Thursday, June 29, 2006

The Paranoid Style of Netroots Politics

It's become a common observation among conservatives to note that Richard Hofstadter's essay, "The Paranoid Style in American Politics," more and more closely describes what is happening among the warring factions of the Democratic party. Hofstadter's comments about conservative criticisms of the Korean war now apply to Liberal criticisms of the Global War on Terror:
...Any historian of warfare knows it is in good part a comedy of errors and a museum of incompetence; but if for every error and every act of incompetence one can substitute an act of treason, many points of fascinating interpretation are open to the paranoid imagination. In the end, the real mystery, for one who reads the primary works of paranoid scholarship, is not how the United States has been brought to its present dangerous position but how it has managed to survive at all.
The group that was the banner carrier for the paranoid politics about which Hofstadter wrote was the unhinged John Birch Society of the late 1950s and early 1960s. The Society was more than a collection of "old ladies in tennis shoes," as they were often characterized. Members included high-technology aerospace workers in Orange County, California who sent Richard Nixon to congress.

Josh Trevino writes a nice comparison between the "netroots" campaigns of sites like DailyKos and MyDD and the John Birch Society:
...Its leader was one Robert Welch, Jr., an erstwhile Massachusetts manufacturer who looked at the past quarter-century of statism’s march, and saw relentless conspiracy. He was not alone in his analysis: surely this sea change, counterintuitive and counter-American as it was, could never have succeeded simply by the will of the people. Surely it was not a function of the mere zeitgeist. Surely it was not coincidental. No: forces were at work. The Birchers meant to identify them.

And identify them they did. In the classic manner of the conspiracy-minded and the cultist, having arrived at the effect — which is to say, their own relentless marginalization by hidden forces — they set out to identify causes and agents. One obvious agent was international Communism. Fair enough: it had an objectively-verifiable existence, acknowledged by its own participants. Less obvious were the American agents of that agent: the secret Communists advancing the cause within our very nation. And here the Birchers went astray....

Hofstadter characterized their alienation this way:

...But the modern right wing, as Daniel Bell has put it, feels dispossessed: America has been largely taken away from them and their kind, though they are determined to try to repossess it and to prevent the final destructive act of subversion. The old American virtues have already been eaten away by cosmopolitans and intellectuals; the old competitive capitalism has been gradually undermined by socialistic and communistic schemers; the old national security and independence have been destroyed by treasonous plots, having as their most powerful agents not merely outsiders and foreigners as of old but major statesmen who are at the very centers of American power. Their predecessors had discovered conspiracies; the modern radical right finds conspiracy to be betrayal from on high.

How do they compare with the "netroots" crowd? Josh Trevino writes:

Consider the average member of this group. He (or she) remembers the era of leftist dominance of American politics — and he remembers the beginning of its end, on election day 1980. He is around 50 years old. He is professional living in a coastal enclave, mostly on the Pacific coast or the northeast. His political consciousness was formed by the McGovern and Carter campaigns — and of course the American retreat from Vietnam. He may have grown up in Iowa, or Texas, or Missouri, or Utah — but he went to college elsewhere, and fell in love with the people in California, or New York, or Boston, who were so much more progressive and intellectual than the hayseeds back home. His initial concept of conservatives, which he’s never really abandoned, was formed by Nixonian malfeasance: they’re all crooks and corrupt, in his mind. The ascent of Reagan in 1980, and later the 1994 revolution, came as a profound shock — how could America forget so soon? He is well-off: and the bulk of his working career — and hence the font of his personal prosperity — was spent in the boom markets of the 1980s and 1990s, under Republican national governance in one form or another. He doesn’t think about the implications of that much.

But for all his generally good circumstances, he’s been on the political and cultural losing side all his adult life. He’s tired of it. And he’s found a website which, at last, makes him feel empowered. He is, in short, the typical member of the so-called netroots: the left-wing movement, organized around blogs, that seeks to “take back” this country from its usurpers. The netroots is a movement born of desperation and a sense of embattlement at being on the losing side of historical forces. It sees itself as the inheritor and the guarantor of true American tradition and identity, and it seeks to restore those things to their rightful primacy in national life. Critically, it choose to not merely fight its foes, but emulate them. It sees the prime virtue of its enemies as their ability to win, and if they can just crack the code — if it can grasp the very methodology of victory — then they will turn the tables, and victory will be theirs.

Sound familiar? It is — to us. To the left, it’s all very exciting, and all very new. And so we see the self-proclaimed netroots go through a trajectory very much like what the Birchers went through, albeit in highly compressed time. The elements are all there: the resentment, the conspiracy-mindedness, and especially the leaders with stupefyingly poor judgment married to Napoleon complexes.
This knd of thinking ends up in with self-appointed leaders condemning other, older leaders for lax ideological purity.

So how did the political right deal with its own wingnuttery?
...but the beginning of the end for its place in American conservatism came the preceding year. Nearly concurrent with its founding was the founding of the National Review, and in the beginning, there was much overlap between the personnel of each entity. Under William F. Buckley’s aegis, the National Review did what the Birchers did not: specifically, it eschewed the foe rather than mimicking it; and it inculcated within itself and its fellow-travelers a basic optimism about the American people that the Birchers, with their dark Weltanschauung of dupes and proxies, found utterly alien. Buckley in particular wrestled with the problem of Welch’s unhinged theories, until publicly concluding in the seminal February 1962 NR essay, “The Question of Robert Welch,” that the Birchers’ leader was simply a paranoiac who had to be ejected from the still-nascent conservative movement.

The gravity of Buckley’s action cannot be overstated. Conservatism was still on the ropes. Its declared adherents were few, and it would shortly suffer a crushing rejection from the American electorate in the 1964 election. In this circumstance, many argued that to turn away any ally was a fool’s act, bringing division in dire straits where unity was paramount. Mercifully, the National Review rejected this in favor of doing what was right rather than what was seemingly pragmatic. Considering the probable resulting alternatives in the modern day — a conservative movement twisted by a dark vision of paranoia and loathing, or no conservative movement at all — we owe a debt of gratitude for this simple essay in winter 1962.

Will the leaders of the Democratic Party find the courage to dump the "nutroots"?

Their inability to keep from slobbering all over race demagogues like Al Sharpton do not give me much hope.

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