A history of hysteria: Right-wing paranoia in America
The best part about being an Internet writer – other than the six-figure pay – is that I can use this platform to share things I just learned, but pretend that I’ve known about these important things for quite a long time, so catch up, dummy. In that vein, here’s an example of right-wing hysteria from ancient history (the 60s) that reminded me of right-wing hysteria from Internet-ancient history (two weeks ago).
I’m currently reading Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus, a book that argues that the 1960s belonged as much to the John Birch Society as it did to the Civil Rights Movement. The author, Rick Perlstein, conveys the anti-Communist hysteria of that period in all it’s frantic urgency, when existential destruction — sometimes real, mostly imagined – lurked around every corner.
One can’t help but see parallels between then and now in how the Right responds to Democratic-proposed domestic programs. One passage struck me as particularly contemporary. On page 153, Perlstein writes:
“Communist subversion” was becoming the channel through which a hundred ordinary political grievances were now sluiced. When the Housing Act of 1961 passed Congress on June 28, increasing the funding authorized for urban renewal from $2 million to $4.5 million, and then Kennedy announced he would propose a new cabinet-level urban affairs department, the panic came in a torrent. Urban renewal meant seizure of property — from administration critics? for secret government projects? Kent Courtney published a pamphlet, Kennedy’s Power Grab: The Department of Urban Affairs, calling Kennedy’s plan ”a blueprint for the destruction of private property in the United States.” A Memphis bank sent out a copy with every customer’s monthly statement. A Los Angeles landowner threatened with seizure of his home to make way for the new Dodger Stadium at Chavez Ravine set up a “Committee for Public Morality”: “Could a foreign enemy propose more brutal treatment? How much more brazen a declaration of war do you need?” [emphasis added.]
Woah! Calling the creation of a Department of Urban Renewal a “blueprint for the destruction of private property in America?” That sounds crazy! And yet, strangely familiar! As the last year has shown us, very little from the right-wing playbook has changed.
Like I said, the GOP’s bizarre reaction to Kennedy’s urban development (he’s a Communist!) is virtually identical to their reaction to Obama’s mediocre health care bill (Death panels! Government takeover!). The most idiotic element of the Teabagger movement — other than the overt racism and xenophobia — is their insistence that Obama and the Democrats harbor some sort of secret Socialist agenda. A recent poll found that 63% of self-identified Republicans believe Obama is a Socialist. Ahhhhhhhhhh PANIC. STALIN IS COMING FROM KENYA.
Obama himself called out the GOP at their little Q & A from two weeks ago, using language that calls to mind exactly what Perlstein describes in Before. Obama said:
Frankly, how some of you went after this bill, you would think that this thing was a Bolshevik plot. That’s how you presented it. I’m thinking to myself, how is it that a plan that is pretty centrist — no, look. I’m just saying. I know you guys disagree, but if you look at the facts of this bill, most independent observers would say this is actually what many Republicans — it is similar to what many republicans proposed to Bill Clinton when he was doing his debate on health care.
It’s important to remember that whatever the Democrats propose, no matter how blatantly corporatist it is, the GOP will call it the Final Step in the Return of the USSR. That’s the way it’s been since after Eisenhower, and that’s the way it will continue to be until we have a country-wide, Reagan-like realignment to the left. Since that’s the case, why not advocate for programs to excite your base. Single-payer, anyone?