A salutary form of populism can challenge the post-democratic rule of elites. But can it govern?
The college students we keep hearing about aren’t in the new book by Andrew Burt, but they sure meet the definition of American Hysteria: The Untold Story of Mass Political Extremism in the United States. Burt, a journalist and lawyer who writes for Slate, El País, and other left-of-center publications, in fact may not want to study the hypersensitivities that are spreading from campus to campus, from coast to coast—like when that Yalie confronted one of the faculty with: “It is your job to create a place of comfort and home for the students who live in Silliman. . . . It is not about creating an intellectual space! It is not!”
Burt, you see, tends to look rightward for the crazies. That’s been the liberal way for a long time, ever since Theodore Adorno wrote The Authoritarian Personality (1950), Richard Hofstadter wrote The Paranoid Style in American Politics (1964), and Seymour Martin Lipset and Earl Raab wrote The Politics of Unreason (1970). Sociological studies of that kind have shaped the attitudes of the bien pensant intellectuals for generations. What we can say of Andrew Burt is that his tone is less condescending than his predecessors’. Young Mr. Burt comes across as earnest, and as a throwback to the “vital center” liberalism of the mid- to late 20th century—say, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. or Sean Wilentz but without the erudition or writing flair. Or maybe Lipset and Raab, but without the original research. Or maybe Rick Perlstein if Perlstein had any likeable qualities.
The book’s subtitle notwithstanding, much of this story has been told before. American Hysteria tours the usual Adorno-Hofstadter-Lipset-Raab territory, with chapters on the alarums about the Illuminati after the French Revolution; the anti-Masonic movement that peaked during the presidency of that presumed Rightwing nut, John Quincy Adams; the Palmer Raids after the Russian Revolution; McCarthyism in the 1950s—with a last stop that jumps from Joseph McCarthy’s censure by the U.S. Senate to the attacks of September 11, 2001 and what the author calls “the anti-sharia movement.”
That last leap does lend the book a certain uniqueness. But it is still puzzling, for by skipping half a century of American history, Burt has skipped over the John Birch Society (the Birchers, in the 1960s, dredged up the late 18th century tales of world-domination by the Illuminati). AWOL as well are Donald Trump and the rest of the “Birthers,” who swear that President Obama was not born in the United States. Both seem like obvious candidates for inclusion. So do the book-writers, article-writers, and conference-conveners who have kept up the theorizing, ever since Lee Harvey Oswald shot President Kennedy, about whether another shooter or shooters lurked on the Grassy Knoll. (Polls show that a majority of Americans believe the assassination came about through a conspiracy.)
Nothing particularly Rightwing about the last populist movement I mentioned. Could that be why Burt steered clear of it? By the same token, if you brought up the “Birthers” you’d almost have to bring up the “Truthers”—the Leftwing critics of President Bush who say he had a hand in, or at least knew in advance about, the 9/11 attacks. As this would have meant conceding that not everyone in the Democratic Party is the soul of evidence-based rationality, forget it.
The parts of our history that do get covered in the book are occasionally confusing. Very often they end in boilerplate explanations of how America was, in [fill in time period], experiencing many changes, leading disoriented citizens to “lash out at perceived threats.” Burt presents “the theoretical underpinnings of political hysteria,” too, but his claim that his theory is distinct from the Hofstadterian approach does not hold up. Supposedly American Hysteria goes Hofstadter one better—by not attempting a “psychological diagnosis of the supporters of movements of hysteria” and instead restoring political factors to their proper place in the analysis. He writes, though, that Americans have in certain periods gone “looking for scapegoats”—whether secret societies, communists, or adherents of Islam—because of “loss of prestige” and because of “status concerns.” Those are Hofstadterian terms. Burt’s insistence that the heart of the matter is not “group psychology” but “group identity” is truly a distinction without a difference.
What American Hysteria generally fails to differentiate between is fanciful grassroots sentiment and the more well-grounded kind. The author is right that demagogues have harnessed either kind for their own uses (demagogues aren’t picky), but that’s a separate point.
With great fanfare he announces his discovery of the precise cause of Americans’ supposedly irrational worry over communist infiltration of governmental and other institutions: It was that the feds introduced a new idea in 1938. “That idea was multiculturalism,” he writes. Yes, “the connection between [Congressman Martin] Dies’s witch hunts and multiculturalism was strong.” It seems a peculiar way of putting it until one recalls the “theoretical underpinning” thing about feeling threatened in one’s identity. The more pamphlets promoting America’s melting pot that got distributed by the Roosevelt administration—this was done to combat bigotry and “redefine national identity in newly inclusive ways”—the more anticommunists felt their “group identity” to be threatened. Hence the more Reds they saw under the beds.
So threatened were the anticommunists in their group identity, according to Burt, that when the House Un-American Activities Committee was created to root out fascist sympathizers and other subversives, it was due to “the lobbying of Representative Samuel Dickstein of New York”—but this man “was not deemed ‘American’ enough by other congressmen to actually sit on the committee, as he was foreign-born.”
That’s all American Hysteria says on the subject of Samuel Dickstein (1885-1954). The source Burt cites on him is from 1968. Did he not know of the revelation, in 1999, that Dickstein was a Soviet agent? Or did he purposely hold that back from his readers? It’s enough to bring out the populist paranoiac in anybody.