“The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed — and hence clamorous to be led to safety — by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.” — H.L. Mencken
Paranoia is how a mind filled with fear, anger and ignorance expresses itself, and America has always had a healthy dose of it infusing our politics.
The earliest European settlers saw Native Americans as direct agents of the devil. Single and older women were suspected of witchcraft. John Adams was accused of being a secret monarchist. George Washington was a soon-to-be dictator, and the mysterious Masons ruled the world.
We crafted a Constitution that is as much an expression of our fears as our hopes. Distrusting elites and people from other parts of the country who might gain power over us, the framers created a document that gives inordinate power to the states and starkly limits the powers of the federal government.
The much-cited Second Amendment, which we are still debating, was originally intended to ensure that states could fight back against the federal government that the Constitution created.
In the 20th century, Depression-era instability caused Americans to alternately fear a takeover by the socialist left and the fascist right, all the while ignoring the real danger of both rising across the Atlantic. There, we witnessed exactly what happens when paranoid extremists come to power, as both the German Nazis and the Russian Bolsheviks slaughtered millions of “enemies.”
By mid-century, Joe McCarthy was inflaming America’s fears of communists infiltrating every institution. Richard Nixon’s “law and order” election in 1968 exploited virtually every imaginable American fear, from black militants to educated Eastern elites and hippies dancing in the streets.
Nixon’s paranoia ultimately caused his downfall, but not before he set in motion the Republican Party’s blueprint for power, his “Southern strategy.” It successfully made the segregationist South and all of its fears of blacks and others the bedrock of the modern Republican Party.
Ronald Reagan later added fuel to the bonfire with tirades about trade unions and welfare queens picking American pockets.
The national Republican Party is now paying the full price of that demagoguery, of course, as the primarily white America of the ’60s and ’70s gives way to the more diverse and tolerant country of the 21st century.
Today we’re awash in conspiracies. The moon landing was a fake. Climate change is a left-wing plot. Liberals are trying to take everyone’s guns. Obama is a Kenyan. The U.N. and its one-world government control your planning board.
While the far left has its share of crackpots, the right today has almost all the trophies. By making their ideas the core of the national Republican agenda, they’ve both deeply divided the party and made it increasingly difficult for Republicans to win national elections.
The right has succeeded in building a massive and lucrative news/entertainment industry that includes Rush Limbaugh, Fox News and barely untethered helium balloons like Glenn Beck, who rake in millions stoking fears and inventing conspiracies.
If you want to see Mencken’s notion at work, you need go no further than Michele Bachmann (Muslim takeovers), Sarah Palin (take back our country), the National Rifle Association (the government wants to take your guns) or Limbaugh (everyone is out to get you).
Virtually every town has people who are repeating these things. We all know who they are. They’re invariably angry, conspiratorial, victimized and loud. They use up lots of oxygen, see bogeymen everywhere and have little awareness of the difference between opinions and facts.
While they’re relatively harmless — unless they get power — they still manage to create division and wreckage around them.
They love nothing more than dominating public meetings and online forums, hurling loud accusations and malicious insults, and by doing so have become experts in the art of bullying and intimidation.
And they’re miraculously always both right and blameless. As the education philosopher Robert Hutchins once said, “You know you’ve got (paranoia) when you can’t think of anything that’s your fault.”
If there is a danger that these folks represent, it’s this one: They can drive talented, thoughtful and caring people out of politics altogether. But ceding the town square to paranoid politics is exactly the wrong response. It gives in to intimidation and chest-thumping and allows democracy to become a contest over volume and absurdities.
All at a time when what we most need is a more civil discourse, reliable facts and the ability of everyone, including the meek, the good-hearted and the truly powerless, to be heard.
Alan Caron is a principal of the Caron & Egan Consulting Group. He also serves as the president of Envision Maine, a nonpartisan organization that promotes Maine’s next economy. He can be reached at: