When Hofstadter penned his essay in 1964, America was as prosperous and as dominant as it had ever been—morally, culturally, politically, militarily, economically—and ascendant on the world stage. New Deal liberalism had pulled the nation out of a Great Depression, through the Second World War, and into superpower status. Meanwhile, a broad consensus still prevailed that government could, and oftentimes should, throw its weight around to ameliorate social ills. Over the coming year, both the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts would be signed into law.
In 1964, most Americans knew nothing of the brewing conflict in Vietnam. Few would have argued with the notion that America had a God-given mandate to perform great, democratizing feats on the stage of history. The rage-filled subculture that Hofstadter chronicled was in many ways an utterly defensive movement, railing against the Cold War liberal, internationalist zeitgeist but not expecting to actually triumph.
In our own era, however, it is the mainstream culture that has been infected by anxiety, anger, and political paranoia. Throughout the 1990s, that anger was reflected in the rise of the militia movement, which the historian D. J. Mulloy has described as a loose conglomeration of religious conservatives, libertarians, anti-government extremists, constitutional literalists, and people hewing to a conspiratorial view of politics and history. The militias, however, never really entered the electoral arena. And their momentum was to a large extent destroyed by the apocalyptic act of the Oklahoma City bombing.
Today, that rage has led to the rise of the amorphous Tea Party movement. Unlike the militias, however, the Tea Party has the ambition and ability to profoundly impact electoral politics.
In some ways, today’s realities would be all too familiar to Hofstadter. “I call it the paranoid style,” he opined in his essay, “simply because no other word adequately evokes the qualities of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy that I have in mind. It is the use of paranoid modes of expression by more or less normal people that makes the phenomenon significant.” Yet the sheer volume of misinformation, fear, and fury in today’s body politic makes the discourse of Hofstadter’s era seem relatively bland in comparison.
Sandbrook is fascinated by the way in which the angst that bubbled up during the years of double-digit unemployment, inflation, and national malaise changed American culture—and was exploited by rising conservative leaders looking to tilt the axis of politics rightward. “From skepticism and suspicion,” he writes, “it was only a short step to paranoia.” As he recounts, more than one president was whipsawed by the era’s rollercoaster economy and ideological turmoil. In fact, a whole series of pragmatic executives bit the dust during the 1970s. Nixon was blindsided by the first oil shock and then humiliated by Watergate; Ford was brought low by a faltering economy and increasingly vocal criticism from the right of his own party; Carter was destroyed by another oil crisis, unemployment, inflation, soaring crime rates, and above all, by his miserably inept handling of the Iran hostage crisis, which led to a general perception that he was letting America’s might dissipate in the wind.
And who was the prime beneficiary of all this anger? In Sandbrook’s view, it was Ronald Reagan: an intellectual lightweight but eminently smooth-talking actor who knew which way the conservative winds were blowing. The Gipper, a divorcee who rarely went to church, loved dirty jokes, and liberalized access to abortion while he was governor of California, could regularly move his right-wing audiences to tears. He simply appealed to their patriotism, their sense of religion, and their hopes for America’s future.