Around the time President Kennedy was killed in 1963 and Barry Goldwater succeeded in capturing the nomination of the Republicans for president in 1964, the noted historian Richard Hofstadter published “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” a work now considered a classic. In this and two other lesser-known essays about the conservative movement, he analyzed the ongoing nature of extreme conservative politics in American history.
As the Tea Party and related groups summon their energies for yet another attempt to stop Obamacare, it is instructive to review Hofstadter’s analysis and see both the continuities and differences between the rise of Goldwater and today’s right-wing movement.
The obsession of the right with the “high taxes” they allegedly pay is well-known. It can be hard to understand why this issue burns so hot at the moment when taxes are in general lower now than they have been for decades. However, Hofstadter shows this is a long-standing grievance. In 1954 he wrote “The Pseudo-conservative Revolt” that described how the passage of the amendment to the constitution allowing an income tax in 1913 was still a sore point for conservatives forty years on. The income tax was thought to be a huge step on the road to socialism and unchecked government power, so repealing it was urgently needed to maintain states’ rights and personal freedom.
What always goes unexplained by conservatives is how they’d prefer to pay for government services. They are generally in favor of expanding defense spending while at the same time proclaiming that all taxes are theft.
The vast conspiracy
The language accusing Obama of wanting to destroy America, to turn it into socialism, or even worse make us like Europe, puzzles liberals. It’s hard to know what conservatives are referring to or why this rather moderate president produces such animus. The left tends to think it is racism, and that is likely a factor, but Hofstadter explains that belief in a vast malevolent conspiracy is a long-standing part of the far-right worldview.
He finds a long series of warnings going all the way back to the early 1800s about the Pope, the Jesuits, a cabal manipulating the price of gold, the Freemasons and, of course, the Illuminati. There were regular warnings about hidden plots, events being manipulated from behind the scenes and the subversion of American institutions by kingmakers operating in the shadows. The fear of communist subversion and the whole McCarthy movement in the 1950s was only the latest manifestation of this continuing fear.
And if we find it devoid of reason to call Obama a socialist, Hofstadter reminds us that those icons of patriotism Dwight Eisenhower and George Marshall were commonly thought by the far right to be communist agents bent on the destruction of America. Obama is in good company.
Who has the power?
Hofstadter does highlight one interesting transition that had occurred in his own time — and which we see continuing in ours. In the 1800s, the language of the far right took the perspective that they were in power, but were being threatened by its loss. But by the 1960s, the right had moved to the language of victimhood. They were on the run, barely surviving as the nation had now been totally taken over by liberal institutions. The press, the Congress, the courts and the president were all in the hands of the liberals.
We see that view of endless victimization in those who think they are at any moment going to have to take to the hills to defend themselves from a massive government attack, or see gay marriage as making their lives impossible, or when it was rumored that there were camps being prepared for conservatives or that Obama was about to take away all the guns and unless a last ditch defense is made we would be snuffed out by the vast liberal conspiracy.
After a politician wins the party’s nomination, there is a tradition of an extensive ritual of reconciliation. Hofstadter names the various ways this is done: conciliatory language that emphasizes what they all have in common, letting the losers have a moment in the spotlight, choice of vice presidential running mate from among defeated rivals or adopting some aspect of the program of those who didn’t get the nomination.
In 1964 Goldwater flouted all of those conventions and was belligerent in victory. He did not reach out to the moderate wing of the Republican party.
We see similar behavior from the Tea Party wing of the Republicans today where every Republican officeholder is scrutinized for any deviation from right-wing orthodoxy and will face a primary challenge if they go too far toward the moderate side of things.
Obama made efforts for years on taxes and health care to meet the Republicans halfway, only to have any compromise undone by more extreme demands. The various threats to shut down the government over the debt ceiling or other issues are more examples of this unwillingness to work together for the common good.
This behavior is common in extreme movements, which are often prone to purges and worries that not everyone is as pure as they are.
Response in defeat
If you were running against someone more liberal than you, and you lost, you might naturally think you needed to shade your views towards the left in order to pick up additional votes next time. It is a characteristic of the right, in Hofstadter’s day and now, that in similar circumstances, they will believe they lost because they weren’t conservative enough.
He describes how Goldwater’s crushing defeat caused his partisans only to believe they needed to become even more conservative. They had lost, the thinking went, because the vast number of conservatives they utterly believed existed had just not come out to the polls because Goldwater wasn’t a ‘true conservative.’
They were then, and now, absolutely convinced that while all the nation’s institutions had been controlled by the liberals, that at heart, America was still overwhelmingly populated by conservatives who just hadn’t ‘woken up’ to the dangerous takeover of the nation by the left.
We saw the same reaction after the defeat of McCain in 2008 and Romney in 2012. The polls were thought to be wrong, there had been ‘too many’ minority voters, liberals had engaged in fraud. Anything was believed other than facing that their ideas were unpopular.
Many aspects of contemporary far-right Republicanism seem to defy logic and its members seem often impervious to experience. Hofstadter gives us perspective and reminds us that this is not a new scenario but is in continuity with the extreme anti-communist movements (such as the John Birch Society) of the 1950s and 1960s.
In 1964, the right wing got their wish and captured the nomination of the Republicans. In the recent resurgence of Tea Party conservatives, they have so far not yet achieved this goal. Should the Republicans nominate a movement conservative such as Rand Paul or Ted Cruz in 2016, we hopefully will see a repeat of the massive defeat suffered by Goldwater in 1964.
History moves on
Not everything stays the same. By his later years Goldwater had mellowed and followed the logic of his small government beliefs to even say that homosexuals should be left alone. By 1996 he had come to the point where he remarked to Bob Dole that they were now on the liberal end of the Republican party.
A more significant change is the attitude of the right to evidence. That becomes apparent in their arguments over Obamacare. We’ll take that up next week.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Mint Press News’ editorial policy.