How the ‘paranoid style’ of US politics is causing problems for Biden’s agenda


As American politics become increasingly polarized, many Republicans are basing their opposition to Democratic policies not on evidence, but on paranoia-fueled worries about lifestyle changes, writes Will Ranger. He comments that many conservatives adopt a “paranoid style” of politics that views international institutions’ desire for a coordinated response to global challenges, such as the World Economic Forum’s “Great Reset”, as existential threats, and that these fears are now affecting President Biden’s agenda.

Discussions of conspiracy theories are currently in vogue in American political discourse. Most notable are those that have come from the darker corners of the internet and have become mainstream among the Republican base such as Pizzagate and QAnon. Although these more “outside” ideas have been normalized for a surprisingly large number of American voters, the notion of conspiratorial thinking in American politics is not new.

Historian Richard Hofstadter described the famous ‘paranoid style‘ of American politics in the 1960s in a series of works focusing on the prevalence of anti-intellectual tendencies in American social, cultural, and political life. Other researchers have developed this idea to better understand topics ranging from Christian law and contemporary race talk. A new idea is gaining traction among the conservative base and old tropes of American political culture are being recycled to properly explain the chaotic times we live in.

Conservative media and “The Great Reset”

“The Great Reset” is the latest term for an idea that has been in the conservative imagination for several years. The argument is that a World Economic Forum (WEF) project called “The Great Reset” is an attempt to fundamentally erode American capitalism, democracy, civil liberties, culture and sovereignty in favor of a new Decision-planned economic order – made by a group of central bankers and political elites. One of the main proponents of this argument is the conservative radio host Glenn Beck and other affiliate personalities on his network The Blaze.

The conservative media has long been able to fabricate corner issues to create short-term political gain – the ‘Ground Zero’ mosque comes to mind as a memorable recent example. The paranoia of “what happens” – a phraseology often used by figures like Beck – takes root in the collective conservative mentality, and if Joe Biden and the Democrats are to win the next round of election, it is essential that they remain focused on improving the material conditions of Americans rather than fighting battles on unfamiliar mental terrain.

The name “The Great Reset” itself comes from an idea highlighted by the WEF which seeks to create a coordinated response to a number of crises facing the international order, with a particular focus on climate change and the response to COVID-19. The WEF argues that its aim is to turn the global crisis of the pandemic into an opportunity to reform the functioning of global governance and the economy, thereby ensuring that transnational issues like climate change can be mitigated before we reached a point of no return.

The premise of the Great Reset did not arise in a vacuum, and those interested in US history know that this paranoid theory whitewashes ideas long advanced. For example, Beck and others like Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh railed against sustainable development on the grounds that it was part of a The UN is trying to control the world’s population. It is increasingly clear that the Great Reset has taken hold both in the minds of the conservative base and that lawmakers on Capitol Hill are taking notice.

How paranoid style affects Biden’s agenda

Last year, Biden’s pick nomination for Comptroller of the Currency Saule Omarova was derailed after Republican senators accused her of being a secret communist. In an exchange, Sen. John Kennedy (R-LA) remarked, “I don’t mean disrespect. I don’t know if I should call you teacher or comrade”. Not only did this rhetoric echo some of the rhetoric of Great Reset alarmists, but Beck himself had railed against Omarova’s appointment since the initial announcement in October 2021.

Photo by Mario Heller to Unsplash

Omarova’s nomination was later withdrawn by the administration to assuage growing paranoia among Republican members of the Senate Banking Committee, but a similar situation has developed in opposition to the budget reconciliation bill currently stalled in the US Senate. . Beck is not alone in the conservative media to vocally oppose the reconciliation bill, but his comment encapsulates the existential fear and insecurity that many conservatives in the United States are currently experiencing. It’s unclear whether the reconciliation bill will pass the Senate and even if it fails it will likely be because of Democratic opposition, but Republicans on Capitol Hill are increasingly taking part in a discourse that portrays the Biden administration as a vehicle for an irreversible transformation of American life.

While the tropes of this discourse may not be new, the circulation of paranoid ideas in the conservative media ecosystem is beginning to impact political outcomes in Washington and in state houses across the country. This mentality deserves to be understood and contextualized, as a failure to do so could derail Biden’s entire political agenda. More troubling still, the prevalence of this mentality risks a Republican-dominated Congress legislating in 2023 in response to absent threats while neglecting the deepening fissures in American social and cultural life.

Opposition and Republican politics increasingly fueled by paranoia

What is remarkable, however, is how American right-wing scholars have increasingly noticed a trend of conspiratorial thinking taking root in the conservative movement, calcifying into something at odds with reality and influencing discourses. policies. In his book The American Right: Anti-Establishment Conservatism from Goldwater to the Tea PartyRobert Horwitz notes that many of the conspiratorial elements of the Tea Party were somewhat rooted in an aspect of mainstream conservatism in the United States.

However, Horwitz also notes that elements of the Republican base not only reflexively oppose Democratic policies, but justify their opposition with a paranoia that is fundamentally unrealistic. For example, extremists like those affiliated with the ‘sovereign citizens’ movement wield such influence that local GOP lawmakers are adopt a policy that benefits them.

Understanding the conspiratorial angst of American conservatives as articulated in this new version of the paranoid style is essential for an administration wishing to adopt an agenda that attacks people’s material conditions. Figures like Beck may sincerely believe what they say, but there is growing evidence that fears of “corporate communism,” whatever that may mean, are driving a vocal section of the American right.

While Biden may not be able to address the causes of this ideological insecurity, Republicans seem likely to electorally capitalize on these fears. Embracing the sweeping changes needed to fight climate change, heal American society, protect civil rights, and fight a host of other issues will become impossible in the face of Republican politicians catapulted to power by this darker form of the paranoid style.

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Note: This article gives the point of view of the author, and not the position of the USAPP – American Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics.

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About the Author

Will Ranger UCL Institute of the Americas
Will Ranger is a first-year doctoral student at the Institute of the Americas at UCL. He holds a BA (Hons) in Politics and Modern History and an MA (Hons) in History from the University of Manchester. His current work applies a history of mentalities approach to American history after World War II with particular emphasis on civil religion, collective memory, and nationalism in American society and culture. Twitter: @WSRanger


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