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The Paranoid Style in Progressive Politics

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eye on the news

The Paranoid Style in Progressive Politics

Its attempts to pathologize every instance of Republican opposition to the Democratic program say much about the Left’s own anxieties. May 13, 2021
Politics and law
The Social Order

The other day I found myself staring at this headline in the New York Times: “GOP Focuses on Polarizing Cultural Issues in Drive to Regain Power.” For a moment, I thought the article would, in a commonsense way, explore how Republicans were confronting the polarizing cultural issues that had been created by liberals. That is to say, I thought the article would be about the hardball nature of American politics.

Instead, it presented Republican opposition to explosively controversial questions like packing the Supreme Court, defunding the police, and giving legal status to illegal immigrants as part empty cynicism, part mental imbalance. The reporter, Carl Hulse, portrayed the Republican resistance to such extreme Democratic initiatives as a determined effort to appease the “conservative base.” That’s a phrase that has become a Democratic mantra signifying chthonic forces of disorder, and it has the effect of halting in its tracks any political argument or debate.

Nowhere in Hulse’s report was there an acknowledgment that the Republican focus on these matters was a legitimate form of democratic politics—as robust, and constitutional, as the calculating Democratic manipulation of same. What’s more, Hulse noted that “Republicans are also hammering at issues of race and sexual orientation, seeking to use Democrats’ push to confront systemic racism and safeguard transgender rights as attack lines.” The article treats “systemic racism” as a settled historic fact, as though it were the institution of slavery in the antebellum South. But systemic racism—the assumption that white racism is fundamental to American identity—is not a settled historical fact, having been discredited by, among others, at least a score of distinguished liberal historians. And transgender rights are a complex matter, extending from protection of transgender people under the law to the question of transgender athletes—on which there is no consensus on the right—and the issue of sexual-reassignment surgery for children. But Republicans violently “hammer” at such settled questions “in a drive to regain power,” while Democrats gently “push to confront” and “safeguard” them in a spirit of truth and justice.

Now you can hardly expect the new New York Times to appreciate the irony of accusing Republicans of being “polarizing” after years of liberals setting women against men, blacks against whites, non-binary people against “cisgender” people; after years of practicing the kind of divisive politics that in other places at other times have caused societies to decline into civil strife. Yet you would think that a seasoned New York Times political reporter, not to mention his editors, would, as part of a journalistic obligation to record the dynamics of modern American politics, add a brief paragraph about how it was in fact the Democrats—in their drive to regain power in the last election—who programmatically turned everything Donald Trump and his allies said and did into polarizing instances of dehumanizing prejudice.

That old “all the news fit to print” approach, however, would defeat the article’s purpose: to pathologize every normal instance of Republican opposition to the Democratic program. And it would betray the unconscious force coursing just beneath the surface of the article: the projection of liberals’ own lust for power.

The transformation of the New York Times into an official arm of the woke movement’s boutique radicalism—with anonymous petitions crying “pain” replacing the reasoned protest of identifiable individuals—is a recent development. But the liberal pathologizing of conservative resistance to liberal values, which found its crowning pretext in the advent of Trump and Trumpism, has a long history and a specific origin. Beginning in the late 1940s, and throughout the 1950s, at the height of McCarthyism, the liberal political scientist Richard Hofstadter devised what was to become the framework for, in liberal circles, a boilerplate conception of conservatism as a type of mental illness.

Hofstadter’s thesis was fairly simple. Confronted with the liberal bureaucratic state, run by managerial elites in large urban environments far removed from the cohesive communities that made up rural and semi-rural America, the people in these small towns responded with “anxiety” about their diminished status and “paranoia” toward the new, remote masters of their fates. This, Hofstadter darkly believed, was the unstable state of mind, rife with racism and anti-Semitism, that both animated McCarthyism and had energized the fascist movements in Europe.

In the more than half a century since Hofstadter advanced this thesis, not a few professional historians have pointed out that the populist movements that so terrified him were often multiracial and open to so-called cosmopolitan intellectuals. They also took Hofstadter to task for his narrow emphasis on what he believed were the psychological origins of conservative politics. The fact is that Hofstadter never left his desk. If he had actually visited the places he wrote about, he would have seen that the people who lived there inhabited highly complex social structures with highly complex power relations, the navigation through which took up their most of their waking lives. They barely gave a thought to what was happening in New York or Boston.

Nonetheless, Hofstadter’s facile formulations slipped out of his academic environs into the surrounding mainstream culture. All you have to do to realize Hofstadter’s widespread influence in liberal circles is to read one or two paragraphs of longtime New York Times columnist Gail Collins’s mechanical lucubrations, written for a predetermined audience in a cliquish tone of smug sarcasm, in which every conservative figure or act is a freak show, a case study in mental instability.

Hofstadter, however, was on to something real and profound with his concepts of status anxiety and paranoia. You can see it in a 2020 essay by Tim Wu, a Columbia professor—as was Hofstadter—and former Obama administration official. Wu admiringly cites Hofstadter on the mindset of the conservative conspiracy theorist. For this person, Wu writes, quoting Hofstadter, “The enemy is ‘a perfect model of malice, a kind of amoral superman: sinister, ubiquitous, powerful, cruel, sensual, luxury-loving.’ And to fight such an enemy, ‘what is needed is not the usual methods of political give-and-take, but an all-out crusade.’”

What is striking about these quotes is that, far from capturing the mental state of small-town America even at the height of McCarthyism—a toxic disruption that never came close to becoming a political movement—Hofstadter’s words perfectly describe the liberal response to Trump and Trumpism. It could be that the wildest paranoiac fantasies on the far right conceive of one Democratic figure or another in the way Hofstadter describes, though I have yet to see it. But Hofstadter’s description of “the enemy” applies, with almost eerie precision, to the caricature of a diabolical Trump that has run through the mainstream media for four years and counting. And is there a better description of the Democratic “resistance” movement than not only the abandonment of “the usual methods of political give-and-take, but an all-out crusade”?

There is a reason that Hofstadter’s concepts of status anxiety and paranoia as the driving forces behind American conservatism have survived their scholarly debunking and become part of the liberal worldview. They amount to the biggest psychological projection in American intellectual life, starting with Hofstadter himself, who as a Jewish scholar at then anti-Semitic Columbia must have been constantly plagued by both mental conditions.

Today status anxiety and paranoia are entrenched on the liberal side. It is the status anxiety of young editors, reporters, and producers, working in a collapsing profession, that is behind the generational combat that has driven the media to the far Left. And even the fevered fantasies of the QAnon conspiracy movement struggle to match what is now an established sensibility in liberal circles—what Hofstadter, thinking of the Right, famously dubbed “the paranoid style in American politics”—in which Trump and his followers will lead the country into economic chaos, an authoritarian state, concentration camps, nuclear or climate-change holocaust.

Instead, the Trump administration poured billions of dollars into what became the successful development of Covid-19 vaccines, even as the New York Times was virtually accusing Trump of murder, proclaiming that a vaccine would take ten years to develop, and recklessly speculating about 2.2 million deaths in the U.S. Such paranoia was a misperception—or calculated distortion—of reality that has made liberals’ status anxiety, and their obsessive pathologizing of the other side in an attempt at self-therapy, all that much worse.

Photo: Pacific Press/iStock

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