Sunday, September 1, 2013

Paranoid Politics

Have been reading and rereading two remarkable articles by Kim Messick in Salon: The Tea Party's Paranoid Aesthetic and The Conservative Crackup: How the Republican Party Lost Its Mind. Thoughtful, powerful and scary stuff. Here's the wrap-up to the first article:

The question the rest of us confront, then, is not how to tutor the Tea Party in the realities of democratic governance. It is what we should think when one of our two major political parties is captured by a faction that rejects the possibility of normal politics. In his essay, “The Pseudo-Conservative Revolt — 1954,” Richard Hofstadter left us these strikingly prescient words:

[I]n a populistic culture like ours, which seems to lack a responsible elite with political and moral autonomy, and in which it is possible to exploit the wildest currents of public sentiment for private purposes, it is at least conceivable that a highly organized, vocal, active, and well-financed minority could create a political climate in which the rational pursuit of our well-being and safety would become impossible.

What our own time is in the process of proving, however glumly, is that such a political climate is much more than merely “conceivable.”

Again, this from Richard Hofstadter almost 60 years ago:

 it is at least conceivable that a highly organized, vocal, active, and well-financed minority could create a political climate in which the rational pursuit of our well-being and safety would become impossible.

And Messick is suggesting that the Tea Party is precisely such a minority whose "paranoid aesthetic" is making the rational pursuit of politics impossible. Let me try to summarize Messick's arguments:

  • As documented by Richard Hofstadter in his Paranoid Style in American Politics (given originally as a lecture the day before Kennedy's assassinatiion in 1963), "paranoid politics" has been part of our history from the beginning: anti-freemasonry in the 18th and early 19th centuries; anti-catholicism periodically in the 19th century; anti-gold-promoting bankers at the turn of the century; anti-munitions makers after WWI; McCarthyism/anticommunism after WWII; the John Birch Society with the emergence of the Goldwater wing of the Republican Party; and now, post-Hofstadter (who died in 1970), the Tea Party.
  • Hofstadter describes in clear outline the repeated outbreaks of this virulent paranoia virus but doesn't do much in the way of explaining the causes in either social construction or psychological terms. He does make clear that this is not an exclusively American phenomenon, showing how it has boiled up over time in many parts of Europe, with fascism and Nazi Germany only the most powerful and destructive example.
  • Messick does a good job of presenting the essential characteristics of today's Tea Party paranoia. He calls it a paranoid aesthetic, because its form (the tricorne hats, the Minutemen attire, the obsessive focus on the original documents) fuses completely with the content of the movement, which is its aggrieved, victimized virtuous remnant of those Founders who came seeking liberty. It has somehow all gone wrong, and the demonic oppressors have gotten control, and they are determined to strip us of our liberty. We are engaged in a Manichaean battle of Good versus Evil, of Light versus Darkness. We have no choice but to fight, and we will do so until the last breath. There is no dealing with this existential enemy. Compromise is impossible. You can never do a deal with the Devil and not lose your soul.
  • Messick then works his way below the surface. He initially draws a clear distinction between personal and political paranoia. In the first case, the forces of chaos and peril are directed against me, as an aggrieved and victimized individual; in the case of political paranoia, on the other hand, the demonic, conspiratorial powers are threatening the polity, the nation, the group - not me personally. But then there is a shift - when he asks what is it that causes so very many to be so enflamed by the current political conversation, he describes what seems to be the falling away of normal boundaries and separation between our sense of self and sense of the group, of the nation. For many of us, we have become fused with the group, the nation. There is no space between person and politics. What threatens the country existentially threatens me.
This is serious stuff. If infantile narcissism expressed in a paranoid aesthetic is the core of the Tea Party and their members of the House of Representatives, then we really are in for an epic Budget battle. I had expected it before this new insight, but my conclusion was based more on my certainty that they did not understand Obama. I am caught up short in the recognition that I did not really understand them.

There is no alternative. They must be defeated and removed from their control and veto position in the House. I think Messick is probably right. I don't know what percent of the Tea Party would fit the narcissistic paranoid descriptor - but I suspect it's enough to control the Tea Party, and from there, because of gerrymandering and the GOP primary process, the entire GOP party.

Defeating the GOP would seem to be rising to the level of categorical imperative, i.e., moral necessity.

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