In his 1964 essay The Paranoid Style in American Politics, Richard Hofstadter describes the phenomenon of McCarthyism as an example of what he terms the paranoid style and finds it far from being a novel phenomenon but rather a recurrent theme in the history of the United States. He quotes Senator McCarthy from 1951 as follows:
How can we account for our present situation unless we believe that men high in this government are concerting to deliver us to disaster? This must be the product of a great conspiracy on a scale so immense as to dwarf any previous such venture in the history of man. A conspiracy of infamy so black that, when it is finally exposed, its principals shall be forever deserving of the maledictions of all honest men.
McCarthy was famed for having on this basis engaged in an anti-communist witch-hunt with more interest in finding “reds under the beds,” denouncing them and hounding them from office than in finding evidence to support his allegations.
Hofstadter develops his argument by citing instances from the previous century of writers inveighing against conspiracies perpetrated by an international gold ring and by the Catholic Church. The pattern in common is that behaviour alleged to have been engaged in by a disparaged minority is deemed to be evidence of something much bigger, more sinister and more threatening. Other minorities he sees as having been typecast as conspiratorial in this way in the preceding 200 years include Masons, slaveholders, Mormons, Jesuits, international bankers and munitions makers.
The point he seeks to bring out, and which I look to amplify on here, is that the phenomenon commonly referred to as “McCarthyism” is not, as is sometimes assumed, the unique province of the political or religious right, but a manifestation of a widely shared human psychological trait, what Hofstadter terms the paranoid style and which remains all too evident in the present day. He emphasises that the conduct of a witch-hunt does not require appeal to supernatural forces; nor does it preclude extensive backing from scholarly opinion, but is rather bolstered by the same:
The higher paranoid scholarship is nothing if not coherent—in fact the paranoid mind is far more coherent than the real world. It is nothing if not scholarly in technique. McCarthy’s 96-page pamphlet, McCarthyism, contains no less than 313 footnote references, and Mr. Welch’s incredible assault on Eisenhower, The Politician, has one hundred pages of bibliography and notes. The entire right-wing movement of our time is a parade of experts, study groups, monographs, footnotes, and bibliographies.
Hofstadter concludes that
certain religious traditions, certain social structures and national inheritances, certain historical catastrophes or frustrations may be conducive to the release of such psychic energies, and to situations in which they can more readily be built into mass movements or political parties. In American experience ethnic and religious conflict have plainly been a major focus for militant and suspicious minds of this sort, but class conflicts also can mobilize such energies. Perhaps the central situation conducive to the diffusion of the paranoid tendency is a confrontation of opposed interests which are (or are felt to be) totally irreconcilable, and thus by nature not susceptible to the normal political processes of bargain and compromise.
It might be opined that “a confrontation of opposed interests which are (or are felt to be) totally irreconcilable” is a not unfair representation of the state of affairs currently being experienced as the “culture wars.” We might therefore ask ourselves whether we see McCarthy-style scapegoating going on, as Hofstadter would lead us to expect? We can start here by giving consideration to what labelling is being done in the present day to justify social marginalising and stigmatising, in lieu of the reds under the beds epithet. We certainly see, under the banner of social justice activism, a plethora of such epithets imputing infection by one or other “ism” or “phobia” commonly deployed. So for example we have critical race theory, the main tenet of which is that developed societies in which black and coloured people form a minority are systemically biased against them. Anyone who seeks to deny this suggestion or resist any policies which are proposed as a corrective is on this basis de facto racist and should be exposed as such and marginalised to prevent further infection and harm. Similarly anyone who is against the “progressive” left is dubbed “far right” or fascist. Anyone with objections to complaints from feminists is deemed misogynist or sexist. Any concerns expressed about Islamist terrorism invite an allegation of Islamophobia, and so on.
Notice here that while social justice activists and theorists are long on evidence that political power is being exercised to the disadvantage of disadvantaged minorities (something of a tautology), claiming that the extent of this evidence suggests the problem is institutionally embedded and self-reinforcing, they are often notably short on contemporary examples of overt discriminatory behaviour, relying on statistics to infer what is going on implicitly.
Not only that, it is clear that the labels are used in a way which makes it difficult to resist imputation either to yourself or to anyone to whom you feel they have been unjustly applied. That is because part of the infection is deemed to be an inability or unwillingness on the part of the person resisting to see the fact they enjoy privilege in relation to the person alleged to have been maligned or offended. The only way to avoid condemnation is to become part of the process and offer some sign acknowledging the veracity of one’s accusers’ claims and the justice of their cause. This can take the form of an admission of guilt either on their own part or on the part of those they sought to defend (or both). For example the practice of “taking a knee” serves exactly this purpose, with the result we have the spectacle of supplicant police entreating forgiveness from the mob they have been sent to control.
In this way the process of labelling takes on the character of a witch-hunt, as explored by Arthur Miller in his 1952 play “The Crucible,” written ostensibly as a dramatization of events surrounding the Salem witch trials, but intended to serve as an allegory of the the McCarthyist purges which were occurring at that time. As the playwright observes discerningly:
The Salem tragedy…developed from a paradox. It is a paradox in whose grip we still live, and there is no prospect yet that we will discover its resolution… the balance has yet to be struck between order and freedom.The Crucible, by Arthur Miller. Penguin Books (1952). Historical notes preceding Act One.
What is of note in the play is that the young woman Abigail who initiates the witchcraft undergoes a transformation between the first and second acts from being the accused to become the main witness for the prosecution. Her redemption is achieved not by continuing in her initial defence of the dances and incantations she performed having been just a game, but by making the practice of witchcraft into a serious matter which can only be resisted by people’s acknowledging that it constitutes a clear and present danger. So it is those who (rightly) insist that she is exaggerating for effect who stand accused of not resisting witchcraft with sufficient zeal and end up being convicted by the court.
The parallel here with the present day is striking insofar as the allegations we increasingly hear of are not about actions or acts of violence which constitute racism, homophobia, sexism, etc., but about comments indicating that the commentator is not taking the activist agenda seriously enough and fails to acknowledge the social harm that is done thereby. The charge is made of sins not of commission but of “adjacency,” viz. not distancing oneself sufficiently from those accused. Indeed increasingly one can be impugned and hounded out of office for inaction, with epithets used like “silence is violence” and the suggestion that insisting you are not racist only illustrates your lack of awareness of the institutional racism you partake of, a state from which you can only be redeemed by becoming actively “anti-racist” and engaging in such practices as “unconscious bias training,” “taking the knee,” “educating yourself” and “considering your privilege.”
In this respect the situation is very similar to the events portrayed in The Crucible where it transpires in the final act that John Proctor who has evidence that the “witch” Abigail is not a reliable witness is ultimately forced in court to retract his claims to save his life but ultimately baulks at signing a formal denial which can be publicised in the village, so compounding the mischief, and is hanged not as a practitioner of witchcraft but as a denier of the seriousness of the alleged practice thereof.
One has to conclude on reading the play that when social activism takes on the character of a witch-hunt it is likely to end badly. Indeed McCarthy is remembered across the political spectrum not for any good he intended but for the injustices he perpetrated in his zeal to defend the public from harm at the expense of respect for evidence and truth. Where will the witch-hunt being promulgated by today’s progressive left end up?
As it turned out, Joe McCarthy was ultimately brought down by his own Republican colleagues, an effort begun with the courageous “Declaration of Conscience” by Senator Margaret Chase Smith. The words of the Senate’s sole woman member reverberate today with startling prescience and poignancy:
The American people are sick and tired of being afraid to speak their minds lest they be politically smeared as Communists or fascists by their opponents. Freedom of speech is not what it used to be in America. It has been so abused by some that it is not exercised by others. The American people are sick and tired of seeing innocent people smeared and the guilty whitewashed.https://www.encyclopedia.com/politics/legal-and-political-magazines/declaration-conscience
We have been here before. But who will be the Margaret Chase Smith of the present generation?