Three years ago, when Barack Obama was carried to the White House on a tide of optimism, it seemed that the American people had put the politics of hatred far behind them. But as last week's horrifying events in Arizona reminded us, paranoia, invective, and violence remain indelible—if deeply regrettable—elements of American political culture.
It seems that Jared Lee Loughner, the gunman responsible for the slaughter, were merely another deranged loner along the lines of Lee Harvey Oswald, Sirhan Sirhan, Arthur Bremer, and John Hinckley. But some of his reported views—that the United States government was behind the September 11 attacks, that the political elite were planning to introduce a New World Order, and that the federal government was brainwashing people by controlling English grammar—are surprisingly widely shared by Americans today. To most sensible observers they may sound like the stuff of adolescent fantasy. But they spring from a remarkably fertile soil, a long tradition of populist paranoia that stretches back as far as the republic itself.
As plenty of commentators have pointed out, there is a great gulf between exaggerated political invective and cold-blooded murder. Yet the truth is that ever since the days of the founding fathers, the language of violence, conspiracy and betrayal has played a central part in American political life. Conflict and confrontation are the very stuff of politics, after all, and much as many liberals detest Sarah Palin, she is far from being exceptional. The history books are littered with examples of outspoken, belligerent populist champions—interestingly, many of them women—who claimed to be representing the common man against the corrupt, cosmopolitan elites undermining the American Dream. And far from withering under the harsh light of modernity, the paranoid tradition has been gathering momentum for the last half-century.
For the last thirty years, conservative activists in particular have been quick to grasp the potential of apocalyptic rhetoric, forever reminding their listeners of the terrible threats posed by “militant gays,” “liberal educators,” “baby killers,” and “godless politicians.”
Given the origins of the nation, perhaps it is not surprising that aggressive, fearful populism has played such a central part in American political history. Many of the Puritan settlers who fled east across the Atlantic in the seventeenth century sincerely believed they were escaping an international Catholic conspiracy encouraged by corrupt crypto-Papists at the court of Charles I of England. And as the historian Richard Hofstadter famously showed in his groundbreaking essay on the “paranoid style” in American history, fears of conspiracy in high places never died out. Take the Populist movement of the 1890s—an admirable group of progressive agrarian radicals from one angle, a collection of provincial conspiracy theorists from another. In an age of economic uncertainty and technological change, Populist rhetoric often came remarkably close to sounding like Tea Party boilerplate. “For nearly thirty years these conspirators have kept the people quarreling over less important matters while they have pursued with unrelenting zeal their one central purpose,” warned a Populist manifesto in 1895. “Every device of treachery, every resource of statecraft, and every artifice known to the secret cabals of the international gold ring are being used to deal a blow to the prosperity of the people and the financial and commercial independence of the country.” You could run that today in a Tea Party newsletter, and you would not have to change a word.
Writing in 1964, Hofstadter detected signs of the paranoid style not only in discredited demagogues such as the Depression’s “radio priest” Father Charles Coughlin or the anti-Communist witch-hunter Joe McCarthy, but in the presidential campaign of the ultra-conservative Barry Goldwater, then in full swing. For many liberals, the rhetoric of paranoia and violence appeared to be the last resort of the dispossessed, appealing above all to those who were being left behind by economic and social change. Yet the evidence of the last fifty years tells a rather different story. Many of the volunteers who stuffed envelopes and held coffee-morning for Goldwater—some of whom seriously believed that Lyndon Johnson was a crypto-socialist, that the federal government was conspiring to surrender American independence to the United Nations, and that fluoridation was a Communist plot—were happy, successful, well-adjusted people, with well-paid jobs as small businessmen, technicians, managers, and clerical workers.
Far from being losers, they were among life’s winners. And what this suggests, and what the events of the last fifty years have made clear, is that conspiracy-minded populism is not merely a lingering minority interest but part of the nation’s mainstream political tradition. By the mid-1970s, ten years after Goldwater’s defeat, the paranoid style was more deeply embedded in American life than ever. This was an age strikingly similar to our own: a time of rising unemployment, deep economic anxiety and national soul-searching, with the nation nursing a collective hangover after an immensely controversial Republican presidency and a bitterly divisive war abroad. Politics seemed remote; the system seemed broken; denunciations of Washington filled the airwaves. Not surprisingly, perhaps, millions of people looked elsewhere for leadership.
The most celebrated populists of the mid-1970s were, of course, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, both of whom presented themselves as simple, ordinary citizens standing up for the American people against the crooked, deceitful elites in Washington. Indeed, in some ways the presidential campaign of 1976—when Reagan challenged the Republican incumbent Gerald Ford, while Carter came from nowhere to capture the Democratic nomination—looks like the tipping point towards a politics of permanent populism, where inexperience becomes a virtue and almost every candidate claims to be running against “Washington.”
But in the febrile world of the 1970s, it was the streets of South Boston, the schools of Kanawha County, West Virginia, and the churches of Dade County, Florida, that offered the clearest glimpse of the political future. In Boston, Louise Day Hicks led grass-roots protests against school busing; in Kanawha County, Alice Miles led a campaign against the school board’s plans to introduce supposedly “Communist” textbooks; in Dade County, the singer Anita Bryant spearheaded a successful bid to roll back a gay rights ordinance. Each presented herself as simply an ordinary housewife, a champion of the people against the establishment. Each warned darkly of a conspiracy by the rich, the cosmopolitan, and the well educated to betray the virtues of the American republic. And each traded freely in the rhetoric of conflict and confrontation, while taking care to deplore the violence in which her supporters indulged.
It is not hard to see why reactionary populism has proved such a success since the 1970s. With confidence in political institutions in retreat, and with millions of people feeling bewildered and betrayed by outsourcing, globalization and the decline of blue-collar industry, the old conspiracy theories—with bankers, federal officials and godless liberals replacing the Catholics, Freemasons and Communists of the past—still have a powerful grip. And for the last thirty years, conservative activists in particular have been quick to grasp the potential of apocalyptic rhetoric, forever reminding their listeners of the terrible threats posed by “militant gays,” “liberal educators,” “baby killers,” and “godless politicians.” As Terry Dolan of the National Conservative PAC told an interviewer way back in 1978, the whole point was to “make them angry.” “We are trying to be divisive,” he explained. “The shriller you are, the better it is to raise money.”
For all the shock at the attack on Gabrielle Giffords, there seems little chance of the American people turning away from the rhetoric of apocalypse and betrayal, the identification of enemies within, or the demonization of the political establishment. Despite the distaste with which many liberals view Sarah Palin and her allies, the language of revolutionary violence is too deeply embedded in the American political tradition. The truth is that for as long as fear, ambition, anxiety and disappointment are part of the human condition (which is to say, for ever), what Hofstadter called the paranoid style—“heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy”—will always be with us.
Dominic Sandbrook taught American history at the University of Sheffield and is a former senior fellow at the Rothermere American Institute, Oxford. He is the author of Eugene McCarthy: The Rise and Fall of Postwar American Liberalism , and the forthcoming, Mad As Hell: The Crisis of the 1970s and the Rise of Populist Righ t.