point. Roiled by an unsettling pattern of economic booms and busts; powerless before a haughty coastal elite that in recent decades had effectively arrogated the nation’s banks, means of production and distribution, and even its information highway; burdened by the toll that open borders and free trade imposed on their communities; incensed by rising economic inequality and the concentration of political power—what if these Americans registered their disgust by forging a new political movement with a distinctly backward-looking, even revanchist, outlook? What if they rose up as one and tried to make America great again?

Would you regard such a movement as worthy of support and nurture—as keeping with the democratic tradition of Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson? Or would you mainly dread the ugly tone it would inevitably assume—its fear of the immigrant and the Jew, its frequent lapse into white supremacy, its slipshod grasp of political economy and its potentially destabilizing effect on longstanding institutions and norms?

To clarify: This scenario has nothing whatsoever to do with Donald Trump and the modern Republican Party. Rather, it is a question that consumed social and political historians for the better part of a century. They clashed sharply in assessing the essential character of the Populist movement of the late 1800s—a political and economic uprising that briefly drew under one tent a ragtag coalition of Southern and Western farmers (both black and white), urban workers, and utopian newspapermen and polemicists.

That debate pitted “progressive” historians of the early 20th century and their latter-day successors who viewed Populism as a fundamentally constructive political movement, against Richard Hofstadter, one of the most influential American historians then or since. Writing in 1955, Hofstadter theorized that the Populists were cranks—backward-looking losers who blamed their misfortune on a raft of conspiracy theories.

Read the rest here.  Zietz appears to side with Hofstadter.

Hofstadter: “American politics has often been an arena for angry minds.”

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With Freedom Rider Rip Patton in Nashville

Over at The New Republic, Jeet Heer reminds us that “America Has Always Been Angry and Violent.”  He offers this history lesson in the wake of the shooting of House Majority Whip Steve Scalise and four others in Alexandria, Virginia last week.

Here is a taste:

The notion that Americans are particularly angry today has become a rote talking point in the political press, repeated year after year. In 2011, after Representative Gabby Giffords was shot by a mentally ill man, NBC’s Mark Murray wrote, “If one word summed up the past two years in American politics, it was this: anger.” In 2007, George Will wrote in The Washington Post, “Americans are infatuated with anger.” In 1996, in her book The Angry American, George Washington University political scientist Susan Tolchin described an epidemic of “voter rage.”

But long before any of these writers, amid Barry Goldwater’s demogogic presidential campaign, the great historian Richard Hofstadter began his classic 1964 essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” thus: “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… But behind this I believe there is a style of mind that is far from new and that is not necessarily right-wing. 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.”

Hofstadter was exactly right—not only about the anger in the mid-’60s, but also that it was “far from new.” We are not, as Podhoretz and Pelosi suggest, living in a especially or uniquely dangerous moment. Incendiary political speech and political violence have been pervasive in U.S. history.

“What is impressive to one who begins to learn about American violence is its extraordinary frequency, its sheer commonplaceness in our history, its persistence into very recent and contemporary times, and its rather abrupt contrast without our pretensions to singular national virtue,” Hofstadter wrote in the introduction to American Violence: A Documentary History, the 1972 collection he co-edited with Michael Wallace. It shouldn’t surprise us that a colonial settler society that wiped out the Native American population, imported slave labor, and relied on vigilante violence to police newly incorporated territories should be prone to political violence. Reading through Hofstadter and Wallace’s book, one is reminded anew that American history has consisted of slave revolts and their violent crushing, race riots, labor clashes, and assassinations.

Read the entire piece here.

I first read Heet’s piece while traveling throughout the South on a Civil Rights bus tour where we learned a great deal about Martin Luther King’s theory of non-violence from several veterans of the movement who tried to order their lives around this principle. During a conversation with Freedom Rider Rip Patton in the Nashville Public Library, one of the participants on our tour asked Patton how to introduce the principles of non-violence to the students she teaches.  This participant, obviously moved by what she had heard and seen all week, prefaced her remarks by saying that she was convinced that King’s philosophy of non-violence best represented the teachings of Jesus Christ.

I am not a pacifist, but I was also struck by the non-violent philosophy of the leaders and activists of the Civil Rights Movement. I often wrote about it in my daily posts.  As Rip Patton spoke that day he referenced several passages from the Bible.  One of those passages was Romans 12:2:  “And do not be conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God.”  Rip said that this verse was one of several Bible passages that motivated him to join the movement as a college student.

Romans 12:2 is one of the most counter-cultural verses in the New Testament.  I got the sense that the verse had layered meanings for Rip.  First, the “world” was no doubt the world of white supremacy that he had lived through in segregated Nashville.  He would no longer allow himself to be “conformed” to this unjust world.  This required action on his part.

But I also think Rip would say that the “world” of Romans 12:2 was defined by violence and anger.  As a Christian he could not “conform” to this world.  He would pursue a course of counter-cultural transformation–a path that was good and acceptable and the perfect will of God.  This course was defined by non-violence.

Heet and Hofstadter are correct.  American history has always been characterized by violence.  But it seems that the God of the early Civil Rights movement was calling its participants to something higher.

As I wrote this post I also thought about Martha Nussbaum’s recent National Endowment for the Humanities Jefferson Lecture on the limits of anger as a political and social emotion.  Here are some of my tweets from that lecture:

Nussbaum: The ancient Greek democracy had an anger problem. Just like modern democracies. #JeffLec17 #humanities

Nussbaum: Ancients raged a “cultural struggle” against anger, seeing it as destructive to democratic institutions. #jefflec17 #humanities

Nussbaum: We should resist anger in our political culture. This is not easy. Many feel anger is needed for justice. #JeffLec17 #humanities

Nussbaum: “Killing the killer does not restore the dead to life. Pain for pain is an easy idea, but it is a false lure. #JeffLec17

Nussbaum: We go wrong when we permit retributive thoughts to convince us that inflicting pain in the present corrects the past. #jefflec17

Nussbaum: Hard to get our head around complicated truths. Easier to incinerate the witch. #JeffLec17 #humanities #anger

Nussbaum: Fear feeds payback. Obliterating wrong-doers makes us feel better. Even just wars decline into payback & bloodthirst. #JeffLec17

Nussbaum: King gets busy turning retributive anger into work and and hope. #jefflec17 #humanities #mlk #anger

Nussbaum: Democracy must give up empty & destructive thought of payback. Move toward a future of regal justice & human well-being #JeffLec17

Nussbaum: Malcolm X was wrong to criticize King’s rejection of retribution. #Mlk #JeffLec17 #humanities #MLK

Nussbaum: Retributive desires are like the wild beasts in writings of Lucretiius. Anger is powerful, but always gets out of hand. #jefflec17

Nussbaum: History teaches that we always destroy ourselves when we allow ourselves to be governed by fear and anger. #JeffLec17#humanities

 

Vernon L. Parrington and Oklahoma Football

Parrington in Office 1905

Parrington in his University of Oklahoma office, 1905

If you’re like me, you know the name Vernon L. Parrington from your graduate-level course in American historiography.  Parrington won the Pulitzer Prize in History in 1928 for his book Main Currents of American Thought.  Post-war students of intellectual history got to know Parrington through Richard Hofstadter’s 1968 work The Progressive Historians: Turner, Beard, Parrington.

But did you know that Parrington was also responsible for bringing college football to Oklahoma?

Here is a taste of Andrew McGregor’s post at Sport in American History:

Football morphed into a formalized campus institution following the arrival of Vernon Louis Parringtonat the University of Oklahoma in 1897. Hired to develop a department of English for the young university, he took on the added unpaid roles of football coach and athletic director. The extra duties were no bother to Parrington, who, like many of the leading Progressive thinkers of the day, viewed sport as an important part of training complete men. Football also played an important role in establishing a university culture. Parrington was intimately tied to both at Oklahoma.

Parrington, who is perhaps best remembered as one of the founders of American Studies, winner of the 1927 Pulitzer Prize for History, and one of Richard Hofstadter’s “Progressive Historians,” embodied Theodore Roosevelt’s “Strenuous Life.” He modeled a form of robust yet genteel masculinity, representing the ideal well-rounded man at the heart of intercollegiate athletics. Oklahoma could choose no better symbol to found their athletic programs.

Like Harts, Parrington came to Oklahoma from Kansas, where he was a professor of English at the College of Emporia. Parrington also coached the “Fighting Presbies” football and baseball teams. His interest in athletics first developed, however, while a youth playing baseball in rural Kansas. Parrington excelled at baseball and nurtured this interest while a prep student at the College of Emporia, likely helping to organize its first baseball team.

In the College of Emporia’s student newspaper, according to historian James T. Colwell, Parrington “urged western colleges to concentrate more on ‘the laurels of the arena’ and less on those of the forum; on athletics rather than oratory.” He focused on both while a student in Emporia, and continued to pursue athletics when he transferred east to Harvard University. Parrington played some baseball while at Harvard, but football caught his eye. “The first [organized] football [game] I ever saw was in Cambridge,” he later remembered. The Crimson were routinely one of the nation’s best teams, providing Parrington the chance to learn the game from the best. While sources disagree on whether Parrington actually played football at Harvard, he certainly studied their methods, bringing them with him back to Emporia.

Read the entire post here.

Quote of the Day

HofstadterThanks to Tyler Flynn of Eastern University for reminding me of this classic essay:

American politics has “served again and again as an arena for uncommonly angry minds, [exhibiting] a style of mind, not always right-leaning in its affiliations, that has a long and varied history. I call it the paranoid style simply because no other word adequately evokes the qualities of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy [of] the ‘paranoid style.'”

–historian Richard Hofstadter, 1964

Consensus and the "Bill W. Obama" Era

Writing at The Front Porch Republic, Andrew Bacevich argues that politics during the last three presidential terms have been defined by a “neoliberal consensus.”  This consensus, Bacevich argues, is not unlike the consensus that Richard Hofstadter wrote about back in 1948.  Here is a taste of his piece:


In his classic text The American Political Tradition, the historian Richard Hofstadter identified the parameters of that consensus.  It emphasizes, he wrote, “the rights of property, the philosophy of economic individualism, [and] the value of competition.”  It assumes “the natural evolution of self-interest and self-assertion … into a beneficent social order. ”  Grab and get ultimately works for the larger benefit of all.  That, at least, is the idea….
To imply that all Americans subscribe to this neoliberal consensus would be misleading, of course.  A loosely-organized antiwar movement objects, however ineffectually, to Washington’s penchant for military adventurism.  Moral traditionalists protest against the casting off of social conventions, again without discernible impact on policy.  Risking the charge of engaging in class warfare, groups such as the Occupy Wall Street movement raise a ruckus about the yawning gap between the rich and everyone else.  Again, the effects of their efforts appear negligible.
As far as their practical impact is concerned, these dissenters might as well be locked in a soundproof booth.  They shout, but are not heard.  Hofstadter had anticipated their predicament.  “The range of ideas … which practical politicians can conveniently believe in,” he observed, “is normally limited by the climate of opinion that sustains their culture.”
Here we come to the heart of the matter:  the climate of opinion.  Only politicians who possess an aptitude for interpreting the prevailing climate will succeed in gaining and holding high office.  In the political sphere, ideas at variance with that climate are by definition inconvenient.  Expedience dictates that they should be ignored.

The Continued Relevance of Hofstadter’s "Anti-Intellectualism in American Life"

Over at the Barnes and Noble Review, Michael Dirda revisits Richard Hofstadter’s Pulitzer-Prize winning title, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life.  Hofstadter published this book in 1964, but, according to Dirda, much of its message still rings true today.  Hofstadter had things to say about conservative evangelicals, a public education system that “favors personal development over intellectual challenge,” populists who distrust “genius” and “experts” in favor of “folkish wisdom,” and businesses that stress “know-how” over “the reflective mind, for culture, and for the past.”  Dirda concludes:

Anti-Intellectualism in American Life was published nearly fifty years ago, and some of it is clearly out of date. For instance, Hofstadter hardly addresses the racial inequities in our schools or the unequal opportunities for women. He does, however, link the disparagement of public-school teaching, widely regarded as a second-rate profession, to the fact that it is dominated by women. He also, to my mind, tends to radically separate the emotions and the brain, when they are actually each other’s servants. But the book, even when one disagrees with Hofstadter, possesses such intellectual radiance, such compulsive readability, that it seems to me a model of critical history.

Not least, to those who would shortchange education through undue emphasis on group projects, social skills, and easy course work, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life may yet function as a corrective to the slacker philosophy of many classrooms. It is also, moreover, a heads-up for viciously ambitious “tiger moms” (and dads), who push their kids for straight A’s and perfect SATs. As Cardinal Newman, one of the greatest thinkers, and theologians, of the nineteenth century once said, “It is a rule of God’s providence that we succeed by failure.” Too often we compel our children to follow the most obvious paths, happy for them to become robotically focused doctors, scientists, lawyers, and similar “experts” or “technicians,” even as we tend to view the making of lots of money and the acquisition of a McMansion in a gated community as the measure of success and personal fulfillment. What we sometimes forget to foster, alas, is the desire for a life of mental adventure.

Richard Hofstadter’s "Lost Book"

Ben Hufbauer, an art historian at the University of Louisville, reflects on Richard Hofstadter’s The American Republic (1959), an American history textbook Hofstadter wrote with Daniel Aaron and William Miller.  As part of his essay at Inside Higher Ed, Hufbauer writes about an encounter he had with this text while doing research in Nigeria:

I came across The American Republic almost by chance 24 years later, in the library of the Enugu campus of the University of Nigeria. I was in Nigeria for five months with my wife as her research assistant as she studied Igbo masquerades for her doctorate. We lived in a small apartment a short distance from campus in a city that was at times hot almost beyond belief. We often only had power for a few hours a day, and in that un-air-conditioned state — when we weren’t doing ethnographic research — we read a lot to each other, often by candlelight.

Given the poverty and corruption of the country, and the fact that Nigeria suffered a military coup while we were there, it is perhaps not surprising that most of our reading was comfort fare — Jane Austen, Agatha Christie, Charles Dickens. But one day as I was wandering the quiet stacks of the library with no lights and no air conditioning, I dimly saw on a bottom shelf two volumes by a historian I remembered liking for The American Political Tradition, which I’d read as an undergraduate.

I started reading and was surprised. My American history text in high school had been Hofstadter’s biggest competitor, The American Pageant, by a Stanford University professor, Thomas Bailey. “Old American flag Bailey,” as some called him, rarely liked to admit to anything truly unpleasant in American history, and often resorted to whitewashing patriotism to paper things over. Pageant was meant to be “feel good history” — the kind that even today is popular with the public. What is amazing then and now about Hofstadter is that he was critical and yet popular at the same time.

A passage from the 1966 edition of Bailey’s Pageant on Columbus highlights the profound differences between these books:

“Christopher Columbus, a skilled Italian seaman, now stepped upon the stage of history. A man of vision, energy, resourcefulness, and courage…. Success finally rewarded the persistence of Columbus…. A new world thus swam within the vision of civilized man.”

Bailey sums up that the “discovery” of America was a “sensational achievement, “but states that “The American continents were slow to yield their virginity.”

Hofstadter’s approach with his co-authors was poles apart:

“When we say, ‘Columbus discovered America,’ we mean only that his voyage across the Atlantic Ocean in 1492 first opened the New World to permanent occupation by people from Europe [….] When Ferdinand and Isabella succeeded at last, in January 1492, in expelling Islam from Granada, they moved immediately to wipe out all other non-Catholic elements in the Spanish population, including the Jews who had helped immensely in financing the long wars. The rulers’ instrument was the Spanish Inquisition: its penalties, execution or expulsion. Driven thus to dissolve in blood and misery the source of their wealth and power at home, Ferdinand and Isabella were now prepared to view more favorably Columbus’s project…. [T]he same tide that carried Niña, Pinta, and Santa Maria so hopefully toward such golden isles … also bore the last of some hundreds of thousands of Spanish Jews toward Italy and other hostile refuges.”

Today “permanent occupation” probably won’t raise many eyebrows, but at the time that — as well as the larger context of religious persecution for the voyage — was a paradigm shift for an American history textbook. In fact, Republic’s one-word assessment was that European contact was, for native populations, “catastrophic.”