It’s Been With Us For Years, But Gotten Worse

The historian Richard Hofstadter (1916-1970) is known outside academic circles for having written a particular book and a particular essay. The book was Anti-intellectualism in American Life from 1963. The essay was “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” from 1964. I read the essay a few days ago in a collection of Hofstadter’s work. Anyone who wants to understand how we got to this point in American history will benefit from reading Richard Hofstadter.

He explains, for example, the basis for “economic individualism”, the idea that it’s not only more efficient but more ethical that everyone should sink or swim on their own. Thus, poor or working-class conservatives are often against anyone receiving help from the government, even though they could use that help themselves:

On many occasions they approach economic issues as matters of faith and morals rather than matters of fact. For example, people often oppose certain economic policies not because they have been or would be economically hurt by such policies, or even because they have carefully calculated views about their economical efficacy, but because they disapprove on moral grounds of the assumptions on which they think the policies rest….Deficit spending might work to their advantage; but the moral  and psychological effect, which is what they can really understand and feel, is quite otherwise: when society adopts a policy of deficit spending, thrifty [conservatives] feel that their way of life has been officially and insultingly repudiated [“Pseudo-Conservatism Revisited – 1965”].

Hofstadter borrowed the term “pseudo-conservative” from the German thinker Theodore Adorno. He explained why in an earlier essay written in response to McCarthyism:

There is a dynamic of dissent in America today…The new dissent is based upon a relentless demand for conformity… Its exponents, although they believe themselves to be conservatives and usually employ the rhetoric of conservatism, show signs of a serious and restless dissatisfaction with American life, traditions and institutions. They have little in common with the temperate and compromising spirit of true conservatism in the classical sense of the word…Their political reactions express rather a profound … hatred of our society and its ways – a hatred which one would hesitate to impute to them if one did not have suggestive evidence from clinical techniques and from their own modes of expression [From “The Pseudo-Conservative Revolt”, 1954].

Remind you of anyone you know? I mean, who in public life expresses more contempt for America in the 21st century than the next President and his fans, the vocal minority that wants to make this country “great” (i.e. “white”) again? Maybe the Democrats should have revived those popular bumper stickers from the 1960s, the ones aimed at Volkswagen-driving hippies and protesters.  

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Finally, here’s what Hofstadter said about the Republicans’ first pseudo-conservative Presidential nominee, Senator Barry Goldwater:

Unquestionably, Goldwater’s ideas do retain some shreds and scraps of genuine conservatism, but the main course of his career puts him closer to the right-wing ideologues who were essential to his success, who shaped his tactics, who responded to his line of argument… How are we to explain the character of a “conservative” whose whole political life has been spent urging a sharp break with the past, whose great moment as a party leader was marked by a repudiation of our traditional political ways, whose followers were so notable for their destructive and divisive energies, and whose public reputation was marked not with standpattism or excessive caution but with wayward impulse and recklessness? [“Goldwater and Pseudo-Conservative Politics”, 1964].

Again, remind you of anyone you know?

Fortunately, Lyndon Johnson beat Goldwater by 26 million votes (rather than 3 million) and by 61% to 27% (rather than 48% to 46%). Goldwater only won six states in the 1964 election: the five former slave states of the Deep South and his home state of Arizona. That gave him 52 electoral votes compared to Johnson’s 486. 

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In addition to being a pseudo-conservative, Goldwater had no particular qualifications to be President. Before being elected to the Senate, he managed the family department store. In the Senate, he played no significant role. In Hofstadter’s words, “his main business there was simply to vote No”. He was still an “outsider” even after 12 years in Washington.

Goldwater’s extreme positions and lackluster qualifications contributed to his historic defeat. Fifty-two years later, due to a variety of circumstances, another pseudo-conservative, this time with no government experience at all, won narrow victories in enough states to win the White House. Given their appeal to the same sorts of voters, and given the fact that our next President is obviously suffering from a personality disorder (whereas Goldwater was relatively normal in that regard), it’s fair to say our democracy is showing signs of wear and tear that are beyond serious.

Addendum:

The journalist James Fallows recently reported the following conversation with a U.S. Senator:

Q:  How many of your colleagues know that there is something wrong with T***p?
A:  All of them, obviously.
Q:  Which Republican will be the first to say so?
A:  Ummmm….