September 12, 2010
We’ve Come a Long Way, Baby

To those of us who are getting along the news these days can seem, in a certain sense, comforting. After all we have been here before, haven’t we? — time after time, even. For an instance take a look at this, substituting Tea Party for pseudo-conservativism, Obama for Eisenhower, and so on as needed. Very few of Richard Hofstadter’s words would need changing if they were written for tomorrow’s New York Times. In fact they were written for The American Scholar in 1954. We somehow managed to stumble through that outbreak of national idiocy, soiled and tattered but mostly intact. With luck, we may even do it again.

The new dissent is certainly not radical — there are hardly any radicals of any sort left — nor is it precisely conservative … It can most accurately be called pseudo-conservative 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 it represented by the Eisenhower administration.

Their political reactions express rather a profound if largely unconscious hatred of our society … Adorno and his co-workers found that their pseudo-conservative subjects, although given to a form of political expression that combines a curious mixture of largely conservative with occasional radical notions, succeed in concealing from themselves impulsive tendencies that, if released in action, would be very far from conservative.

The pseudo-conservative, Adorno writes, shows “conventionality and authoritarian submissiveness” in his conscious thinking and “violence, anarchic impulsiveness and chaotic destructiveness in the unconscious sphere … The pseudo-conservative is a man who, in the name of upholding traditional American values and institutions and defending them against more or less fictitious dangers, consciously or subconsciously aims at their abolition.”

Who is the pseudo-conservative and what does he want? It is impossible to identify him by social class, for the pseudo-conservative impulse can be found in practically all classes in society, although its power probably rests largely on its appeal to the less-educated members of the middle classes. The ideology of pseudo-conservatism can be characterized but not defined, because the pseudo-conservative tends to be more than ordinarily incoherent about politics. The lady who, when General Eisenhower’s victory over Senator Taft had finally become official in 1952, stalked out of the Hilton Hotel declaiming: “This means eight more years of socialism,” was probably a fairly good representative of the pseudo-conservative mentality…

The restlessness, suspicion and fear shown in various phases of the pseudo-conservative revolt give evidence of the anguish which the pseudo-conservative experiences in his capacity as a citizen. He believes himself to be living in a world in which he is spied upon, plotted against, betrayed, and very likely destined for total ruin. He feels that his liberties have been arbitrarily and outrageously invaded. He is opposed to almost everything that has happened in American politics in the past twenty years. He hates the very thought of Franklin D. Roosevelt. He is disturbed deeply by American participation in the United Nations, which he can see only as a sinister organization…


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Posted by Jerome Doolittle at September 12, 2010 06:11 PM
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I'm a huge Richard Hofstadter fan, he was one of the great writers of non-fiction. I might even list him as the best American non-fiction author. And The Paranoid Style in American Politics is only one of his wonderful works. His piercing eye, elegant prose, ready wit, and essential compassion constantly show through. Thanks for the quote!

Posted by: Chuck Dupree on September 14, 2010 3:25 AM

Contrast though, the John Birch Society. Eisenhower actually asked William F. Buckley to "marginalize" them. We see nothing of the sort from responsible Republicans (a non sequitur if there ever was one in today's world) who encourage the same sorts. They encourage them. Rush Limbaugh is the McCarthy of today, adorned by the party and the group (throw away the party label, it is irrelevant in the case of McCarthy). They would have been wise to follow the former model though. But the tea party is the path to power. But what happens to them when they are thrown to the wolves, as they surely will be. We might get lucky in a certain sense. They may "flip" as Eric Hoffer would say. Then we will have to deal with them. The horrors!

Posted by: Buck on September 14, 2010 11:55 AM
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