Posts Tagged ‘Paranoid Style in American Politics’

Evoking ghosts from the past: Buchanan 1992 v. Gingrich 2010

May 21, 2010

It seems as if Newt Gingrich is borrowing a page from Pat Buchanan’s speech at the 1992 Republican National Convention.

In his upcoming book, To Save America: Stopping Obama’s Secular Socialist Machine, Gingrich writes;

The secular-socialist machine represents as great a threat to America as Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union once did.

In his 1992 convention speech, Buchanan stated the following:

There is a religious war going on in our country for the soul of America. It is a cultural war, as critical to the kind of nation we will one day be as was the Cold War itself.

Gingrich recently explained his views in an e-mail to Politico:

I have asserted that the secular socialist machine is a mortal threat to the future of America as we have known it just as totalitarian regimes were mortal threats to the survival of America in the past. … In our generation the two mortal threats are radical Islam and secular socialism.

Whereas Buchanan spoke of a “struggle for the soul of America” in which “Clinton & Clinton” were the evil doers, Gingrich’s foes are,  unoriginally, Obama, Reid and Pelosi.

Furthermore, whereas Buchanan’s key frame  was “cultural war”, Gingrich’s newest catch-phrase is “secular-socialism.”

The common denominator is the effort to use religion as a wedge issue.  Gingrich thus strives to create a political climate in which Democrats are framed as secular-minded socialists, while Republicans  are cast as valiantly defending America’s traditional family values. In other words, Gingrich isn’t exactly reinventing the wheel here.

Nonetheless, Gingrich clearly masters scare tactics 101: Evoke ghosts from the past by painting a scary picture of the future. Essentially, a volatile cocktail of Reductio ad Hitlerum and Reductio ad Stalinum.

In the long haul, Gingrich’s paranoid style is not bringing any new solutions to Washington. Instead, he is stoking fear by borrowing a page from Buchanan. Obviously, Buchanan was by no means an originator, and both  his and Gingrich’s tactics are part of the paranoid style in American politics so eloquently described by Richard Hofstadter.

Sunday talk show highlights, March 28, 2010

March 29, 2010

This Monday, Meet The Press, This Week, State of the Union and Fox News Sunday.

On Meet The Press, host David Gregory interviewed Senators Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC). During the interview, Graham lost his connection with Washington twice, and Senator Schumer didn’t seem to mind:

Hey, I like the show this way. … It’s pretty good.

When Senator Graham got his audio back, he didn’t have any problems responding to Schumer’s talking points:

MR. GREGORY: But you, you have the floor here. You know what some of the discussion has been. What is your view?

SEN. GRAHAM: Yeah, I do, I do. Well…

During his time on the air, Graham was able to voice his own talking points as well, and he managed to squeeze in the phrase ”ponzi scheme” – referring to the cost of the health care bill – four times.

During the roundtable discussion, presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin had this to say about the signing of the health care bill:

I think the key thing that the legacy is not simply what this is going to do for the future but what it’s done, which you started on, to Obama’s leadership. You know, when LBJ got civil rights through in ’64, he said it felt so incredible inside to have done something that will make life better for millions of Americans. He said, ‘Now I’m going for voting rights. Now I’m going for Medicare.’ It emboldens a president. The fact that it was so tough in the Congress, and it became difficult, they’re in the trenches together, they’ve come out more unified, the Democrats. The party has its morale back up. Even the sense of the countries abroad, he’s a winner, he won something. I agree with you that the battle’s only begun, because the battle of public sentiment was never won by the Obama people. The Republicans won it with the ‘death panels,’ they won it maybe with falsehoods, but still the majority of the people still don’t feel good about this bill. So they still have a lot to do, I think, to compress their arguments and make sure that they reach the country. Lincoln once said … that ‘He who molds public sentiment is more important than he who passes laws.’ … That with public sentiment, everything’s possible. Without it, nothing is. Public sentiment still has to be won.

As Mark Twain once said: “Its name is Public Opinion. It is held in reverence. It settles everything. Some think it is the voice of God.”

Moving along, the following exchange took place between Democratic strategist Bob Shrum and Republican strategist Mike Murphy:

MR. SHRUM: … The Scott Brown era is the shortest era in the history of American politics, and he helped us pass the bill. Because once he got there, once he got there, the Democrats said, “We can’t ping-pong this back and forth between the Senate and the House. The House must pass the Senate bill, then we’ll fix it in reconciliation.”

MR. MURPHY: That was a freight train of disingenuous sound bites, and I can’t try to address them all.

MR. SHRUM: It was actually … the march of truth.

MR. MURPHY: It was baloney. I worked on the Romney healthcare bill, you didn’t. I know you don’t. Here’s my question for you.

MR. SHRUM: I do know the Romney healthcare bill. He helped write it with Senator Kennedy.

Flashback to the 1988 vice-presidential debate between Lloyd Bentsen and Dan Quayle:

QUAYLE: … I have as much experience in the Congress as Jack Kennedy did when he sought the presidency. I will be prepared to deal with the people in the Bush administration, if that unfortunate event would ever occur.

BENTSEN: Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy, I knew Jack Kennedy, Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.

On a different note, Sarah Palin has been campaigning for Senator John McCain (R-AZ) in his re-election bid against former Representative J.D. Hayworth, and in her appearance she tied herself, McCain and the Republican Party to the Tea Party movement:

And let me clear the air right now. We might as well call it like we see it, right, and not beat around the bush. In respect to the tea party movement, beautiful movement. You know what, everybody here today supporting John McCain, we are all a part of that tea party movement.

Palin’s statement led to the following remarks:

MR. GREGORY: Is that true? That’s probably what Republicans hope is true, that the tea party is part of the Republican Party.

MR. MEACHAM: I think perhaps that crowd, perhaps it was true there. … But I don’t think so. … You know, when you have these extreme, more vociferous and ferocious movements, it doesn’t always help. As Churchill once said in another context, ’It’s a good starter but it’s not a good finisher.’ And the way parties absorb these things–and we’ve seen it a thousand times; we’ve seen it with Wallace, we’ve seen it with Perot–is they take some part of the grievance, address it and press forward. I think we’re–you know, partly we’re built for argument. I mean, we–the system wasn’t created to really resolve much.

At the end of the show, host David Gregory gave a short history lesson to put Democrats’ prospects in the upcoming mid-terms into context:

Forty-five years ago in Washington there was another heated debate about providing health care to Americans. Despite vigorous Republican opposition, a Democratic president and a Democratic Congress passed sweeping reform. July 30th, 1965, the country’s largest ever expansion of public health care, the Medicare program, was signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson in Independence, Missouri, the hometown of President Harry Truman, who had fought for a national health insurance program 20 years prior. A year later, Republicans made some big gains in the midterm election due in large part to President Johnson’s unpopularity. The GOP netted 47 House seats.

On This Week, guest host Jake Tapper moderated a debate between Governors Haley Barbour (R-MS) and Ed Rendell (D-PA). In a question to Governor Barbour, Tapper stated that he didn’t want to “pick on Mississippi”, but then he did:

Studies indicate Mississippi is last in the nation when it comes to health care, when it comes to access, quality, costs and outcomes.Your state ranks worst in the country for obesity, hypertension, diabetes, adult physical inactivity, low weight birth babies. It has one of the highest rates of infant mortality.

Ouch.

Later on, Governor Barbour stated that he was surprised to find that the percentage in favor of the bill isn’t higher than it is, considering the “liberal media’s” biased coverage in the days following the passage of the health care bill:

And candidly, I am surprised that the numbers in the Washington Post poll weren’t better. I mean, since this thing passed last weekend, we have seen the longest wet kiss in political history given to the Obama administration by the liberal media elite, and every day that goes by, it gets sloppier.

During the Roundtable, George Will took a stab at Paul Krugman’s Nobel Prize by stating:

Paul’s prizes in economics, not practical Washington wisdom.

Discussing Sarah Palin and the Tea Party Movement, Democratic strategist Donna Brazile stated that:

For the Democrats, I don’t think it hurts us at all to have Sarah Palin out there, whipping up the base, whipping up the tea parties. Stir up as much tea as you want. It’s producing a lot of coffee drinkers within the Democratic Party.

Switching shows, host Candy Crowley of CNN’s State of the Union focused on the aftermath of last Sunday’s tea party protest in Washington, D.C.:

SARAH PALIN: Hearing the news reports lately, kind of this ginned up controversy about us, common- sense conservatives, inciting violence because we happen to oppose some of the things in the Obama administration–

CROWLEY: FOX’s Sean Hannity had more than doubts.

SEAN HANNITY, FOX NEWS HOST: And this is denied by a lot of people. I am not seeing the videotape that confirms this yet. If anyone has it, send it to me, I want to see it, of racial slurs, anti- gay slurs being made at the tea party movement. Do we have any evidence that corroborates this at all?

CROWLEY: Two FOX reporters responded that they had seen no evidence. So we begin by trying to set the record straight. There is video. Watch Congressman Emanuel Cleaver as he approaches the man on the left. Cleaver confirms that this man spit on him. He confirms that this is the man whom Capitol Police detained. Cleaver chose not to press charges. From where they were positioned, CNN microphones did not pick up racial epithets.

As for anti-gay slurs, a CNN producer heard the word ‘faggot’ yelled at Barney Frank more than once in the House Longworth Building. The producer cannot say for sure whether it was coming from one person or more.

What to make of it? I find it astonishing that instead of simply denouncing the actions of a set of angry and hateful people, the talking heads over at Fox News and Sarah Palin (who is also a contributor to Fox News) have decided to go the usual route of attacking the “liberal media” by questioning their accounts. Come on. Attack the content of the health care bill all you want, but it shouldn’t be hard to simply denounce anyone uttering the N-word or “faggot”. The paranoid style in American politics is alive and kicking when reports of hateful remarks aren’t met with a backbone reflex to denounce, but with  questions of the truthfulness of the media’s account.

Over on Fox News Sunday,  host Chris Wallace moderated a debate touted as the “Florida Senate Showdown” between Florida Governor Charlie Crist and former Florida Speaker of the House Marco Rubio.

Wallace quoted the number of jobs created or saved by the stimulus money accepted by Governor Crist (87,000), to which Rubio replied the following:

If it’s bad for America, it can’t possibly be good for your state.

I guess if you think it’s bad for America to create or save jobs, it’s also bad for Florida to save or create jobs in Florida. Crist should’ve used those words against Rubio, but he didn’t.

Like Palin, Rubio has his own vision of the Tea Party Movement:

The Tea Party movement has been mischaracterized in the press as some sort of an organization. Tea Parties are where people go and what people do. It’s not what they are …, it is not an organization. It is a broad-based group of everyday Americans from all walks of life.

To summarize the debate: Crist would’ve voted for the stimulus, Rubio against it. Marco Rubio’s favorite Senator is Jim DeMint (R-SC), while Charlie Crist’s favorite Senators are John McCain (R-AZ) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC). Rubio has been endorsed by Mike Huckabee, Senator DeMint and Representative Paul Ryan (R-WI). Crist has been endorsed by Senators McCain, Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and Lamar Alexander (R-TN). Crist opposes parts of the health care bill, while Rubio would repeal the whole thing.

The essence of Rubio’s message: We can’t trust Governor Crist to stand up to Barack Obama. The essence of Crist’s message: Rubio can’t be trusted – he won’t even reveal his tax returns! Also, “I’ll put Floridians first, that’s why I accepted the stimulus.”

In the end, who had the most memorable phrase this Sunday? Shrum’s “Scott Brown era” was good, but the one that stuck was Governor Barbour’s “longest wet kiss in political history”:

Since this thing passed last weekend, we have seen the longest wet kiss in political history given to the Obama administration by the liberal media elite, and every day that goes by, it gets sloppier.

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

Happy Easter!

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.”


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