Sunday Sermon: The Paranoid Style


Memories of the Hofstadters are pretty minimal: we used to walk down the stairs of the apartment building on Claremont Ave – we were on the 11th floor and they were on 9. I remember the hollow echo of the stairwell, and the dizzying height.

While the grown-ups talked, I assume I did baby stuff like run around in circles, or sleep; probably alternating the two in rapid succession. Kid Marcus had no idea what a Pulitzer Prize was, or meant, or what the grown-ups were talking about, but I wish I could go back and remember some of those conversations; Dad had just gotten tenure in the History Department at Columbia, and he was surrounded with fascinating and stimulating people. Academic culture of the early 1960s was a great froth of ideas and activity, particularly as it touched on politics, and Columbia became one of the foci of student political unrest – unrest which eventually resulted in our moving to Baltimore in 1967. I lived in interesting times but I remember none of it; I was probably more interested in the Jello at the automat, than much else. The great antiwar protest marches I remember, too, but mostly as a sea of faces that I bobbed across, safely perched on Dad’s shoulders.

I doubtless slept through some interesting discussions literally flying straight over my head.

Richard Hofstadter’s Pulitzer was for his Anti-Intellectualism in America [amaz], which is an analysis of how American politicians have had to adopt a pose of being stupid, in order to not alienate themselves from a public that is stupid and expects politicians to be cut from the same cloth. I’ll probably do a few postings someday, extracting bits from that book. But today, we’re going to look at another of Hofstadter’s related pieces, about what he called “The Paranoid Style” in American politics, and what he called “Pseudo-Conservatives.”

Some disclaiming is necessary, first. Most of you probably know that I have a problem with labeling [stderr] and political philosophy – as Hofstadter practices – it is a whole lot of labeling. I don’t see any way around using labels, loosely, because he’s talking about popular attitudes and behaviors, and people’s self-expressed political views. One of the problems I have with discussing people’s politics with broad brush-strokes as Hofstadter does, is that people often refuse to fit neatly between the lines that we draw. The consequences of my attitude toward stereotyping and labeling (a stereotype is an instance of a label) is that it makes it difficult for us to talk about politics since someone may always pop up and say, “well, that doesn’t apply to me! #notruefascist” or whatever. Even reading Hofstadter’s fascinating analysis of the politics of his contemporaries, I keep feeling like I want to cringe away from treating people as having homogenous beliefs, when I suspect that the opposite is true: they act the way that they do because they believe a fractally complex mixture of different things that sort of point them all in the broad direction that Hofstadter identifies. For example, Hofstadter talks about “anti-intellectuals” but I am fairly sure that, if you held a microphone up to any of his subjects and asked them, “are you an anti-intellectual?” they would say “no.” That, then, becomes a problem of Hofstadter talking about “anti-intellectuals” referring to people who probably wouldn’t pick up that label and carry it themselves; this is the same as today’s white racists, many of whom are not honest enough with themselves to adopt that label for self-description. All that aside, Hofstadter’s analysis seemed on point enough that it won him a Pulitzer, so I think we should accept some of the imprimatur of authority and hear him for the sake of argument.

Twenty years ago the dynamic force in American political life came from the side of liberal dissent, from the impulse to reform the inequities of our economic and social system and to change our ways of doing things, to the end that the sufferings of the Great Depression would never be repeated. Today, the dynamic force in our political life no longer comes from the liberals who made the New Deal possible. By 1952 the liberals had had at least the trappings of power for twenty years. They could look back to a brief, exciting period in the mid-1930’s when they had held power itself and had been able to transform the economic and administrative life of the nation. After twenty years the New Deal liberals have quite unconsciously taken on the psychology of those who have entered into possession. Moreover, a large part of the New Deal public, the jobless, distracted, and bewildered men of 1933, have in the course of the years found substantial places in society for themselves, have become homeowners, suburbanites, and solid citizens. Many of them still have emotional commitments to the liberal dissent with which they grew up politically, but their social position is one of solid comfort. Among them the dominant tone has become one of satisfaction, even of a kind of conservatism. Insofar as Adlai Stevenson stirred their enthusiasm in 1952, it was not in spite of but in part because of the air of poised and reliable conservatism that he brought to the Democratic convention. By comparison, Harry Truman’s impassioned rhetoric, with its occasional thrusts at “Wall Street,” seemed passe and rather embarrassing. The change did not escape Stevenson himself. “The strange alchemy of time,” he said in a speech at Columbus, “has somehow converted the Democrats into the truly conservative party of this country – the party dedicated to conserving all that is best, and building solidly and safely on those foundations.” What most liberals now hope for is not to carry on with some ambitious new program, but simply to defend as much as possible of the old achievements and to try to keep traditional liberties of expression that are threatened.

There is, however, a dynamic of dissent in America today. Representing no more than a modest fraction of the electorate, it is not so powerful as the liberal dissent of the New Deal era, but it is powerful enough to set the tone of our political life and to establish throughout the country a kind of punitive reaction. The new dissent is certainly not radical – there are hardly any radicals of any sort left – nor is it precisely conservative. Unlike most of the liberal dissent if the past the new dissent not only has no respect for nonconformism, but is based upon a relentless demand for conformity. It can most accurately be called pseudo-conservative – I borrow the term from The Authoritarian Personality, published in 1950 by Theodore W. Adorno and his associates – because its exponents, although they believe themselves to be conservatives, 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, and they are far from pleased with the dominant practical conservatism of the moment as it is represented by the Eisenhower administration. Their political reactions express rather a profound if largely unconscious hatred of our society and its ways – a hatred which one would hesitate to impute to them if one did not have suggestive evidence both from clinical techniques and from their own modes of expression.

From clinical interviews and thematic apperception tests, Adorno and his co-workers found that their pseudo-conservative subjects, although given to a form of political expression that combines a curious mixture of largely conservative with occasional radical notions, succeed in concealing from themselves impulsive tendencies that, if released in action, would be very far from conservative. the pseudo-conservative, Adorno writes, shows “conventionality and authoritarian submissiveness” in his conscious thinking and “violence, anarchic impulses, and chaotic destructiveness in the unconscious sphere… the pseudo-conservative is a man who, in the name of upholding traditional American values and institutions and defending them against more or less fictitious dangers, consciously or unconsciously aims at their abolition.”

Who is the pseudo-conservative and what does he want? It is impossible to identify him by social class, for the pseudo-conservative impulse can be found in practically all classes of society, although its power probably rests largely upon its appeal to the less-educated members of the middle classes. The ideology of pseudo-conservatism can be characterized but not defined, because the pseudo-conservative tends to be more than ordinarily incoherent about politics. The lady who, when General Eisenhower’s victory over Senator Taft had finally become official in 1952, stalked out of the Hilton Hotel declaiming: “This means either more years of socialism,” was probably a fairly good representative of the pseudo-conservative mentality. So also were the gentleman who, at the Freedom Congress held at Omaha over a year ago by some “patriotic” organizations, objected to Earl Warren’s appointment to the Supreme Court with the assertion: “Middle-of-the-road thinking can and will destroy us.”; the general who spoke to the same group, demanding “an Air Force capable of wiping out the Russian Air Force and industry in one sweep,” but also “a material reduction in military expenditures”; the people who a few years ago believed simultaneously that we had no business to be fighting communism in Korea and that the war should immediately extended to an Asia-wide crusade against communism; and the most ardent supporters of the Bricker Amendment.[1] Many of the most zealous followers of Senator McCarthy are also pseudo-conservatives, although his appeal clearly embraces a wider public.

The restlessness, suspicion, and fear shown in various phases of the pseudo-conservative revolt give evidence of the anguish which the pseudo-conservative experiences in his capacity as a citizen. He believes himself to be living in a world in which he is spied upon, plotted against, betrayed, and very likely destined for total ruin. He feels that his liberties have been arbitrarily and outrageously invaded. He is opposed to almost everything that has happened in American politics in the past twenty years. He hates the very thought of Franklin D. Roosevelt. He is disturbed deeply by American participation in the United Nations, which he can see only as a sinister organization. He sees his own country as being so weak that it is constantly about to fall victim to subversion, and yet he feels that it is so all-powerful that any failure it may experience in getting its way in the world – for instance, in the Orient – cannot possibly be due to its limitations but must be attributed to its having been betrayed. He is the most bitter of our citizens about our involvement in the wars of the past but seems the least concerned about avoiding the next one. […]

Alex Jones and Steve Bannon were kids when Hofstadter wrote that, but it’s uncanny, isn’t it?

In 1952, there was already a clearly visible strain of irrational reactionary politics that was violently anti-something and strongly authoritarian. At various times I have seen what Hofstadter calls pseudo-conservatism as a manifestation of evangelical christianity, or as a foundation of evangelical christianity – the question there being, are religious fanatics pre-programmed to be fanatical about things, or does fanaticism tend to break toward evangelical christianity. Right now, I am sitting closer to the “fanaticism breaks toward…” view: fanaticism breaks toward conspiracy theories, political self-destruction, and the mish-mosh of beliefs Hofstadter calls pseudo-conservatism.

It’s important, I think, that he identifies that the pseudo-conservatives are not ignorant though they appreciate the use of ignorance. When we look at reasonably intelligent rich people like Robert Mercer, whose politics appear to be paranoid or irrational, it’s probably best that we understand that they are irrational: they are trying to wipe out some imagined progressive success against mythical America – an America that never was. I feel that Hofstadter’s analysis also goes a way toward explaining the “neoliberal” movement, as pseudo-conservatives who are stuck with a vocabulary of liberalism and therefore feel they must keep making liberal mouth-sounds in spite of the rather obvious fact that they are servants of imperialism and capitalist hegemony.

------ divider ------

Adorno and the Frankfurt School – Adorno’s book The Authoritarian Personality appears to be quite collectible. Copies on Amazon range from $100 to $900 depending on whether they are abridged or in good condition. There is a great deal that can be said about Adorno and the Frankfurt school; it’s very deep waters to jump into: it was the output of a group of political scientists (or social philosophers) that were trying to look at politics from the outside. Habermas, Adorno, and Horkheimer were the main exponents, and they were nominally marxist and modernist (specifically anti-post-modernist) The Philosophize This! podcast [phil this] has a fair (I think) and sympathetic (I think) overview of the Frankfurt School, which is much more accessible than most of their writings.

[1]The Bricker Amendment was an attempted constitutional amendment to nullify the government’s ability to make agreements with foreign powers. [wik]

I just noticed that Hofstadter hadn’t won the Pulitzer, yet. Shows you what kid Marcus knew about all that stuff.

Comments

  1. says

    Hofstadter talks about “anti-intellectuals” but I am fairly sure that, if you held a microphone up to any of his subjects and asked them, “are you an anti-intellectual?” they would say “no.” That, then, becomes a problem of Hofstadter talking about “anti-intellectuals” referring to people who probably wouldn’t pick up that label and carry it themselves; this is the same as today’s white racists, many of whom are not honest enough with themselves to adopt that label for self-description.

    Hmm. That’s a matter of framing – asking people about a label won’t get you anywhere, you need to ask about their beliefs. Today’s white racists, well, I don’t think this is a matter of self-honesty, many of them are re-branding in an attempt to recruit, but the beliefs are the same old ones, and they don’t deny any of that.

  2. says

    The restlessness, suspicion, and fear shown in various phases of the pseudo-conservative revolt give evidence of the anguish which the pseudo-conservative experiences in his capacity as a citizen. He believes himself to be living in a world in which he is spied upon, plotted against, betrayed, and very likely destined for total ruin. He feels that his liberties have been arbitrarily and outrageously invaded.

    The more things change, the more they stay the same.

  3. says

    Caine@#2:
    The more things change, the more they stay the same.

    Yeah. I got onto this thread of Hofstadter because I remembered something about him sort of explaining why conservatives are still pissed off about the New Deal. Even today’s conservatives, who probably don’t understand what the New Deal was – hooooo, boy – they hate the New Deal! And they are still paranoid about central banking. They are so paranoid about central banking (why are they paranoid about central banking?! Does it go back to Hamilton VS Jefferson?) that they let Wall Street make off with all the money, while they were busy trying to figure out how to destroy the New Deal – or something.

    I think Hofstadter would immediately tie the false conservatives to the “destroy the government institutions from within” trope that we are currently seeing so garishly displayed by the Trumpists. I can’t put words in his mouth but I’m pretty sure he’d see Trump as the crowning achievement of the paranoid style in American politics – the apotheosis of pseudo-conservatism. As I’ve argued elsewhere: they are against everything but for nothing.

  4. says

    Marcus:

    I remembered something about him sort of explaining why conservatives are still pissed off about the New Deal. Even today’s conservatives, who probably don’t understand what the New Deal was – hooooo, boy – they hate the New Deal!

    Did you notice that the 3rd Obama Time Cover was New Deal based? :D

  5. says

    I still don’t understand the hate for the New Deal. Oh, it amounted to a massive make-work project that turned the depression economy around. What’s to hate about that? Besides, we pretty much have a “massive make-work project” that has been propping up the US economy for decades – it’s called “the military/industrial complex.” The only difference is that the military-industrial complex tends to be putting wealth in the hands of corporate executives and the technical, white, middle class. Ooooooooo, could that be it?

  6. oldmanbynow says

    It’s all about the state. This is not news: the rise of the state has continued with hardly a setback from the 1200s to the present day, in every polity that has not suffered a cataclysmic collapse or near-extermination; and indeed, in many that have. Where Hofstadter goes wrong, like just about every contemporary American historian who addresses these issues, is in trying to address this millennium-long process in terms of the popular, kabuki-politics labels of his own day in this primitive, naive country. By the time he was writing, the republic of the US Constitution had been dead for forty years, and moribund before that since before the Civil War. The New Deal? It was nothing: it was foam on the river of the blood of the republic.

    Europeans knew and saw it, because they used to have a real, meaningful, active political engagement; their lives depended on which party they backed. Americans, immune to the real consequences of politics as active choice, thought they could ignore politics: and they have lost what was left, not of their freedom, but of their political power, to an imperial government: one run by imperialists and militarists and salesmen, for the benefit of their guilds–and worst of all, worse even than the wars we fight around the world, is the rise of big agriculture, a triumphant angel of death that has rung the funeral bell of decency for animals and people throughout America.

    An example of the “Hofstadter blindness” is the current discussion of the Electoral College. You hear people talking about this–people who take themselves very seriously–who don’t realize that the direct election of a president with vast imperial powers, one who needs protection by a Praetorian Guard, who directs the sovereign armed force of three hundred million people, without meaningful restraints of any kind: that this has zero–nothing–to do with “democracy,” whatever form the vote may take. The mere existence of that office, in that form, cannot be a phenomenon of democracy. No, the Electoral College, like the modern presidency, is no more than a mole on the face of the corpse of democracy.

    Marcus, I can’t help wondering whether you are not, both by personality and by predilection, what Hosfstadter mislabels as a pseudo-conservative, and what I would call simply a republican–in the sense of the word as it was employed during the English Civil War. You seem genuinely outraged by the surveillance society combined with the complete loss of popular accountability over what has become, by any definition, a tyrannical government observing the specious forms of democracy. Can you deny that what we have today, relative to the life of a citizen of western New York State in 1840, pretty much fulfills the predictions of the money quote in that article: “living in a world in which he is spied upon, plotted against, betrayed, and very likely destined for total ruin. He feels that his liberties have been arbitrarily and outrageously invaded.” If that’s pseudo-conservatism, I guess Orwell was a pseudo-conservative, too.

Leave a Reply