Posts Tagged ‘Bill Moyers’

The Paranoid Style in American Politics

March 3, 2010

During the January 31 edition of ABC’s This Week, a heated exchange took place between Fox News top dog Roger Ailes and Arianna Huffington, the editor-in-chief of The Huffington Post. On the subject of Fox News’ talk show host Glenn Beck, Huffington invoked the historian Richard Hofstadter’s notion of the “paranoid style in American politics” to describe Beck’s demeanor on TV (and on the radio). According to Huffington, “the paranoid style is dangerous when there is real pain out there.”

Coincidentally, I had gotten Hofstadter’s book The Paranoid Style in American Politics: And other essays as a birthday present a couple of days earlier. After reading the book – first released in 1965 – it dawned on me: Huffington’s observation was spot on, and Hofstadter’s essay is just as relevant today as it was back when it was first released. His analysis of the paranoid style is enlightening, and his analytical framework seems ideally equipped to describe the actions of certain actors within contemporary American politics.

Richard Hofstadter ([1965] 2008: 3) chose the word paranoid, “simply because no other word adequately” evoked “the qualities of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy” that he had in mind. Hofstadter was aware of the fact that “the idea of the paranoid style would have little contemporary relevance or historical value if it were applied only to people with profoundly disturbed minds.” In other words, whether or not various talk show hosts are truly crazy is beside the point. What’s interesting is the way they frame their thoughts (no matter how crazy they might be). As Hofstadter saw it, it was “the use of paranoid modes of expression by more or less normal people” that made the phenomenon significant (Ibid: 4). The paranoid style is interesting when average Americans embrace it.

Elaborating on the difference between the paranoid spokesman in politics and the clinical paranoiac, Hofstadter wrote that

although they both tend to be overheated, oversuspicious, overaggressive, grandiose, and apocalyptic in expression, the clinical paranoid sees the hostile and conspiratorial world in which he feels himself to be living as directed specifically against him.

The spokesman of the paranoid style, on the other hand,

finds it directed against a nation, a culture, a way of life whose fate affects not himself alone but millions of others. … His sense that his political passions are unselfish and patriotic, in fact, goes far behind.

A key part of the paranoid style, then, is the tendency to see alignments and patterns of behavior where there are none. The paranoid style, by and large, is occupied with the rhetorical unraveling of plots. Plots to change the system. Plots to change the constitution. Plots to change the American way of life.

As Hofstadter (2008: 25-26) saw it, the right-wing of the 1960s could be “reduced to three”:

First:

[A] 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.

Second:

[The contention] 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.

Third:

[The contention] 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.

While the third group is outdated, remnants of the first group in particular, but also of the second group (as far as the selling out of American interests goes), are still relevant.

As an example of the first group, take a look at this clip of Glenn Beck (at your own discretion), introducing a new segment shortly after the election of Barack Obama. To Beck, Obama’s policies were threatening the American way of life – so much so that he at several occasions took to tears while describing how much he loved his country (and yes, Hillary Clinton did choke up on the campaign trail in New Hampshire describing how she had gotten “so many opportunities from this country” – but that wasn’t the paranoia talking, whatever that was). As Beck saw it, America stood on the top of a slippery slope: capitalism – socialism – communism. Grandiose and apocalyptic? Kind of.

Of course, it’s easy to dismiss this as entertainment, or even comedy. But Beck’s show has gained traction. Like Limbaugh, he’s been on the cover of TIME, and as a sign of his standing among conservatives – he held this year’s keynote address at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). Limbaugh held last year’s keynote address.

The usage of the paranoid style evolves with the political climate. Back in the 1960s, communism was the greatest purveyor of evil. It still looms large, but other issues have surpassed it in importance. Needless to say, then, the paranoid style can be applied to more than just the threat of communism. Every conspiracy draws on the paranoid style. The so-called “birthers” and “truthers” are no exception. While the “birthers” – convinced that Obama wasn’t born in the United States – is a phenomenon of the right, the “truthers” – believing the U.S. government played a role in 9/11 – are spread across the political spectrum. Their common denominator is the belief in a conspiracy of huge dimensions. One stretching back to Hawaii in the early 1960s, and the other planned and carried out by the former president and his confidants.

I could list more contemporary examples of the usage of the paranoid style, but I won’t. Media Matters does that every day (though they tend to ignore its usage on the left side of the political spectrum). However, if you’re interested in a thorough analysis from one of the best journalistic minds out there, check out this excellent episode of Bill Moyers Journal; “Rage on the Radio.”

Advertisements

The Opinionated Decade

February 15, 2010

As the first decade of the twenty-first century came to an end, editors and op-ed columnists began working on their verdicts of the ‘00s. Cloaked in newly obtained hindsight – hardly 20/20 – Time Magazine bombastically named it the “decade from hell”:

Bookended by 9/11 at the start and a financial wipeout at the end, the first 10 years of this century will very likely go down as the most dispiriting and disillusioning decade Americans have lived through in the post–World War II era. … Call it the Decade from Hell, or the Reckoning, or the Decade of Broken Dreams, or the Lost Decade. Call it whatever you want — just give thanks that it is nearly over.

According to The Washington Post’s E.J. Dionne, Jr., however, we’ve just lived through the “decade when the U.S. lost its way”:

I’m afraid that the past 10 years will be seen as a time when the United States badly lost its way by using our military power carelessly, misunderstanding the real challenges to our long-term security and pursuing domestic policies that constrained our options for the future while needlessly threatening our prosperity.

On a similar note, Bill Moyers described assertions of a “decade of conservative failure” in a recent interview with Thomas Frank:

I mean, remember before Obama, they turned a budget surplus into a deficit. They took us to war on fraudulent pretenses. They borrowed money to fight it. They presided over a stalemate in Afghanistan. They trashed the Constitution. They presided over the weakest economy in decades—[Frank: Not weak for everybody. Moyers: No, no. Frank: Some people did really well.]—Okay, they compiled the worst track record on jobs in decades. And they ended up with the worst stock market in decades. I mean, it was a decade of conservative failure.

With this short review in mind, let me give you my take:

In the previous decade, opinionated news blossomed – and not just the “fair and balanced” kind. With the continuing evolution of cable news, the notion of the never-ending news cycle took on a new meaning. Eventually, traditional news anchors weren’t the only ones presenting the “news”. The suit and tie remained, but something happened to the journalistic ideal of objectivity. No one person, organization, or event is to blame, but objectivity – and to a certain extent credibility – was left aside as the news media drifted steadily in the direction of entertainment. Actual reporting by actual reporters still takes place, but the ones driving the ratings and dissecting current events are increasingly commentators. They look the same, but their approach is different.

With opinions added to the mix, news stories certainly take on a different flavor. Opinions are added instantly, and the Kool-Aid that’s presented functions as a set of talking points stored in the back of your mind when you eventually formulate your own opinions on the matter.

Furthermore, social media, or new media as some prefer to call it, exploded in the second half of the previous decade. The trend affected the world of politics like everything else. Facebook notes, status updates and twitter feeds seem ideally equipped to satisfy the feeding frenzy of the talking heads. In the end, the buzz of the echo chamber is numbing, and dare one say – dumbing?

Ironically, though fittingly – Who Gets What is a product of the opinionated decade. Like everybody else, we have something on our mind, but we hope to bring something new to the table. If creating nothing else than our own echo chamber, Who Gets What functions as an online journal in which we can discuss, analyze and organize our thoughts. As we see it, thinking is often done best while writing.


%d bloggers like this: