Posts Tagged ‘Glenn Beck’

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.”

Sunday talk show highlights, Feb. 21, 2010

February 22, 2010

Every Sunday, I watch NBC’s Meet The Press and ABC’s This Week. Occasionally, I also watch either CBS’ Face The Nation or FOX News’ Fox News Sunday.

Every Monday, I’ll post my personal highlights from the shows I’ve watched. This Monday: Meet The Press and This Week.

On Meet The Press, it was the response to the following question from host David Gregory that stood out:

MR. GREGORY:  Evan Bayh, senator from Indiana, surprisingly decided he would not run for re-election this week.  And here’s what he said during one of his interviews. … “The extremes of both parties have to be willing to accept compromises from time to time to make some progress because some progress for the American people is better than nothing.  And all too often, recently, we’ve been getting nothing.” Congressmen, a little constructive engagement here, beyond the partisanship. What is going on?

REP. MIKE PENCE (R-IN):  Well, I think what Evan Bayh was talking about was a Democratic Congress, and I agree with him very strongly that, under Democratic leadership in the House and the Senate, Congress has been failing the American people.  The American people are tired of the borrowing, the spending, the bailouts, the takeovers.  But they’re also, David, I think tired of the, of the, the really “take-it-or-leave-it” approach the Democrats have taken.  I mean, it’s unthinkable that a massive healthcare bill, a massive energy bill was actually brought to the floor and the minority party was allowed one amendment on those bills.  I think people are tired of the backroom deals, I think they’re tired of the leadership the Democrats have brought to Capitol Hill, and I think that’s why, as Tim Pawlenty said, “I honestly believe the American people are going to take back the American Congress and put Republicans back in control this fall.”

REP. CHRIS VAN HOLLEN (D-MD):  David, let’s just flash back for a moment. The first nine months of the Obama administration, one of the most productive periods in recent legislative history, according to all independent outside observers, we passed an expansive children’s health care, paid for; we provided the opportunity for women to have their day in court on equal pay; we gave the FDA authority to protect our kids from tobacco use; we passed a very important public lands protection bill.  We passed a credit card billholders bill of rights.  We passed a whole lot of things.  Then we came to the healthcare debate.  Senator DeMint famously said, “We’re going to use this to break the president.  It’s going to be his Waterloo.” Just last week we had seven Republican senators, who had their names on a bill to create a deficit reduction commission, vote against it for purely partisan reasons.  There’s been a calculation by the Republican leadership that getting nothing done, to try and prevent the majority from working its will, as it did for the first nine months, is to their political advantage.  And there’s no other explanation for that vote we saw.

REP. PENCE:  There’s…

MR. GREGORY:  And here’s, here’s part of the problem, though.

REP. PENCE:  …been no calculation like that.

Message: Politics as usual.

On This Week, the Roundtable’s discussion about the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) stood out:

MORAN: And let me begin, George, with what we just saw, Glenn Beck, there, taking aim at the Republican Party, CPAC embracing the tea party movement, in a way. What does — what does it mean, this libertarian tea party streak coming into the movement conservatives, coming into the Republican Party?

WILL: … the energy, the intensity in American politics, right now, is on the right. And this is partly because a lot of the people who come to CPAC are college students. They’re young. And so there’s a bit of over-the-top rhetoric, as you would expect. And when you’re a year after a party has just lost the presidency, and you don’t have — the faces of the next generation aren’t clear, it’s the hour of the entertainer. And they had a lot of entertainers there.

Democratic strategist Donna Brazile had a different view:

BRAZILE: … I didn’t watch too much of the CPAC. I didn’t want to get infected with the virus anger… (LAUGHTER) … given the blues that I’ve had over the past year.

Still on the topic of CPAC, Moran asked Will:

MORAN: … George, does it bother you at all that the John Birch Society is back inside the tent after Bill Buckley spent decades trying to run that wing of the party out?

WILL: It’s a big tent. And the tent is a circus imagery. And so you have a freak show side of it. But this is a trivial, infinitesimal, not-noticeable thing, other than by people eager to discredit the Republican Party.

During his CPAC speech this Saturday, Glenn Beck presented quite a different view of the big tent:

“We need a big tent. We need a big tent. Can we get a bigger tent? How can we get a big tent?” What is this the circus? America is not a clown show. America is not a circus. America is an idea. America is an idea that sets people free.

Before I end this short recap, who had the most memorable line this Sunday? Tip of the Hat to George Will:

With metronomic regularity, we go through these moments in Washington where we complain about the government being broken.

If it’s Monday, it’s Sunday talk show highlight time.


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