The Congressional Spectator

Political Psychosis

Madness takes its toll in the Senate health-care debate.

By 12.21.09

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Even before the Senate voted on cloture, the Democrats' health-care legislation was already delivering benefits in the form of a free mental-health screening delivered by Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse: If you oppose this bill, you're a dangerous nut.

Such was the essence of Sunday's floor speech in which the junior senator from Rhode Island quoted at length from Richard Hofstadter's 1965 classic, The Paranoid Style in American Politics and offered it as a diagnosis of the health bill's opponents.

Whitehouse paraphrased Hofstadter's thesis, warning of "the dangers of an aggrieved right-wing minority with the power to create what [Hofstadter] called a political climate in which the rational pursuit of our well-being and safety would become impossible."

This "aggrieved" minority, Whitehouse asserted, was responsible for the "malignant, vindictive passions" of those who opposed the health-care bill. He compared these opponents to the Nazi brownshirts responsible for Kristallnacht in Germany -- "broken glass has sparkled in darkened streets" -- as well as to the Jacobin rabble of revolutionary France and racial lynch mobs.

"Does that sound familiar…in this health debate?" Whitehouse asked.

Certainly this should sound familiar to conservatives, as Hofstadter's psycho-political theory -- derived from the work of Theodor Adorno -- was analyzed and dismissed by William F. Buckley Jr. a half-century ago.

"If you dismiss a priori the possibility that there are rational grounds for resisting the Liberal view of things, one necessarily looks elsewhere than to reason for explanations," Buckley wrote in his 1959 classic, Up From Liberalism. Buckley observed that "one needs no advanced degrees in clinical psychology and psychoanalytic theory in order to penetrate the fallacy of The Authoritarian Personality" -- the most famous work of Adorno, a leader of what has become known as the Frankfurt School of political theory.

Adorno claimed to have proven scientifically that American conservatism was rooted in psychological maladjustment, fostering a tendency toward authoritarianism, which he asserted was the fundamental source of European fascism.

However, as Buckley explained, Adorno's argument was a tautology based on the implicit presumption that all opposition to liberalism was illegitimate and therefore irrational. Adorno's theory was "marvelously convenient" for liberals, Buckley said, and it has been recycled periodically ever since.

Hofstadter was among the most shrewd, persistent and opportunistic of Adorno's disciples, applying his Freudian couch-trip method whenever the conservative menace erupted during the Cold War. In a 1954 essay, his chosen patients were "the most zealous followers of Senator McCarthy." A decade later, on the eve of the 1964 presidential election, Hofstadter saw "angry minds at work…among extreme right-wingers…in the Goldwater movement." This demonstrated, he said, "how much political leverage can be got out of the animosities and passions of a small minority."

The fact that Goldwater got 27 million votes in 1964 could be taken as evidence that those "angry minds" were never a "small minority," and Goldwater's vote might have been larger had not Hofstadter and others so assiduously portrayed the Arizona Republican as a maniac warmonger. The subsequent disasters of Lyndon Johnson's Great Society -- the political apogee of 20th-century liberalism -- could also be viewed as vindicating the "extreme right-wingers" who voted against LBJ.

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose, and so it is that Americans opposed to the current liberal agenda were denounced in the Senate as an "aggrieved minority," even when the most recent Rasmussen poll shows that 56 percent of registered voters are against the Democrats' health care bill.

Senator Whitehouse attributed this anomalous state of affairs to Republicans who, he said, had "embarked on a desperate no-holds-barred mission of propaganda, obstruction and fear," waging a "campaign of falsehood" seeking to "terrify the public" and "whip up concerns and anxiety about socialized medicine."

To denounce fearmongering while simultaneously likening one's opponents to the murderous rabble of 1938 Germany is a neat trick, as was Senator Whitehouse's effort to blame Senate Republicans for having "ruined" Christmas by delaying passage of the health-care bill. Of course, it is Democrats who have pushed the bill toward a projected Christmas Eve roll-call vote in order to give President Obama a major legislative accomplishment to tout in his State of the Union Address next month.

Senator Whitehouse's speech elicited a lengthy but relatively mild rebuke from Arizona Republican Sen. Jon Kyl. "I wonder if my colleagues really believe that our position is animated by hatred," Kyl said, enumerating his criticisms of the health-care bill before concluding, "We believe this bill will be bad for them and it will be bad for our country. Our Democratic colleagues have a different position. Neither their position nor ours is malignant, nor should they be expressed vindictively."

Such is the state of affairs as we approach the first Christmas of the Hope and Change presidency. Democrats rush toward a vote on major legislation -- more than 2,000 pages, its cost to taxpayers estimated at more than $2 trillion -- before its contents can be read or analyzed, even while insisting that it is not they, but their opponents, who are in the grip of madness.

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About the Author

Robert Stacy McCain is co-author (with Lynn Vincent) of Donkey Cons: Sex, Crime, and Corruption in the Democratic Party (Nelson Current). He blogs at The Other McCain.