Sunday, August 15, 2021

The Paranoid Style in American Politics by Richard Hofstadter

Source of book: I own this.


For this post, I read both the title essay, and the additional related (and unrelated essays) in the collection. This includes a set of thematically connected essays: “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” “The Pseudo-Conservative Revolt,” “Pseudo-Conservatism Revisited,” and “Goldwater and Pseudo-Conservative Politics.” The second part of the collection are three essays that Hofstadter calls “Some Problems of the Modern Era.” These are looks at historical movements, and turned out to be quite fascinating, although not specifically related to the others or to each other. These are “Cuba, the Philippines, and Manifest Destiny,” “What Happened to the Antitrust Movement?” and “Free Silver and the Mind of ‘Coin’ Harvey.” 


The first set was, to say the least, a bit mind-blowing. I knew that the Fundamentalist and Conservative subculture I grew up in was...problematic for many reasons. Indeed, the paranoia and reactionism Hofstadter describes in these essays is the very core of the belief system. What Hofstadter writes about as a mostly fringe movement, connected to the John Birch Society - although it got plenty of traction with the Goldwater campaign - was the bread and butter of religion and politics in my subculture. Now, of course, what was an ultra-conservative and fundamentalist wing of Evangelicalism has taken over American white Evangelicalism completely, and what used to be the far-right kooks in the GOP are now the entire fucking party, from Trump on down. Hofstadter noted that the fascism kind of followed the other stuff, and he was right about that. But he was wrong that it was likely to remain on the fringes of our politics - it has now gone mainstream with enough of our population to win elections. 


I took a lot of notes, particularly in the first set, and wish I could just quote at length. I will say that they should be must-reads for those who wish to understand our current political situation, and how lunacy has gone mainstream. 


The introduction to the collection is really excellent, and I think succeeds at Hofstadter’s goal of unifying at least the first four essays, which were written over the course of 16 years, in the 1950s and 1960s. He does an okay job of explaining the connection of the last three essays to the rest: they deal with specific problems that the United States had to deal with to come to terms with industrialization and world power. 


Some of the best lines come in the introduction, when he summarizes the ideas. Let’s start with this one: political writing tends to emphasize what he calls “structure,” rather than “milieu.” In more simple terms, political writers tend to look at economic and, say, racial realities, while neglecting the social environment. The unfortunate result is that many political thinkers are puzzled by why white conservatives seem willing to harm themselves economically. Why do they act against their interests? As we have seen graphically demonstrated over the last five years (and even before), social interests are more important to most people than economic interests. And people - particularly those seeing their social prestige fade - tend to vote for social status first, and other considerations after that. I’ll get to some specific quotes on that idea later, but here are some from the introduction. 


Because my concern is in this sense a bit one-sided, it is necessary to be clear - it is here that the intent of these essays is most likely to be misunderstood - that my reasons for emphasizing milieu rather than structure do not stem from the belief that, of the two, milieu is more important. My case is a more moderate one: it rests - quite aside from the pleasure I take in analyzing styles of thought - on two convictions: first, that our political and historical writing, until recently, has tended to emphasize structure at the cost of substantially neglecting milieu; and second, that an understanding of political styles and of the symbolic aspect of politics is a valuable way of locating ourselves and others in relation to public issues. 

The older conception of politics was that it deals with the question: Who gets what, when, and how? Politics was taken as an arena in which people define their interests as rationally as possible and behave in a way calculated to realize them as fully as possible. But Harold Lasswell, who made this monosyllabic question the title of a well-known book on the substance of politics, was one of the first in this country to be dissatisfied with the rationalistic assumptions which it implied and to turn to the study of the emotional and symbolic side of political life. It became important to add a new conception to the older one: Who perceives what public issues, in what way, and why? To the present generation of historical and political writers it has become increasingly clear that people not only seek their interests but also express and even in a measure define themselves in politics; that political life acts as a sounding board for identities, values, fears, and aspirations. In a study of the political milieu these things are brought to the surface.


Hey, is this sounding familiar yet? Think about vaccines and masks in the age of Covid. People are literally willing to risk their lives and those of others for the emotional and symbolic statement of “owning the libs.” Oh, and it gets better.


The findings of public-opinion polls have made us far less confident than we used to be that the public responds to the issues as they are debated, and more aware that it reacts to them chiefly when they become the object of striking symbolic acts or memorable statements, or are taken up by public figures who themselves have a symbolic appeal. 


Um, Trump anyone? Someone who was and is objectively unqualified, objectively horrible at governing, and did nothing for the people who worship him. But he is a symbol, and therefore perfect as an idol. 


There is so much more in the introduction, but I will leave it for the reader. 


Moving on to the title essay, it was written in 1963, and in some ways builds on the essays on Pseudo-Conservatism. But it is a good one to start with, because I believe it has the most clarity of ideas. The central idea, of course, is that of a paranoid style of thinking about politics. These days, one could cite both the “Big Lie” that Trump won the 2020 election and the Q Anon phenomenon generally. But it goes back further than that. Hofstadter specifically looks at the John Birch Society and related paranoid groups, but it is fascinating (in a dark way) that the exact ideas made their way into Evangelical thought in the 1970s, and by the time we left organized religion for good in 2017, it had become them lens by which an overwhelming majority of white Evangelicals see reality. And indeed, for my wife and I, we got in on the ground level, as some of the first homeschooled kids in the early 1980s. While there were some good things in the early movement, people like Rousas Rushdoony and Phyllis Schlafly and Michael Farris (I cite him because I believe it was HSLDA that most pushed my parents into fundamentalism) and others quickly redirected the movement from one focused on a better education to one that was all Culture Wars™ all the time. And to do that, a sense of paranoia about everyone else - particularly the Other Side™ was carefully cultivated. For a variety of reasons - racial anxiety, fear of feminism, declining numbers - white Evangelicals had no immunity to the paranoid style, and over the course of the last three or four decades, it became a systemic infection. So reading this book, I realized that these were the thought patterns of my subculture, and so much of my own spiritual journey has been to actively fight them. Anyway, let’s get into some quotes, because Hofstadter says it better than I can. After talking the history of paranoia in the US, dating from the early days, against “The Illuminati,” Jews, Catholics, Masons, and other “flavors of the day,” he states the unifying idea. 


These writers illustrate the central preconception of the paranoid style - the existence of a vast, insidious, preternaturally effective international conspiratorial network designed to perpetrate acts of the most fiendish character. 


The anti-Masonic conspiracy theory is actually really damn familiar to me. Also the Illuminati. And the idea of a vast Catholic conspiracy (thanks to Jack Chick, whose propaganda tracts are one of the minefields we tried to steer our kids away from at my parents’ house.) The Mormons eventually got lumped in too - you can see this in the Sherlock Holmes novel, A Study In Scarlet - even though the idea of Mormons and Masons collaborating with each other AND the Jesuits is really implausible. Of course, so is the Q Anon conspiracy and most of what Trump and his sycophants push. But consistency has never been part of the paranoid style. This footnote really illustrates what is at the core. 


The status of those who were opposed by these anti movements of the nineteenth century varied widely. Freemasonry was largely an affair of the upper crust of society. Catholics were predominantly poor immigrants. Mormons drew their strength from the native rural middle class. Ironically, the victims themselves were associated with similar anti sentiments. Freemasonry had strong anti-Catholic associations. Mormons were anti-Catholic, and, to a degree, anti-Masonic. Yet their detractors did not hesitate to couple staunch foes. It was sometimes said, for example, that the Jesuits had infiltrated Freemasonry, and the menace of the Catholicism was frequently compared with the menace of Mormonism. All these movements had an interest for minds obsessed with secrecy and concerned with an all-or-nothing world struggle over ultimate values. The ecumenicism of hatred is a great breaker-down of precise intellectual discriminations. 


Seriously, read that last sentence again. It’s fantastic. And it, more than anything else, explains today’s GQP. 


Want to hear something else familiar? How about this, from Lyman Beecher, perhaps best known as the father of Harriet Beecher Stowe and Henry Ward Beecher. As the latter said about Lyman, he was continually involved in controversy. While his children were abolitionists, he was better known for being anti-Catholic and anti-immigration. (Of course, back then, that meant the Irish and the Germans and the Scandinavians…) Here is how Hofstadter describes Lyman’s apocalyptic tract, Plea for the West. (Meaning the western United States.) 


Everything depended, in his judgment, upon what influences dominated the great West, where the future of the country lay. There, Protestantism was engaged in a life-or-death struggle with Catholicism. Time was already running out. “Whatever we do, it must be done quickly…” A great tide of immigration, hostile to free institutions, was sweeping in upon the country, subsidized and sent by “the potentates of Europe,” multiplying tumult and violence, filling jails, crowding poor-houses, quadrupling taxation, and sending increasing thousands of voters to “lay their inexperienced had upon the helm of our power.” 


It goes on and on, and if you haven’t recognized the screeds of Tucker Carlson and Trump and Ann Coulter and....well, pretty much all the current American Right, well, listen a bit closer. Just fill in “Muslim” and “Mexican” and “Shithole countries.” 


Jumping forward to the 1960s, Hofstadter notes the way that the Right Wing feels. (And feel free to substitute “2000s” here - it very much fits.) 


The spokesmen of those earlier movements felt that they stood for causes and personal types that were still in possession of their country - that they were fending off threats to a still well-established way of life in which they played an important part. But the modern right wing, as Daniel Bell has put it, feels dispossessed: America has largely been taken away from them and their kind, though they are determined to try to repossess it and to prevent the final destructive act of subversion. The old American virtues have already been eaten away by cosmopolitans and intellectuals; the old competitive capitalism has been gradually undermined by socialist and communist schemers; the old national security and independence have been destroyed by treasonous plots, having as their most powerful agents not merely outsiders and foreigners but major statesmen seated at the very centers of American power. 


Um, yeah, that is LITERALLY the shit that was in the water of my subculture. And it is the message of the Religious Right. And now of the GQP. It is literally the message of the right. We must “Make America Great Again.” And it is the TRUE faith of white Evangelicalism, not anything having to do with Christ-following. Oh, and it goes on! 


The basic elements of contemporary right-wing thought can be reduced to three: First, there has been the now familiar sustained conspiracy, running over more than a generation, and reaching its climax in Roosevelt’s New Deal, to undermine free capitalism, to bring the economy under the direction of the federal government, and to pave the way for socialism or communism. Details might be open to argument among right-wingers, but many would agree...that this campaign began with the passage of the income tax amendment to the Constitution in 1913.


[Note: this is literally what is taught in the A Beka curriculum we used, and is an article of faith not just for the right-wing, but overwhelmingly for white Evangelicals generally.]


The second contention is that top government officialdom has been so infiltrated by Communists that American policy, at least since the days leading up to Pearl Harbor, has been dominated by sinister men who were shrewdly and consistently selling out American national interests.


[Note: just add in “atheists,” “feminists,” and “the gay agenda” to that, and you have the culture wars in a nutshell.]


The final contention is that the country is infused with a network of Communist agents, just as in the old days it was infiltrated by Jesuit agents, so that the whole apparatus of education, religion, the press, and the mass media are engaged in a common effort to paralyze the resistance of loyal Americans.


[Note: again, substitute the specifically religious concerns, and this is literally the belief system of the Religious Right. Fascinating here is the footnote that cites Phyllis Schlafly for pushing these ideas. Yet another reason I consider her one of the most evil persons of my time.] 


Hofstadter then turns to the lifestyle inherent in the paranoid style. And damned if this doesn’t seem like living in Evangelicalism since my childhood. The never-ending sense of apocalypse and Culture Wars, and the belief that everyone outside of the narrow tribe was somehow on the side of the great satanic conspiracy. 


Let us now abstract the basic elements in the paranoid style. The central image is that of a vast and sinister conspiracy, a gigantic and yet subtle machinery of influence set in motion to undermine and destroy a way of life. One may object that there are conspiratorial acts in history, and there is nothing paranoid about taking note of them. This is true. All political behavior requires strategy, many strategic acts depend for their effect upon a period of secrecy, and anything that is secret may be described, often with but little exaggeration, as conspiratorial. The distinguishing thing about the paranoid style is not that its exponents see conspiracies or plots here and there in history, but that they regard a “vast” or “gigantic” conspiracy as the motive force in historical events. History is a conspiracy, set in motion by demonic forces of almost transcendent power, and what is felt to be needed to defeat it is not the usual methods of political give-and-take, but an all-out crusade. The paranoid spokesman sees the fate of this 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: it is now or never in organizing resistance to conspiracy. Time is forever running out. Like religious millenarians, he expresses the anxiety of those who are living through the last days and he is sometimes disposed to set a date for the apocalypse.


Um, yeah. And we believed in the literal apocalypse and end times and the world about to end too. Which, in practice, means a lot of parents decided that preparing their children for the rapture was more important than preparing them to live in a global and diverse world. Everything was a sign of the end times. Even women working outside the home. Hofstadter notes that some of these ideas resonate with certain religious beliefs. And he is right. And also about this:


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, the quality needed is not a willingness to compromise but the will to fight things out to a finish. Nothing but complete victory will do. 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 theater of operations to which the paranoid directs his attention. 


Again, this is what Trump tapped into, particularly in white Evangelicalism. His hate, his threats of violence, his bullying, his unwillingness to compromise, his insistance on “winning” (and of course, his promise to restore the mythical past.) Hofstadter further points out that since total victory is pretty much not attainable in the real world - particularly when it comes to social conflict - failure makes the conspiracy theorist feel even more oppressed and desperate. There is so much more in this essay, I really highly recommend it. 


I do need to move on, however, to the next one, “The Pseudo-Conservative Revolt,” written in 1954. This is actually the earliest of the essays, and it really states perfectly something I have been thinking for a good decade: the American Right is NOT conservative. Hofstadter calls it “Pseudo-Conservatism,” although I think “Radical Reactionism” works too. It pretends to be conservative, but really, it wants to burn our institutions and culture to the ground, and replace it with a radically different one. In the case of Trumpism, it would be a return to autocracy and white supremacy. For white Evangelicals, it would be theocracy. And for the economic interests that fund the Pseudo-Conservative movement, it would be to go back to the days of the Robber Barons, when big business was free from taxation and regulation, and could plunder the environment and treat workers as slaves with impunity. While Hofstadter couldn’t see the 21st Century GQP, he did see its genesis in the post-war period. He contrasts the “liberal dissent” that lead to the New Deal with the new dissent, which is not conservative. I think reactionary is the best description, but here is what Hofstadter has to say about it. 


Unlike most of the liberal dissent of 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 Theodor W. Adorno and his associates [note: highly recommended!] - because 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, 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.


A-freaking-men. That is exactly it. It is a deep hatred of modern American - indeed modern human society and culture. And they are obsessed with conformity - particularly gender conformity, but also racial conformity and cultural homogeneity - their preferred culture of course. And they have no interest in compromise, let alone learning from others. It is authoritarian to its core. As we found when we dared to live slightly differently from the patriarchy culture. 


Hofstadter also goes where I applaud, by refusing to take the easy way out and assume that the pseudo-conservative movement is just a reaction to the Cold War. Rather, he traces it back to, among other movements, the Ku Klux Klan. Oh hell yes, he went there. And pointed out that in the 1920s (the last major anti-immigration spasm, by the way) there were over four million KKK members. Adjusted for today’s population, that would be about fourteen million - totally believable actually, in my opinion. Trumpism (and the Tea Party) are the modern KKK, and they may have even greater numbers than that. 


Hofstadter then turns to what he thinks drives pseudo-conservatism. It isn’t “interest politics,” but “status politics.” 


In a country where physical needs have been, by the scale of the world’s living standards, on the whole well met, the luxury of questing after status has assumed an unusually prominent place in our civic consciousness. Political life is not simply an arena in which the conflicting interests of various social groups in concrete material gains is fought out; it is also an arena into which status aspirations and frustrations are, as the psychologists would say, projected. It is at this point that the issues of politics, or the pretended issues of politics, become interwoven with and dependent upon the personal problems of individuals. We have, at all times, two kinds of processes going on in inextricable connection with each other: interest politics, the clash of material aims and needs among various groups and blocs; and status politics, the clash of various projective rationalizations arising from status aspirations and other personal motives.


I think Hofstadter is onto something here when he talks about prosperity. It isn’t those who are struggling to make ends meet who are the big Trump supporters. Rather, it is the less-educated but more wealthy white people who have $80,000 trucks and nice houses and enough money to fly to DC and storm the Capitol. (There are lots of these people on my block, and they held “Trump Train” parades every weekend with giant flags saying “Fuck Your Feelings” and “Make Liberals Cry Again.” And Confederate Battle Flags too, of course.) What these people are fearing isn’t economic hardship - they are doing damn well - it is a loss of status. Educated people look down on them, and the minorities they used to abuse with impunity are growing in numbers and power. So they are losing status. 


In prosperity, however, when status politics becomes relatively more important, there is a tendency to embody discontent not so much in legislative proposals as in grousing. For the basic aspirations that underlie status discontent are only partially conscious; and, even so far as they are conscious, it is difficult to give them a programmatic expression. It is more difficult for the old lady who belongs to the D. A. R. and who sees her ancestral home swamped by new working-class dwellings to express her animus in concrete proposals of any degree of reality than it is, say, for the jobless worker during a slump to rally to a relief program. Therefore, it is the tendency of status politics to be expressed more in vindictiveness, in sour memories, in the search for scapegoats, than in realistic proposals for positive action. 


The footnote is interesting here too, quoting Samuel Lubell on isolationism:


The agitator seems to steer clear of the area of materials needs on which liberal and democratic movements concentrate; his main concern is a sphere of frustration that is usually ignored in traditional politics. The programs that concentrate on material needs seem to overlook that area of moral uncertainties and emotional frustrations that are the immediate manifestations of malaise. It may therefore be conjectured that his followers find the agitator’s statements attractive not because he occasionally promises to ‘maintain the American standard of living’ or to provide a job for everyone, but because he intimates that he will give them the emotional satisfactions that are denied them in the contemporary social and economic set-up. He offers attitudes, not bread.


Hmm, that really does sound like Trump. Including the vindictiveness. 


And this brings me to another fascinating footnote, in a discussion of cultural change and authoritarianism, paraphrasing Else Frenkel-Brunswik on parenting styles. It particularly hit my gut, because it illustrates the progression - regression really - in my birth family as the result of poisonous teachings on childrearing. My parents started out as more love-based and less obsessed with obedience. And, on a very related note, they were fairly progressive (particularly compared to A Beka) on racial issues. But things changed when they were in their late 30s: they got into Bill Gothard, the GOP went anti-immigrant in California, my dad had an unpleasant encounter after the LA riots, and they went quite a bit to the opposite side on both authoritarianism and racial issues, eventually destroying relationships over social conformity. Here is the footnote:


The author remarks concerning subjects who were relatively free from ethnic prejudice that in their families “less obedience is expected of the children. Parents are less status-ridden and thus show less anxiety with respect to conformity and are less intolerant toward manifestations of socially unaccepted behavior...Comparatively less pronounced status-concern often goes hand in hand with greater richness and liberation of emotional life. There is, on the whole, more affection, or more unconditional affection, in the families of unprejudiced subjects. There is less surrender to conventional rules.”


That was in so many ways my life up until age 14 or so. If you had told me the future then, I would not have believed you. But, as Dwight Yoakam sang, things change


The essay ends with a great sentence, which seems all too prescient these days. Think about Covid, vaccines, and masks - or climate change - and read it.  


However, in populistic culture like ours, which seems to lack a responsible elite with political and moral autonomy, and in which it is possible to exploit the wildest currents of public sentiment for private purposes, it is at least conceivable that a highly organized, vocal, active, and well financed minority could create a political climate in which the rational pursuit of our well-being and safety would become impossible.


That is indeed the world we live in right now. One party, and a sizable minority of our country have zero interest in seeking the common good, in rationally pursuing our well-being and safety, whether it comes to Covid or climate change. And that has made positive change difficult. I hope and pray that it has not become impossible. 


Next up is the fascinating 1965 revisitation of the issues from the prior essay in “Pseudo-Conservatism Revisited - 1965.” This was written after the Goldwater campaign, and led Hofstadter to reconsider some of his conclusions in the essay a decade earlier. The primary reconsideration is this: in his earlier essay, he assumed that recent immigrants might join the pseudo-conservative movement in an attempt to increase their social status. While he didn’t abandon that idea, he did recognize that the heart of the Pseudo-Conservative movement - embodied in Goldwater - was racist to its core. [Note: Hofstadter was both right and wrong on this as applied to the Trump campaign. A number of Hispanics, particularly males, were attracted to his campaign for various reasons, including its toxic masculinity. That said, it is also true that white supremacy is the core value of Trumpism, as it was to the Goldwater campaign.]


Hofstadter also decided to talk more about religious fundamentalism in the second essay, as he underestimated the role of that demographic previously. (And he hadn’t seen NUTTIN yet…) There are some great quotes, once again. I have pieced together a few here. 


I made only passing reference in a footnote to the role of fundamentalism, and it is plain that this is one of the salient elements in the right wing, an element whose importance has becoem increasingly evident in the last decade.

In this respect, my emphasis on ethnic factors in the pseudo-conservatism of 1954 now seems to me analogous to the strategy of generals who are prepared to fight the last war...But the radical rightism of the 1960s is predominantly a movement of white Anglo-Saxon Protestant Republicans, with only a fringe of ethnic support. 


Oh, and also this one, regarding Joe McCarthy:


Most prophetic too of the future of the right wing was his strong appeal for fundamentalist-oriented Protestants, who now took a significant place with their Catholic counterparts.


It is definitely instructive how much Fundies LOVE that nasty-ass inquisitor, who ruined the lives of so many people for failing to live up to his idea of orthodoxy. (See, for example, Part of Our Time, Murray Kempton’s thoughtful book on the 1930s.) Hofstadter made another perceptive analysis of Fundie thought:


I use the term “fundamentalism” in a rather extended way to describe a religious style rather than firm doctrinal commitments, since no one knows how many evangelical right-wingers adhere to a literal view of Scripture and other fundamentalist tenets. Two other qualifications should be made: first, there are large numbers of fundamentalists who interpret their religious commitment as a reason to withdraw from worldly politics, in which they see no more hope than they do in the other things of this world; and second, many fundamentalists have inherited generous views on domestic economic reforms which they do not easily give up. But on certain issues of cultural politics, fundamentalists have always been rigid, and when such issues become more salient the fundamentalists become more responsive to the blandishments of pseudo-conservative prophets.

Under the aegis of right-wing politics, rigid Protestants of a type once intensely anti-Catholic can now united with Catholics of similar militancy in a grand ecumenical zeal against communism and what they take to be a joint defense of Christian civilization. The malevolent energy formerly used in the harassment of Catholics can now be more profitably spent in the search for Communists, or even in attacks on the alleged subversiveness of liberal Protestant denominations. The Manichean conception of live as a struggle between absolute good and absolute evil and the idea of an irresistible Armageddon have been thinly secularized and transferred to the cold war. The conflict between Christianity and communism is conceived as a war to the death, and Christianity is set for as the only adequate counterpoise to the communist credo.


Hofstadter proceeds to note the increasing connections between John Birch Society thought and religious fundamentalists, which was pretty complete by the end of my childhood. But it was this statement in a footnote that stood out particularly, in light of recent events. 


This is not the first period in our history in which fundamentalist leaders, anguished over the general repudiation of their beliefs and values, lent their energies to political reaction. During the 1920s they gave heavy support to the Ku Klux Klan, particularly in the South. 


Hofstadter gives numerous examples of this “synergy,” where Fundies and the KKK found common cause on issues from Evolution to political candidates. Oh, and the leaders of the KKK were often Fundie preachers. Oh, and this too:


Such church groups have created a vast religious public, once poor and depression-ridden but now to a large degree moderately prosperous, whose members sometimes combine the economic prejudices of the newly well-to-do with the moral prejudices of the revolt against modernity.


Man, the hits just keep rolling. This is literally how I can describe my parents’ and grandparents’ generations. Just removed from the immigrant poverty by that free land they inherited via the homestead act, then the beneficiaries of both union wages for unskilled labor and the recipient of free college, they have certain economic prejudices related to that...combined with a revolt against modernity. And this turns out to parallel the same phenomenon in the 1920s. 


During the 1920’s small-town and rural Protestants were waging a vigorous defense of their cultural values against their rapidly gaining foes - the advancing Catholics and minority ethnic groups on one side and the modernists in religion and secularists in intellectual culture on the other. The Ku Klux Klan, Prohibitionism, the campaign against evolution in the schools, anti-Catholicism and the whispering campaign against Al Smith were all aspects of this struggle. On one count, immigration restriction, the old guard scored an important and permanent victory, and on another, Prohibition, they scored a gratifying if temporary success. But on the others they continued to lose ground. They substantially lost the fight against teaching evolution in the public schools, which exposed them to humiliating ridicule throughout the world. Lost, too, was the fight against modern relaxation in manners, morals, and censorship. Again the effort to contain the influence of immigrants in politics was lost within the Democratic party. 


White Evangelicals have been furious about this ever since. And have spent their energy trying to reverse these losses of 100 years ago. 


And then, opportunists in the business community have co-opted this into a support for unregulated klepto-capitalism. Just one quote here. 


In the intellectual synthesis of contemporary ultra-conservatism, the impulses of Protestant asceticism can thus be drawn upon to support business self-interest and the beautiful mathematical models of neo-classical economists. 


Eventually, as Hofstadter notes at length, it is difficult to translate these status issues into policies that actually accomplish anything. 


Such persons believe that their prestige in the community, even indeed their self-esteem, depends on having these values honored in public. Besides their economic expectations, people have deep emotional commitments in other spheres - religion, morals, culture, race relations - which they also hope to see realized in political action. Status politics seeks not to advance perceived material interests but to express grievances and resentments about such matters, to press claims upon society to give deference to non-economic values. As a rule, status politics does more to express emotions than to formulate policies. It is in fact hard to translate the claims of status politics into programs or concrete objectives (national Prohibition was an exception, though ultimately an unsuccessful one); and for the most part the proponents of such politics, being less concerned with the uses of power than with its alleged misuse, do not offer positive programs to solve social problems. The operative content of their demands is more likely to be negative: they call on us mainly to prohibit, to prevent, to censor and censure, to discredit, and to punish.


Once again, it is so obvious that this is the endgame we see in the GOP: Trump offers the emotional component of grievance, McConnell and others make it clear that there are no ideas for dealing with social problems other than more state violence, more policing, more incarceration, more censorship, and more blaming of the poor and minorities. It is all about the expression of resentments and grievances than about solutions. It continues: 


In many areas of life, the style of status politics has been shaped in large measure by rigid moral and religious attitudes, and those who are moved by the issues of status politics transfer these attitudes to social and economic questions. 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 any carefully calculated views about their economic efficacy, but because they disapprove on moral grounds of the assumptions on which they think the policies rest. 


That, in a nutshell, is the subculture in which I was raised. Universal healthcare is BAD. Not because of benefits or logic - in fact, the rest of the first world overwhelmingly demonstrates that it costs less and gives better results - but because of the religious and ideological belief that giving “those people” healthcare would feed their laziness. That this is subconsciously racist as fuck does not occur to them most of the time, and when it does, right wingers openly double down on the racism with some modern version of “but the lazy n------rs won’t work if they have free healthcare.” The closing ideas reiterate that Hofstadter feels that economic prosperity in general lead those who are doing well to focus on increasing their status - and voting their prejudices. 


We have noticed that whereas in depressions or during great bursts of economic reform people vote for what they think are their economic interests, in times of prosperity they feel free to vote their prejudices. 


The final essay in the first set is all about Goldwater and his channeling of pseudo-conservativism. Of course, looking at this from 2021, Goldwater was both far more intelligent and yet also less successful than Trump, who captured the essence of the movement, without feeling the need to support it with any intellectual content. Throughout this essay, you can substitute “Trump” for “Goldwater” in most cases. 


Unquestionably Goldwater’s [Trump’s] ideas do retain some shreds and scrapes 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, and whose extremism he chose to defend at the vital moment of his career. Without invoking these formative affiliations, 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? 

Yeah, that sounds familiar, doesn’t it? How about this? 


The two-party system, as it has developed in the United States, hangs on the common recognition of loyal opposition: each side accepts the ultimate good intentions of the other. The opponent’s judgement may be held to be consistently execrable, but the legitimacy of his intent is not - that is, in popular terms, his Americanism is not questioned. One of the unspoken assumptions of presidential campaigns is that the leaders of both parties are patriots who, however serious their mistakes, must be accorded the right to govern. But an essential point in the pseudo-conservative world view is that our recent Presidents, being men of wholly evil intent, have conspired against the public good. This does more than discredit them: it calls into question the validity of the political system that keeps putting such men into office. 


Hey, we had a disputed election (which Trump STILL refuses to concede), chants of “lock her up” directed at Hilary Clinton, and now a series of voter suppression laws targeted at making sure that voters cannot elect Democrats again. Oh, and this started with the decision by the GOP to stonewall President Obama on everything. Which may or may not have been related to the fact that he was the first Black president.... Goldwater, like Trump, refused to concede at first, and even when he did, he used the opportunity to insult President Johnson. 


Another excellent observation is regarding the way that pseudo-conservatives treat our past. This goes double for white Evangelicals, by the way. 


Although the ultras usually speak with nostalgia about the supposed virtues of our remote past, they have a disposition to repudiate the more recent past, and it was in character for Goldwater to write off as unacceptable the Republican conservatism of recent years. 


For the Evangelical-Fundie subculture I grew up in, this was certainly true. The recent past - meaning perhaps everything before 1900...or was it since the Civil War? was bad. It was only before that - before Darwin, before Dewey, before the income tax, before desegregation, before feminism, before...well, it was all about a mythical remote past anyway, and facts be damned. And that is the appeal of MAGA too. It doesn’t matter exactly when that past was, or what it looked like. It was when the MAGAts think they had power and prestige and didn’t have to bother with the feelings of other people not like them. Ditto for white Evangelicals. That mythical past was when they had unquestioned political and cultural power, and people different from them could go fuck themselves. 


And also, actually governing is hard. Really hard. And neither Goldwater nor Trump nor today’s right wing have any intention of doing that hard work. Nor do they have any interest in actually appealing to a majority, which is why fascist rule is so appealing to them. 


Party workers raised on the professional code want above all to find winners, to get and keep office, to frame programs on which they can generally agree, to use these programs to satisfy the major interests in our society, and to try to solve its most acute problems. If they find that they have chosen a loser, they are quick to start looking for another leader. If they see that their program is out of touch with the basic realities, they grope their way toward a new one. 

But Goldwater’s [Trump’s] zealots were moved more by the desire to dominate the party than to win the country, concerned more to express resentments and punish “traitors,” to justify a set of values and assert grandiose, militant visions, than to solve actual problems of state. More important, they were immune to the pressure to move over from an extreme position toward the center of the political spectrum which is generally exerted by the professional’s desire to win. 


Trump and his followers have zero ideas for how to actually solve the issues in our society. They are content to persecute immigrants and minorities, and thump their chests. And Trump’s loss of an election has not convinced them to change course and find another leader and better policies. It goes on and on, giving overwhelming evidence that Goldwater was a proto-Trump, and that Trump voters are the same sorts as Goldwater voters. Another example is the way that Trumpism punishes any fellow Republicans who fail to show personal loyalty to Trump. 


The convention showed the nation for the first time how well organized the right-wing movement was, but it also proved, as the subsequent campaign was to prove again, that the right wing, though brilliantly organized for combat, was not organized to conciliate or persuade. Having convinced themselves that the forces they were fighting were conspiratorial and sinister, not to say treasonous, they found it impossible to shake off the constricting mental framework of the paranoid style. The sudden and startling outburst of wild applause, the jeers and fist-shaking at the broadcast booths and press stands...was a key to the prevailing mood. Animated by a profound resentment, and now at last on the verge of a decisive victory over their tormentors, the Goldwater [Trump] zealots were filled with the desire to punish and humiliate, not appease and pacify.


Again, anything sound familiar? 


Hofstadter also talks a bit about the pseudo-conservative narrative, that all these “socialist” policies have ruined the country. The problem is that these policies - Social Security, Unemployment, workplace safety regulations, environmental regulations, and so much more, are damn popular because they work


But this difficulty, seen in a larger context, is only one manifestation of a nagging problem confronting ultra-right spokesmen. As they see it, we have been committed for many years, for decades, to economic policies which are wrong morally and wrong as expedients, destructive of enterprise, and dangerous to the fabric of free society. At the same time, every informed person recognizes that we have become much richer doing all these supposedly wrong and unsound things than we were when we had hardly begun to do them. 


Alas, starting from the 1970s and accelerating with Ronald Reagan, these good policies were unraveled, leading to the transfer of wealth and income upward to the ultra-rich, and other nasty social consequences. We have not only the evidence that Hofstadter saw in the 1960s, but literally 40 years of proof that Goldwater and Reagan’s economic policies are catastrophic for all except for the ultra-rich. Which is why Trump ultimately downplayed the economic policies of Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell, and ran on racial grievance. Nevertheless, Goldwater (and Trump), while promising to “drive the politics out of politics,” gave priority to certain wealthy and favored interests. 


A vital difficulty, of course, is that Goldwater [Trump] was not consistent in this effort to surmount interest politics. There is no record, I believe, of his appearing before the National Association of Manufacturers to urge them to be less solicitous about their tax burdens or of his appearing before segregationist audiences to urge that then move over and make some place for the Negro. The abandonment of interest politics, then, is a one sided affair. One need not question Goldwater’s [Trump’s] sincerity to see that politics, as he practiced it, would leave certain favored interests free to continue to seek their advancement through political action while encouraging large masses of the people to commit themselves to the more abstract effort to fulfil high moral ideals. 


Throughout this essay, it was clear that while there were differences - Trump is utterly amoral, with zero intellectual content, totally devoted to his own power and aggrandizement - Goldwater and Trump appealed to the same grievances and the same people. The big difference is that by the time Trump appeared, the transfer of racist white people to the Republican party was largely complete, and geographical sorting allowed him to win the electoral college. One time, at least. 


I do have a few things to say about the remaining essays. While the ones on the paranoid style, and pseudo-conservatism generally, were prescient, relevant, and far too familiar to me as an exvangelical for comfort; I found the other essays to be a lot of unexpected fun. Hofstadter is first and foremost a historian, and I gained a better perspective and greater knowledge of three historical periods in our history as a result. 


Some history on the first one, “Cuba, the Philippines, and Manifest Destiny.” There is a lot to unpack here, but my own family is connected to this. My dad was born and grew up in the Philippines, as a missionary kid. The legacy of both Spanish and US colonialism is strong there, and a lot of what I learned about the difference between Christianity and American Cultural Imperialism came from my dad. (Sadly, before he regressed to reactionism starting nearly 30 years ago.) This essay looks at the Spanish-American War, triggered by the death throes of the Spanish empire and the Cuban movement for independence. Before this war, the US version of imperialism was limited to the North American continent and its surroundings. This war is when the US crossed over into world imperialism and global colonialism, and the effects of that still reverberate in our current endless wars overseas. I can’t begin to summarize this amazing essay, but it says so much that explains Vietnam, Iraq, and our current failed Middle Eastern wars. It was written in 1951, with some later revisions, but it is amazingly relevant 70 years later. As Hofstadter puts it in the introduction:


My assignment was to analyze the decision made when our entry into and retention of the Philippine Islands after the war with Spain caused the nation to turn itself on a course of world imperialism. What were the issues, what were the consequences for the national mentality, when a democratic country, committed by its creed and its very origins to self-government and self-determination, was confronted with the prospect of taking by conquest distant territory inhabited by an alien and all but unknown people? 


Since then, the US has had a series of colonialist and proxy wars that have turned out badly. (The only war we won in any meaningful sense was World War Two, and that was because defeating aggressors was the goal and the other parties in Europe and Japan retained their sovereignty. All the rest, from World War One to our current debacles in Afghanistan and Iraq, have utterly failed to win lasting peace.) This post is already insanely long, so I won’t get into all of the details, but Hofstadter does an excellent job of tying the swerve to imperialism to the specifics of the political situation at the time, from the “closing of the west” to efforts at Prohibition. 


One thing of particular note is the very much of-their-time attitudes about war and “honor” that drove the major parties. It looked likely that Cuba would become independent without US intervention, but we wanted war. And the Spanish wanted to lose a war with us rather than with the Cuban people. 


Americans seemed to want not merely the freedom of Cuba but a war for the freedom of Cuba. The Spanish government, insofar as it confronted the realities at all, seemed to think that it was preferable to lose the island “honorably,” as the consequence of a war, than to back down. McKinley was caught between the aggressive irrationality of his own people and the decadent irrationality of the ancient Latin power.


There are some parallels to our own situation too, I think. Hofstadter pointed out that the war started with good intentions - humanitarianism and the wish to free people. But, like wars of this type usually do, it ended up with imperialism and annexation. 


One fascinating bit that is too long to quote is the statement by William James, who deplored the war fever, and warned about where the humanitarian impulse would ultimately end. Indeed, he correctly predicted that while the US would choose not to annex Cuba, it would annex Puerto Rico and the Philippines. It is easy to forget - we aren’t usually taught this in schools - but the Philippines didn’t gain independence from US rule until 1946. And Puerto Rico continues to be in an awkward position: as a colony, it is ruled by the US, but it lacks statehood and therefore representation in Congress or a say in the presidency.  


Particularly disturbing in the aftermath of the Spanish-American War is the way that clergy compared the victory to the great victories of Israel in the Bible, justifying the conquest and plunder of an island thousands of miles away on the other side of the world as “god’s will.” Unsurprisingly, this also went along with a view of white people as superior, and entrusted with, as Kipling put it, the “white man’s burden” to rule the world. Here is a particularly nasty quote from Senator Albert Beveridge. 


“We will not renounce our part in the mission of our race, trustees under God, of the civilization of the world. God has not been preparing the English-speaking and Teutonic peoples for a thousand years for nothing but vain and idle self-contemplation and self-admiration. No! He has made us the master organizers of the world to establish system where chaos reigns. He has made us adepts in government that we may administer government among savages and senile peoples.” 


I forgot to note an exact quote, but Hofstadter also talks at length of the myth of American invincibility. We have been privileged with a land that is largely protected from invasion by two giant oceans. With the exception of the Civil War, which we brought on ourselves, we have yet to fight an actual war on our own soil. So it was all too easy to believe that we couldn’t be beaten...except by treachery. Which is why so many on the right still think we could have won in Vietnam. Twenty years of disaster in Afghanistan have chipped away at that now, and, as in Vietnam, we are having to admit that there is no “victory” there. Either endless colonialist occupation, or withdrawal in defeat. And, having destroyed the institutions that might have grown into modern states, and sullied the name of democracy with our violence, there is no good result possible - at least that we have any control over. The sooner we realize that there are things we cannot do, the sooner we will stop wasting vast amounts of money and ending large numbers of lives pursuing these chimeras. 


Next up is Hofstadter’s essay on the antitrust movement. This one is fascinating, because he details all the failures of the movement over the years, but concludes that in the end, the ideas behind the movement morphed into functional regulatory authority and rules that have accomplished a lot of the same goals, but without fanfare. Unfortunately, many of those gains were eroded from the 1980s on by Republican policies, but I think at the time Hofstadter wrote it (1964), it was fairly true. And still, some of those gains do remain, and today’s anti-corporate movement is growing once again. I did note a few good quotes in this one as well. Hofstadter correctly identifies the goals of the movement. First is simply the economic belief that greater competition produces the best results, and that any combinations that lead to de facto monopoly have negative results. Regardless of your beliefs about capitalism or markets generally, it is difficult to disagree with this basic idea. Too much economic power vested in a small number of entities is a bad thing. 


The second one, however, is less known these days, but it thoroughly describes the problems we are currently facing with corporate power. 


The second class of goals was political; the antitrust principle was intended to block private accumulations of power and protect democratic government. 


This is why I believe that the existence of the ultra-rich is a moral obscenity, and unhealthy for a society. And why I support heavy wealth taxation not just for the good that money could do elsewhere, but because reducing the private accumulation of power and wealth is in itself a legitimate - indeed necessary - goal. 


I also want to quote a bit from his discussion of the dilemma that the right faces. 


Though they [right wingers and the beats/hippies] would hate to admit it, they are both bedeviled in different ways by the same problem; each of them is trying to make its variety of nonconformism into a mass creed - which is a contradiction in terms. The beats opt out of corporate uniformity in their own uniforms and erect themselves into a stereotype. The right-wingers sing their praises of individualism in dreary, regimented choruses and applaud vigilantes who would kill every vestige of genuine dissent. 

In politics, of course, it is the right-wingers who really count - it is they who have the numbers, the money, the political leverage. They can also invoke the old-fashioned American who believes that federal fiscal policy is just like the family budget. Much of our conservative writing echoes with concern over the decline of the older kind of economic morale, which it identifies with small entrepreneurship. But conservatives understandably fear to make the large corporation the object of their criticism; this smacks too much of subversion. They have a safer and more congenial outlet for their animus against the organization of modern life in the form of denunciations of big government. In this way, the large corporation escapes its proper share of odium. But, historically, it was the giant corporation far more than government policy that eclipsed the old-fashioned economic morality.


Ironically, today’s right resists what would probably be the biggest encouragement to entrepreneurs: universal healthcare. As a self-employed person, I know full well that I am able to do what I do in part because my wife has corporate-provided health coverage. Our costs are so much more predictable that way. I suspect many more would be willing to hang out a shingle if they didn’t worry that their healthcare costs would double or triple in a few years. But that is one way to see that the American right is all about hypocrisy: they preach individualism to browbeat the poor (and particularly poor minorities), while enacting policies that increase corporate power of workers. 


Another fascinating idea is that institutions end up being what matters. (The Trump Era has been proof of that - it is the institutions which he smears as the “Deep State” that have prevented him from destroying democracy.) 


But the fate of antitrust is an excellent illustration of how a public ideal, vaguely formulated and often hopelessly at odds with stubborn realities, can be embodied in institutions with elaborate, self-preserving rules and procedures, a defensible function, and an equally stubborn capacity for survival. Institutions are commonly less fragile than creeds. 


Finally, I have to quote the end of the essay, which could be the motto for the best of today’s progressive movement. It encapsulates the difference between the parties, and also just how much we have lost over the last 40 years of neo-conservative economic policy. 


Today our greatest domestic danger lies not in our failure to produce enough goods because we do not have enough competition, but in our failure to render certain humane, healing, humanly productive and restorative social services that are not comprehended at all in the ethos of competition. At its best, big business will not perform such services. At its worst, it can sustain a class of men who will prevent them from being performed. 


The final essay is about “Coin” Harvey and the Free Silver movement. I had not heard of Harvey, and my knowledge of the movement was mostly limited to “William Jennings Bryan gave the famous Cross of Gold speech.” Bryan is mostly known for his role in the Scopes trial these days, but it is easy to forget that he was a social reformer, a crusader for social justice, and a pretty brilliant if demagogue-ish politician. Most likely, had he been elected to the presidency, it would have been a mess. But he wasn’t wrong about everything. 


In retrospect, the whole Silver movement as well as the Gold Standard seem a bit silly and misguided. These days, most economic thinkers agree that ALL currency is fiat currency - you can’t eat gold or silver, and their uses are decidedly limited - so money is worth what we agree it is worth. But in practice, the question of gold versus silver had everything to do with relative valuations and global money policy. Switching from gold to silver would have had geopolitical complications, to put it mildly. This essay caught me by surprise. It wasn’t about something I cared about particularly, but it turned out to be just a fascinating and well-written piece about history. The other essays were more relevant, but this one was just fun. 


“Coin” was a character in a tract by William Harvey, “Coin’s Financial School,” who was a child who lectured the supposedly smarter adults about economic policy, specifically advocating for “free silver.” That it lacked nuance, got facts wrong, and had numerous internal inconsistencies didn’t stop it from becoming the best-selling tract of the 1890s. It was “pop-policy” of its time, perhaps like talk radio was in the 1990s. In explaining how a money crank gained such popularity, Hofstadter looks at the history of the US before we adopted central banking. 


Each depression has been a prolific breeder of panaceas, panacea mongers, and monetary pamphleteers. The striking thing about the depression of the nineties was how rapidly the cry for free coinage of silver shoved other reform proposals from the center of the stage.


The central problem was that each depression resulted in currency deflation, which caused great hardship for most people, while enriching the wealthy. To understand this, imagine that you, like most of us, have debts related to our daily life. In our case, mortgages and car loans and perhaps student loans. Back then, farmers in particular had debts - they would borrow each spring for seed and fertilizer and such, then pay it back out of the harvest. In a deflationary period, the value of those debts would go up, while incomes stagnated or went down. This enriched lenders at the expense of debtors. This is why some degree of inflation is a good thing. It discourages the hoarding of currency and wealth, and encourages investment. Hyperinflation is bad, for various reasons, but a slow and steady rate of inflation has generally positive economic benefits. 


For the most part, I didn’t write down much about this essay. However, my final observation is on the history of associating bankers with Jewish people and anti-semitic stereotypes. While most of the rhetoric of the Free Silver movement was directed at the British banking industry, and thus was a carryover of bad feelings from the American Revolution, already the anti-semitism was showing its head in the form of screeds against the Rothschild family. “Coin” Harvey, as he aged, became more and more anti-semitic, and his bigotry came to be shared by other cranks, including the viciously racist Father Coughlin and fascist sympathiser Ezra Pound.  The sad part of this is that, as it so often happens, legitimate anger at wealthy financiers as a class devolves into hatred - and eventually violence - against vulnerable minorities. Just as the vast majority of the six million Jews murdered in the Holocaust had nothing to do with the Rosthschilds, the millions of Latino immigrants living in America have nothing to do with El Chapo and the drug cartels. 


I am glad that I went ahead and splurged on a copy of this book. I bought a hardbound Library of America edition which also contains Anti-Intellectualism in American Life - which I really look forward to reading - and his uncollected essays from 1956 to 1965. This one was seriously enlightening and did a lot to explain the subculture I grew up in, and why it seems incapable of acting in the public good. 



  1. I just received the ALE version and started reading today. I found your blog post doing a text search of a string from the introduction. I share your observations, posted here.

    1. Welcome to the blog! Feel free to look around. It is a kind of record of my own spiritual, ethical, and political journey of the last 13 years. :)