The Return of the Paranoid Style in American Politics

Posted in: Politics

“The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” first published in Harper’s Magazine in 1964, is an essay by the historian Richard J. Hofstadter, who noted the recurrence in U.S. politics of a pernicious brand of fact-resistant ideology. In justifying the use of a psychological term to describe a political phenomenon, Hofstadter referred in particular to “the sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy” that motivates certain political movements in this country, and he made very clear that he was condemning that style.

Although Hofstadter’s immediate focus was on the nascent conservative movement that had coalesced around Republican presidential nominee Barry Goldwater, he was quick to say that the paranoid style was not always limited to right-wing movements. Indeed, at any given time, one can find conspiracy mongers on the left as well; what they had in common with the conspiracy theorists on the right was that they all ascribed evil intent and supernatural powers to their enemies. In Hofstadter’s words, the enemy is seen as “a perfect model of malice, a kind of amoral superman—sinister, ubiquitous, powerful, cruel, sensual, luxury-loving.”

I am hardly the only person who has noticed the current relevance of Hofstadter’s analysis, in this era of anti-Obama zealotry. The Wikipedia page discussing Hofstadter’s thesis, for example, cites to articles from 2011 and 2010, both of which note the timeliness of his diagnosis. There is also a link to a 2007 article—which demonstrates, at least, that the Obama-related aspects of current right-wing paranoia are merely mutations of a pre-existing social illness.

Again, there is nothing inherent to this paranoid style that limits its allure to those on the far right. More than fifty years after Hofstadter’s article was published, however, it is certainly the case that we can see the paranoid style most clearly on the right in this country. Moreover, to the extent that one can identify examples of people with left-leaning views who exhibit similar types of paranoia, the distinct difference is that none of those detached-from-reality leftists hold positions of substantial influence or authority, whereas nearly all of the country’s most important Republicans (those holding public office and otherwise) regularly espouse views that exhibit key elements of the paranoid style.

There are, of course, limits to how far even the most extreme right-wing politicians are willing to go. The recent controversy over “Jade Helm 15,” an otherwise-unremarkable military training exercise, is instructive. Although the Republican governor of Texas ordered his own state guard to “monitor” the U.S. military while it is in his state (which is, of course, still one of the fifty united states that our armed forces protect), and even though the reliably unhinged Rep. Louie Gohmert was willing to make explicit conspiratorial claims, the Republican presidential candidates have been notably circumspect on this non-issue.

As bizarre as that particular conspiracy theory was, and as satisfying as it was to see that the general response was to ignore or mock the theory, that does not mean that the paranoid style is not in full bloom elsewhere in the completely mainstream right in America.

Paranoia About the Internal Revenue Service

In a recent three-part series of Verdict columns (here, here, and here), I described the decades-long effort on the part of the Republican Party to demonize the Internal Revenue Service. Rather than treating the agency as an essential, though inevitably flawed, law enforcement agency (“inevitably,” because all human creations are flawed), Republicans have instead treated the IRS as an alien, unyielding, relentless force for evil. To repeat Hofstadter’s description, which I quoted above, the IRS is now viewed by the right as embodying “a perfect model of malice, a kind of amoral superman—sinister, ubiquitous, powerful, cruel, sensual, luxury-loving.”

The words “sensual” and “luxury-loving” might seem a bit out of place here, but the Republicans have indeed demonized the IRS for supposedly excessive spending on conferences, and it is now a standard move to recount the story of a silly “Star Trek”-themed IRS video as evidence that the agency is a gluttonous drain on the public purse.

As I noted in my second and third Verdict columns in that series, a recent report from the House Ways and Means Committee’s Republican staff traffics in exactly this kind of paranoid nonsense. Importantly, that report treats the IRS as an entity with its own consciousness, intent on making decisions to thwart the will of the people. By describing the IRS not as a collection of human beings, but as a malevolent entity, the report denies the personhood of the people who work at the IRS, and Republicans’ efforts to make them miserable are simply part of the party’s greater strategy.

This is, again, not limited to the fringes of people who believe in Jade Helm-like paranoid delusions. The majority staff of the powerful tax-writing committee is completely on board with this effort to undermine the IRS. Moreover, even the writer of a notably responsible piece of commentary in a right-wing magazine, who correctly argued that the IRS is not really the problem (Congress is), could not stop himself from writing that “[t]he IRS deserves more than its fair share of rebuke for targeting groups with views it didn’t like.”

The IRS, in this view, is not merely an agency; it is an agency with likes and dislikes. And because it purportedly does not like conservatives, Republicans have acted as if the IRS is out to get them. When the IRS’s spokespeople try to say that the agency has no such agenda, the response is perfectly paranoid—in essence, “Well, what would you expect an agency that’s out to get us to say?!”

The Non-Scandal Scandal Again

Two years ago, an IRS employee announced that some employees of the agency had used certain politically loaded words— “tea party,” “patriot,” and a few others—when it was sorting through applications for tax-exempt status from some would-be “social welfare organizations.”. Later, we learned that those staff members had also used search terms like “occupy” that would tend to target left-leaning groups. Because that particular type of tax-exempt status is to be denied to groups that devote the majority of their efforts to political activities, such search terms were hardly irrelevant; but higher-level employees at the IRS nevertheless knew that scrutiny on the basis of ideological affiliation (even if done across the political spectrum) was unacceptable, and they discontinued the practice after learning that it was happening. Even so, because more right-wing groups than left-wing groups were affected by this now-discontinued practice, this was taken by Republicans as proof that the IRS intended to scrutinize right-wing groups all along.

This non-scandal has been a gift to the paranoid right, where people—very much including the most powerful people in Congress—have directly accused the Obama Administration of orchestrating a political hit job on right-wing groups. Two years of inquiries have turned up nothing, but that does not matter to the fantasists, because the failure to uncover evidence of the scandal is taken as incontrovertible proof that the evil left-wing malefactors are especially skilled at hiding their schemes.

Again, this is not limited to the tin-foil-hat-wearing right in this country. In my most recent Verdict column, I noted that a mainstream conservative think tank had published a very good rebuttal to Senator Ted Cruz’s call to abolish the IRS. Even so, consider the construction of this weak defense of the IRS: “In fact, while IRS discrimination under the Obama administration against conservative political nonprofits has only increased the contempt many Americans have for the agency, the IRS does a fairly good job of collecting taxes and has relatively few scandals in its history.”

Note the McCarthy-esque phrasing: “. . . IRS discrimination under the Obama administration . . . .” The author never expressly says that President Obama or his aides ordered the “discrimination,” relying instead on innuendo. It happened under the Obama Administration. The sun has risen in the east every day “under the Obama administration,” too, but there would be no reason to phrase it that way, other than to try to connect the two, which in this case is to insinuate that the conspiracy theorists are actually correct.

Later in that article, the author defends the IRS as no “more incompetent or corrupt than your average federal agency,” and it credited the Ways and Means Committee Republican staff report (to which I referred earlier in this column) with exposing “standard, if still shameful, federal failures.” And these are the responsible people on the right—the ones who are resisting the worst kind of paranoid fantasies.

The Conspiracy Theories Around the Affordable Care Act

As I noted in my recent Verdict series on the Republicans’ demonization of the IRS, one of their major complaints is actually that the IRS did something right: The IRS is being blamed for effectively setting up the mechanisms necessary to collect the tax penalties that might be required under the Affordable Care Act (ACA).

A recent public hearing held before the U.S. Senate Committee on Small Business and Entrepreneurship offered an opportunity for Republicans to complain about the ACA, and in particular to suggest that somehow the Obama Administration was duping people by setting up the mechanisms required under that law.

One invited witness, a representative from a very mainstream libertarian think tank, went “full Hofstadter,” if you will.(Unfortunately, I have not been able to find a transcript for this testimony that is not behind a pay wall. The only link that I could find is hereUpdate: The testimony can be downloaded at no cost here.) Calling the IRS “corrupt,” the witness called for yet more oversight hearings, this time to determine whether the administration had misled the public.

Upon reading the witness’s prepared testimony, however, what one finds is that the IRS’s purported corruption is actually nothing more than the IRS’s decision not to say that the government should lose the King v. Burwell case, and then faulting it for failing to tell people what will happen if the Supreme Court actually does rule against the government in that case.

For example, we are told that, “[e]ven after the Supreme Court granted cert in King v. Burwell in November 2014, two officials (including HHS Secretary Sylvia Burwell) “publicly proclaimed, ‘Nothing has changed.’ Each knew it was not true.” What actually had changed? Well, now that the Court has granted cert, there is a greater chance that the subsidies that the IRS administers under the law might ultimately be disallowed.

So, one asks, what exactly was Secretary Burwell saying, when she said that “nothing has changed.” She obviously did not mean, “It’s not possible that the government will lose this case,” but that “People can be assured that we are proceeding to administer the law, until and unless we are ordered not to do so.”

“Nothing has changed,” then, simply means that the relevant agencies are telling Congress and the public that this newsworthy item is, for the moment, nothing more than a newsworthy item. Those agencies are appropriately proceeding on their existing path, in case the government wins the case, and apparently making some contingency plans if the plaintiffs prevail.

Nonetheless, the witness’s testimony goes on: “Oversight hearings would give [the HHS officials] a chance to explain why they told consumers ‘nothing has changed,’ and whether . . . that was fair to say while testifying before Congress under oath.” Note the “under oath” part. There is not a chance in the world that this testimony would be deemed untruthful in a court of law. Not publicly announcing, “Hey everyone, if the government loses this case, things will of course change,” violates no legal or ethical boundaries.

To capture the depth of paranoia on display in that hearing (and the paranoia within the paranoia), however, it is best simply to quote in full a paragraph near the end of the testimony:

Oversight hearings would reveal that King v. Burwell is actually not about health care at all, but rather an example of political corruption and abuse of power at the IRS that goes beyond what any of us have seen in our lifetimes. Lacking any statutory basis for its actions, the IRS first pledged and ultimately spent taxpayer dollars on a multi-year, multi-billion-dollar contribution to the re-election campaigns of members of Congress who enacted, and a president who signed, a law that voters and Congress otherwise would have scrapped as unworkable. Instead, the law remains on the books.

Again, this is not the insane rambling of the leader of a militia group that meets in a roadside bar, who complains about President Obama being a Muslim Communist atheist dictator. This is testimony from a widely quoted scholar in a right-wing think tank, who was invited to speak before a U.S. Senate committee—not as an example of a delusional crank, but as an expert on the Affordable Care Act.

There will always be people who imagine that there is someone coming to get them. But just as psychiatrists work to treat such delusions in their patients, it is incumbent upon people of reason to marginalize such insane fantasies when they crop up in the public sphere. The evidence continues to belie any suggestion that the IRS, HHS, or anyone in the Obama Administration conspired to do anything illegal. Efforts by officeholders on the right to suggest that their opponents’ disagreements on policy are actually backed up by dark conspiracies seriously undermine the legitimacy of anything that the government might do. As I have suggested in my earlier Verdict columns, however, that effort to delegitimize the government appears to be the whole point.