Psychologizing Politics

On the Diane Rehm Show today, Jill Lepore echoed Richard Hofstadter’s diagnosis of political violence:

I went back and — a few years ago and reread an issue of Newsweek magazine that was published a couple of months after the Kent State shootings, which is, in some ways, a similar moment to this pause and this grieving that the country is doing right now, this kind of traumatic moment in American history. And Newsweek asked six historians this question, “What ails the American spirit?” Not unlike the question you’re asking those of us here today, and your listeners as well, to contemplate.

And the most powerful answer, I thought, was offered by the historian Richard Hofstadter from Columbia. And he said he thought what was going on in this difficult moment — this was in, you know, July of 1970 — was that in an increasingly secular age, young people on both the right and the left were bringing what amounted to a religious zeal into politics. He said, this, I think, is a dangerous way of thinking because when you try to get existential values out of politics, which has to do with wholly different things, you’re heading for an increase in fanaticism. And I think that was quite a prophetic statement on Hofstadter’s point.

Hofstadter, of course, was the author of the again-famous 1964 essay, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.” While I resent his attempt to pathologize his political opponents, you can see how that essay is continuous with his warnings about the existential mood in political life. You’re not likely to treat your opponents civilly if their victory spells your existential destruction.

Contra Rawls, sometimes a modus vivendi feels like it would be an improvement.

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