The Paranoid Style in American Politics Revisited

I’ve been watching the "health debates" in the USA with increasing levels of disbelief and horror and read with interest Glen Greenwald’s analysis of president Obama’s politicking on his healthcare reforms. Several points stand out:

  • The Republicans and their enablers in the Democratic party are not even remotely interested in healthcare reform.
  • Using ‘bi-partisanship’ as an excuse President Obama is negotiating away the ‘public option’.
  • Rahm Emmanuel, presumably with the President’s blessing, is leading the crackdown on those who favour a public health insurance system while simultaneously allowing so-called ‘centrists’ and ‘Blue Dogs’ to set the agenda.

    Why on earth the Dixiecrat wing of the party should be given such leeway is beyond me.

What are we to make of a party whose leader can write:

In the coming weeks, the cynics and the naysayers will continue to exploit fear and concerns for political gain. But for all the scare tactics out there, what’s truly scary — truly risky — is the prospect of doing nothing. If we maintain the status quo, we will continue to see 14,000 Americans lose their health insurance every day. Premiums will continue to skyrocket. Our deficit will continue to grow. And insurance companies will continue to profit by discriminating against sick people.

Source: Op-Ed Contributor – Barack Obama – Why We Need Health Care Reform – but which goes out of its way to accommodate people such as Tom Daschle who pockets a tidy sum by moonlighting as the insurance industry’s hireling mouthpiece? It seems to me that only reasonable conclusion is that to have health plans without the ‘public option’ is what the Obama administration has always wanted. If that is the case then it’s just another example of elite politics in a system which long ago gave up caring about the well-being of the American populace.

Except it isn’t.

The American right-wing have used the "health debate" to whip a rather a lot of America’s ample supply of unabashedly ignorant and unabashedly deranged and just plain batshit loolah extreme right-wing freaks to further a far uglier agenda than ‘merely’ defeating a very mild corrective to a situation in which companies inspired purely by the profit motive already make use of ‘death panels’. Such tactics are hardly surprising when one recalls the naked and blatant race-baiting that the McCain/Palin campaign engaged in during the election campaign. It’s hardly surprising that, egged on by the likes of Newt Gingrich, Palin continues to double down on her original assertion. Palin, Gingrich, and the extreme right-wing Republican party are trying to inflame that truculent and violence-loving segment of the American population who thrive on fear and have altogether too many guns. As Howard Dean who had previously lauded Obama as representing the end of "30 years of anger-based politics, the Slobodan Milosevic approach to governing" pithily expressed it. "This has nothing to do with health care".

"Anger based politics", "the Slobodan Milosevic approach to governing" were all described by American consensus historian Richard Hofstadter in his 1964 article for Harpers Magazine "The Paranoid Style in American Politics":

The paranoid spokesman sees the fate of conspiracy in apocalyptic terms—he traffics in the birth and death of whole worlds, whole political orders, whole systems of human values. He is always manning the barricades of civilization. He constantly lives at a turning point. Like religious millenialists he expresses the anxiety of those who are living through the last days and he is sometimes disposed to set a date fort the apocalypse.


As a member of the avant-garde who is capable of perceiving the conspiracy before it is fully obvious to an as yet unaroused public, the paranoid is a militant leader. He does not see social conflict as something to be mediated and compromised, in the manner of the working politician. Since what is at stake is always a conflict between absolute good and absolute evil, what is necessary is not compromise but the will to fight things out to a finish. Since the enemy is thought of as being totally evil and totally unappeasable, he must be totally eliminated—if not from the world, at least from the theatre of operations to which the paranoid directs his attention. This demand for total triumph leads to the formulation of hopelessly unrealistic goals, and since these goals are not even remotely attainable, failure constantly heightens the paranoid’s sense of frustration. Even partial success leaves him with the same feeling of powerlessness with which he began, and this in turn only strengthens his awareness of the vast and terrifying quality of the enemy he opposes.

Source: The Paranoid Style in American Politics

Ah yes the "death of whole worlds, whole political orders, whole systems of human values". Is it not reasonable to suppose that the death of the social order in which it was far better to be a white American than anything else is far more likely to stir unreasoning rage than the Obama administiration’s milquetoast health proposals? The barely concealed racist undercurrent being expressed at rallies where public officials are hanged in effigy, and where gun toting white men belonging to the extreme right-wing organisation "We The People"  see nothing wrong with turning up carrying a sign proclaiming  It’s time to water the tree of liberty, oblivious to the fact that the slogan was beloved of Timothy J. McVeigh and of racist groups such as Stormfront. Rob Reynolds, senior Washington correspondent for Al-Jazeera English captures what is going on in American politicas well:

The clear implication was made even plainer by a man at a meeting in Hagerstown, Maryland who held up a piece of cardboard upon which he had scrawled: "Death to Obama, death to Michelle and her two stupid kids."


These contemptible fantasies are avidly stoked and facilitated by Republican Party hacks and lawmakers, the big insurance companies and other moneyed interests who will fight dirty to prevent changing the lucrative for-profit health system that is bleeding the country white.

But the sheer manic intensity of the foam-flecked tirades bursting out in the town halls, so out of proportion to their proximate cause, bespeaks much deeper roots of rage.

These are some of the same people who howled "traitor!" and "kill him!" at Sarah Palin’s rallies last year.

They are the ones convinced Obama is a Muslim "sleeper agent" who will destroy American values and hand the country over to Osama bin Laden.

The flip side of their rage is fear. They scream: "We want our country back!" Their country is one where white, Christian conservatives rule.

The idea of a black president and a liberal democratic majority in Congress, elected by a huge landslide margin last November, is simply impossible for them to contemplate without teeth-grinding, choleric eruptions of hatred.

Source: Al Jazeera English – Focus – Fear, racism at town hall meetings [Emphasis mine.]

I contend that what we are seeing is a struggle over the role of the state in America between those who consider the state’s legitimacy to be based upon it’s role as an explicitly racial state. When the American government functions on an explicitly racial basis using it’s capacity to:

  • Imprison.
  • Police.
  • Persecute immigrants.
  • Or make war on Muslims.

Then its legitimacy is assured and applauded by those on the American extreme right. When on the other hand the American government moves to do something to look after poor people then the American right wingers erupt in a frenzy of hate. This isn’t to say that when the American government creates an authoritarian prison state 1, polices, persecute immigrants, or makes war on Muslims, that its motives can be reduced solely to racism. But the persistence of Willy Horton’s  legacy indicates to me that there is still a massive racial element to:

  • America’s breathtakingly high prison population.
  • The arrogance and savage violence of its policing.
  • The repressive bureaucracies devoted to policing immigration.
  • The presumption for the police and prosecutions and against civil liberties.

All of these are supported by a large number of Americans because of American society’s racial dynamics. Similarly the de-legitimising of even the idea that the government should have a social welfare function took the form of thinly concealed racist epithets about black ‘welfare queens’. 2 

What is interesting to me as an outsider is that many of those protesting the health reforms — particularly if there were to be any meaningful public option stand to benefit if the very reforms they loathe are pushed through. What is happening, I contend is that these people are symptomatic of an existential crisis for those white conservatives who consider America to be their property. White American racist conservatism isn’t lashing out in rage and panic because of  who or what Obama is. The nonsense about him being born in Kenya or about him being a secret Muslim is a symptom of unbridled panic at the thought that the 2008 election points to the possibility of new electoral coalitions. Paradoxically one of the people who expressed this panic clearly was the otherwise clueless TownHall protester Katy Abram whose tirade linked to above against America being ripped apart and turned into Russia included this:

"I don’t believe this is just about healthcare. It’s not about TARP. It’s not about left and right. This is about the systematic dismantling of this country. I’m only thirty-five years old, I’ve never been interested in politics. You have awakened a sleeping giant. We are tired of this. This is why everybody in this room is so ticked off. I don’t want this country turning into… Russia, turning into a socialised country. My question for you is, what are you going to do to restore this country back to what our founders created, according to the Constitution."

America as far as Abram is concerned is on the verge of extinction. The real America that is, the one she thinks the founding fathers invented. She’s been dismissed on the left as being both ignorant and possibly crazy — but to me as an outsider what is alarming about her is that she’s relatively sane compared to what appears to be a rather large number of her compatriots. The right wing militias who so love publicly bearing arms are part of a long American tradition of racial counter conspiracy. Whether it’s the KKK or the ethnic cleansing gangs described in Jean Pfaelzer’s  Driven Out: The Forgotten War Against Chinese Americans3 there is a long and ignoble tradition of racist reactionaries taking the law into their own hands when the government fails to maintain their desired racial state. These same unregulated militias, for that is what is what they were, that were able to merge their racial agenda into anti-bolshevist crusades, fighting against the "yellow peril", union busting, or creating a Juan Crow system in Georgia are reemerging. The only difference that I can see is that this time their rhetoric is wrapped in the language of the American constitution and of the necessity of resisting tyranny. An increasingly hard-up working and middle class who were already living in terror of dislocation and poverty are now seeing threats to their well-being amplified by recession. The American dream (and reality) for such people was expressed through ownership of property. However meagre their actual possessions may be those possessions are theirs. And this, I think, rather than greed, is what fueled the "conspicuous consumption" model of post-World War II America. Anything that smacks of "socialism" really does seem to be both alien and menacing to such people. Abram and people like her desperately want to believe that they can maintain the lifestyle they’ve been taught they are entitled to so long as they maintain a punishing work schedule and unsustainable debt levels. As I watched the Abram video I was struck by her sincerity. She really does believe that a lifestyle that has gutted America’s future is not only sustainable but that there is some sort of "free market" that can only exist under a strict construction of the American constitution. The current multiple crises in America are being brought about by treasonous, evil, and powerful others inimical to America and all it stands for and intent upon its "systematic dismantling".  Abram and the town hall protesters are a symptom of something very dangerous of a long tradition of extreme right wing American militancy that, should it be allowed to once again flourish unchecked, will make the misdeeds of Timothy McVeigh pale into insignificance.




Recommended reading:

  1. Ruth Gilmour: Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California is a very useful study of among other things the rise of America’s authoritarian prison state.
  2. Ronald W. Walters: White Nationalism, Black Interests: Conservative Public Policy and the Black Community (African American Life Series) charts the backlash against affirmative action and the use 14th Amendment to the American Constitution to extend equal protection and rights to groups historically subject to discrimination and persecution.
  3. Jean Pfaelzer:  Driven Out: The Forgotten War Against Chinese Americans. Documents a mostly forgotten (and ultimately failed) racial campaign.
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