The Corner

‘The Unconscious of a Conservative’

In the liberal imagination, the conservative plays many parts, all of them villainous, the most flamboyant being that of the crank who combines political activism with mental instability: a dangerous combination. Earlier this week Ian Tuttle documented a few random but typical reports from those who have recently sighted this menacing character. I especially liked Ian’s excerpt from a column by Charles Blow, who sees “the fear that makes the face flush when people stare into a future in which traditional power — their power — is eroded.”

Blow means status anxiety. The idea is that conservatives are either downwardly mobile or fearful of becoming so. Conservatism is reduced to the image of people blustering and raging as they tumble down the social ladder, either in fact or in their fevered delusions. The term “status anxiety” has fallen out of fashion, but obviously the concept has not. As an explanation for conservatism and for anti-Communism particularly, it came into vogue in the mid 20th century, popularized by the sociologists Daniel Bell and Seymour Martin Lipset but especially by the Columbia historian Richard Hofstadter, who in the run-up to the 1964 presidential election published “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” (Harper’s, November 1964), the classic essay on conservatism as mental illness.

Hofstadter began with a reference to the “angry minds at work mainly among extreme right-wingers, who have now demonstrated in the Goldwater movement how much political leverage can be got out of the animosities and passions of a small minority.” This was less a news hook for a groundbreaking psychoanalysis of American history than the psychoanalysis of American history was a context in which Hofstadter could situate Barry Goldwater and his supporters.

Meanwhile, “The Unconscious of a Conservative: A Special Issue on the Mind of Barry Goldwater” appeared as the October–November issue of the newly founded (and short-lived, as it would turn out) Fact magazine. “1,189 psychiatrists say Goldwater is psychologically unfit to be president!” the cover read. (The American Psychiatric Association later established the “Goldwater rule”: “It is unethical for a psychiatrist to offer [to media] a professional opinion [of a public figure’s mental health] unless he or she has conducted an examination and has been granted proper authorization for such a statement.”)

Dr. Strangelove had hit the movie theaters earlier that year, portraying for a mass audience the notion that anti-Communism, personified by General Jack D. Ripper, was “mad as a March hare” and allied, to boot, with latent Nazism, personified by Dr. Strangelove, himself a bundle of repressed sexual urges, whose fulfillment depended on nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union. It was a broad anti-anti-Communist statement on the Cold War, but in its timing it ended up maligning Goldwater specifically. He was a hawk on the Cold War and took the position that, to win it, the United States should use nuclear weapons if necessary.

Then came the “Daisy” ad, which aired on September 7 on NBC. A girl counting out loud as she picked petals off a flower segued into the voiceover of a countdown to, as we learn a moment later, the launch of a nuclear missile. A mushroom cloud filled the screen. In another voiceover, President Johnson recited a brief pro-peace statement (that included a line borrowed from W. H. Auden — nice touch), followed by yet a third voiceover, intoning that “the stakes are too high for you to stay home” on Election Day. The process of typecasting Goldwater as unhinged was already underway in both popular and highbrow media. It’s what provided the subtext for the ad as in sixty seconds it completed the sentence that began “Goldwater, an extreme anti-Communist and sort of a nut job, would . . . ”

As if in penance for Hofstadter’s sins, another Columbia historian, Alan Brinkley, began in the 1990s to think about 20th-century American conservatism on its own terms, noting that it ”has been something of an orphan in historical scholarship.” His treatment of it here is mostly fair. (By the way, Brinkley shares Ian’s view that Lionel Trilling in his preface to The Liberal Imagination dismissed the conservatism of his day, in 1950, as intellectually bankrupt, but Trilling wasn’t gloating. He was lamenting that the lack of a significant conservative counterweight to the liberal pieties then reigning was an intellectual poverty that afflicted the whole culture; Adam Bellow earlier this year I thought made a similar argument about the underrepresentation of conservative ideas in the American culture of our own day.)

John J. Miller in 2002 surveyed the landscape of academic research on the history of American conservatism up to then. He neatly summarized what a drag the clichés about conservatism as mental illness have been on the effort to develop a fair-minded understanding — neither hagiographic nor demonizing — of the American Right.


The Latest