• September 20, 2014

The Paranoid Style: Then and Now

The Paranoid Style: Then and Now 1

Art Rickerby, Time Life Pictures, Getty Images

Barry Goldwater

Enlarge Image
close The Paranoid Style: Then and Now 1

Art Rickerby, Time Life Pictures, Getty Images

Barry Goldwater

Barry Goldwater, the Republican senator from Arizona who ran for president in 1964, made his priorities clear: "My aim," he famously said, "is not to pass laws, but to repeal them." Goldwater's comment was seized upon by the historian Richard Hofstadter in his 1965 book, The Paranoid Style in American Politics. Although claiming to be conservative, the senator, Hofstadter maintained, was anything but. "How are we to explain," he wanted to know, "the character of a 'conservative' whose whole political life has been spent urging a sharp break with the past ... ?" It seemed remarkable that a country as modern, wealthy, and stable as the United States was witnessing such deep, persistent, and intransigent right-wing discontent. By using the term "paranoid," Hofstadter sought an answer in the inner workings of the mind, as if what Goldwater represented could best be explained not by analyzing polling data, but by psychoanalyzing officeholders.

These days, repealing laws rather than passing them is the single most prominent feature of the way some conservative Republicans in Congress have approached their job. Does a term such as "paranoid" therefore apply to Ted Cruz, Mike Lee, and Rand Paul, in the Senate, and to Tea Party members in the House of Representatives, all of whom have done their best to defund Obamacare, indeed to act as if President Obama had no mandate to govern?

In many ways, the answer must be no. Although often described, especially by Senate Majority leader Harry Reid, as insane, hard-right Republicans can be viewed as hyperrational: They have forced the country to debate issues such as the deficit and taxes on their terms. In other ways, Hofstadter's term "paranoid" fails to convey the extent to which psychology, rather than politics, helps explain the actions of today's politicians who adhere to the radical right.

Ideology is generally held to be a threat to democratic governance. It certainly was for Hofstadter. Democratic politics, he wrote, demands a flexibility that ideological rigidity scorns. The genius of American politics lies in its nonideological thinking. Too much passion, and our politics would begin to resemble Europe's disastrous experience with extremism.

Goldwater was without question an ideologue. Like all leaders committed to self-professed timeless truths, he had published a book, The Conscience of a Conservative, which became a rousing best seller. (It also offered Hofstadter an invaluable source for dissecting Goldwaterism.) The majority of senators from both parties who voted against the Civil Rights Act of 1964 did so out of a prejudice holding that black people simply were not equal to whites; Goldwater, whose family-owned department store refused to practice segregation, voted against the act out of a principled opposition to federal power.

After Goldwater's retirement from political life, his principled libertarianism led him to be sympathetic to gay rights and to become an advocate for gay marriage. It remains true that, during his 1964 presidential campaign, Goldwater supported policies and uttered comments that were deeply reactionary. But the worst Hofstadter could say about his behavior was that the candidate had little interest in Senate committee work and waited one whole night before congratulating Lyndon Johnson on his election. Whatever else he was, Goldwater was no Joe McCarthy.

In his reflections on Goldwater, Hofstadter failed to grasp that there may be worse things for democracy than ideology. Mental rigidity is among them. Ideology may be inflexible, but ideologists generally are not; ideological conflict, after all, is a form of politics in which one side has a vision of the proper end of political life, the other has a different view, and both engage in efforts, including bending a principle here and there, to obtain their objectives. Ideology may impose demands on democratic stability but does not render it immobile. Especially when contrasted to the kind of consensus-oriented politics that dominated public life in the years after World War II, a little ideology can prove to be healthy for democracy.

Alas for our democracy, ideological commitments are not at the root of the recent drive to repeal Obamacare, shut down the government, and threaten default on U.S. debt. There is, for one thing, an unmistakable lack of ideas emanating from today's extreme-right-wing politicians. Not one has written anything like The Conscience of a Conservative, even if, thanks to the economist Paul Krugman, we do have The Conscience of a Liberal. Ron Paul is a book writer, but he is no longer in office. Paul Ryan is said to be engaged in a book project, yet his major contribution to his party has been to write a budget whose numbers never seemed to add up. Ted Cruz is a graduate of Harvard Law School, but he is content, in good McCarthy-like style, to attack rather than emulate the professors who taught him there. It is true that some contemporary Republicans swear by the ideas of Ayn Rand, but they also disavow her when the matter becomes public.

Attitude rather than ideology shapes how these Republicans behave in Congress. Cruz, for example, is best known not for the stances he takes, but for the defiant way he takes them. Opposition to a law can be ideological; voting to repeal it more than 40 times, as the House Republicans have done with respect to Obama's signature health-care law, suggests instead a form of obsessive-compulsive disorder. (Given their deep distrust of government, Republican politicians are unlikely to read the Web page of the National Institute of Mental Health; if they did, they would discover that those afflicted with OCD "feel the need to check things repeatedly, or have certain thoughts or perform rituals and routines over and over again.")

One of the imperatives of political survival is understanding your opponents, the better to defeat them. The whole idea that "negotiation" means never having to make concessions seems more a failure of cognitive development than a strategy for getting what you want. Tea Party Republicans have been so taken aback by Obama's firmness on the debt-limit issue because their mind-sets do not permit them to understand his.

Were their inability to come to terms with the fact that they do not control all three branches of government due to an idea, very conservative Republicans might be able to change. Because it is instead the result of an idée fixe, they cannot.

Any effort to make sense of the success of right-wing politics then or now cannot be understood without attention being paid to those who pay for it. In Hofstadter's day, the financing of the radical right came from businessmen, such as J. Howard Pew (oil and shipbuilding), Patrick Frawley (safety razors), and Henry Salvatori (oil-and-gas exploration). Like the politicians they supported, those men of means were primarily motivated by ideology: They advocated the free market at home and opposed communism abroad as part of their generation's efforts to find causes capable of uniting conservatism's many branches. Their purpose was not to sell more products but to remake the world.

The same is not true of current right-wing financiers, such as Charles and David Koch. It is true that the Koch brothers have an ideology and spend to promote it: At the Cato Institute, they used their dollars to advance one version of libertarianism over another. But even that effort had more to do with partisanship than ideas; the Koch brothers did not find the incumbent Cato leadership sufficiently committed to the Republican Party. For them, money is less about exercising power than promoting their interests, which explains why the brothers distanced themselves from the debt-ceiling fight the minute they realized its unpopularity.

Despite the differences between the radical right then and now, Hofstadter's insight that psychology, more than politics, motivates it can still prove helpful. Suffering one of the great defeats in the history of American presidential politics, Goldwater carried just six states (Arizona and five in the Deep South). Republican governors now rule in all of them, plus 24 more. It is in the states, and especially in those where legislatures have dominant Republican majorities, that Koch money feeds the ambitions of politicians whose attitudes are more worrisome than their ideas.

In the national capital, gridlock is the law of land. In the states, the same could be said for haste. No sooner had the U.S. Supreme Court weakened the preclearance provisions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act than conservative legislators in Texas and North Carolina passed laws making it more difficult for minorities to vote. Unlike their fellow Republicans in Washington, they made no effort to spin their actions with obfuscatory language: Although they once insisted that making it more difficult to vote would protect against fraud, increasingly they have proudly bragged that their rationale is strictly partisan. They want everyone to know that they have power, are willing to use it, and are determined to show how far they plan to go in curtailing the rights of those who disagree with them. From a civil-rights perspective, one can only wish that the states were in as much gridlock as the federal government.

Authoritarianism, rather than OCD, is the dominant psychological strain of those who engage in such determined activity. The mentality of right-wing politicians in the states may be different from those in Washington, but they equally fear being contaminated by contact with individuals or ideas they find threatening. One way of avoiding such contact, favored by Republicans in Congress, is to negotiate only under the threat of blackmail. Another, more popular in Republican-controlled states, is to work assiduously to make sure that you will never have opponents in the first place. The former allows elections to produce outcomes and then deals with the consequences. The latter aims to influence the outcomes of elections in advance, so that the results are a foregone conclusion. (Both major parties gerrymander; only one pays such careful attention to stacking voting requirements.) Paranoids need enemies, real or imagined. Authoritarians simply dispense with them.

Of all the scholars who discussed the radical right of the 1950s and 1960s, Hofstadter was the most worried. "The far right," he concluded, "has become a permanent force in the political order because the things upon which it feeds are also permanent: the chronic and ineluctable frustrations of our foreign policy, the opposition to the movement for racial equality, the discontents that come with affluence, the fevers of the culturally alienated ... ." If the radical right lived on, he feared, so would the "agitational mind, with its paranoid suspicions, its impossible demands, and its millennial dreams of total victory."

It has been a truism of politics that once extremists come to power, they jettison some of the radical ideas in which they once believed, so as to hold onto power as long as possible. No one can know whether Goldwater, had he improbably won the presidency, would have done so, even if his denunciation of the Christian Right in his last years suggests that he may have been tempted. We can, however, be fairly sure that today's version of the radical right, should it ever reach that point, will lack any such moderating influence. Whatever the outcome of this fall's intense standoff, one thing is certain: There will soon be another one.

Politics is the art of finding deals that make it possible to move on to the next deal. Because psychology is now playing such a prominent role in the fervid imagination of the radical right, any deadlock is just one more step toward another.

Hofstadter died in 1970, at the age of 54. He never got to witness just how correct he was.

Alan Wolfe is director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life and a professor of political science at Boston College. His latest book is Political Evil: What It Is and How to Combat It (Knopf, 2011).

subscribe today

Get the insight you need for success in academe.