People have always wondered what makes America so paranoid. The historian Richard Hofstadter wrote about it in 1964 in a famous Harper’s essay, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” that he later expanded into a book. He took aim at all the usual suspects: Joe McCarthy going on about “a great conspiracy on a scale so immense,” turn-of-the-century Populists warning of international bankers seeking to crucify Americans on a cross of gold, antebellum Know-Nothings raving about Catholics and the Pope, and so on.
But one aspect Hofstadter didn’t address is why. Why is it that Americans are so quick to blame their problems on others instead of themselves? Rather than analyzing their society in a calm and sensible way, why do they continually go in search of mysterious foreign cabals?
The question has never been more relevant than in an age of Russia, Russia, Russia. If Joe Biden is sagging at the polls, if Bernie Sanders is surging, or if Donald Trump is seemingly headed for a second term, then it can only mean one thing: the Kremlin is at it again. As the New York Times declared in all seriousness in explaining why Sanders and Trump are benefiting at Biden’s expense, it’s because they “represent the most divergent ends of their respective parties, and both are backed by supporters known more for their passion than their policy rigor, which makes them ripe for exploitation by Russian trolls, disinformation specialists, and hackers for hire seeking to widen divisions in American society.”
Since Russia finds it easier to manipulate Americans when they gravitate to the extremes, that’s where it somehow causes them to wind up.
Or so corporate media assure us. But where does such paranoid nonsense come from and why does the press bombard us with it night and day?
Although Hofstadter traced the problem back to the mid-nineteenth century, we can trace it back even farther – all the way, in fact, to the nation’s founding. Indeed, we might argue, with only slight exaggeration, that it began with a single individual: James Madison.
Madison, of course, is the wealthy Virginia slaveowner who played a leading role in the Constitutional Convention in 1787 and was an equally important figure in the great ratification debate that followed immediately after. He wrote 29 of the 85 newspaper articles known as the Federalist Papers, which expounded the new plan of government to his fellow countrymen. And he authored the all-important Federalist No. 10, the essay that political scientists never tire of quoting, which argues that democracy must be endlessly checked and balanced against itself in order to prevent Americans from coming together in “a rage for paper money, for an abolition of debts, for an equal division of property, or for any other improper or wicked project.”
A Bernie supporter he was not. But Madison was even pithier in an October 1787 letter to Thomas Jefferson in which he summed up the meaning of checks and balances and separation of powers in a single sentence. “Divide et impera,” he wrote, “the reprobated axiom of tyranny, is under certain qualifications, the only policy, by which a republic can be administered on just principles.
These twenty-five words tell you everything you need to know about American politics, including why they’re now in such trouble. Divide et impera, Latin for “divide and conquer,” is Madison’s ironic justification for dividing government up into separate executive, legislative, and judicial functions and then pitting them against one another so as to neutralize democracy’s most dangerous tendencies.
The idea is to structure the polity in such a way that it ends up more rational and moderate than any of its components. But divide et impera leads to a paradox. If, as the Preamble to the Constitution states, “we the people” are the prime movers in the new republic, able to “ordain and establish” new constitutions and destroy old ones in the bargain like the 1783 Articles of Confederation, then what happens once they undergo the self-division and conquest that Madison describes? Are they still “we the people”? Or are they now an agglomeration of splintered sub-groups without any sense of collective democratic identity or will?
Anyone who studies American fragmentation will suspect it’s the latter. But that leads to another question. Psychologists tell us that a healthy, well-balanced adult is one whose intellect, emotions, and drives come together to form a balanced and integrated whole. Since the individual is in charge of all his faculties, he’s able to marshal his resources so as to solve problems, work creatively, and process information clearly, logically, and accurately.
But if those same faculties are fragmented and mutually at odds, the opposite occurs. Instead of marshalling his resource, the individual is paralyzed and confused. Instead of seeing the world as it is, he shies at phantoms of his own making. As a Bosnian psychologist named Vito Zepinic explained a few years ago, “the vulnerable self-structure of traumatized individuals” leads to “difficulties in self-regulation (self-esteem maintenance, lower tolerance levels, and the sense of self-discontinuity)” and “frequent upsurges of anxiety/fear, depression, and specific fears or phobias regarding the external world…”
What holds for individual patients also holds for a collective personality like the United States. Since 2000, it has suffered repeated traumas in the form of war, terrorism, military defeat, financial crisis, and stolen elections, the effect of which has been to take Madisonian self-disintegration and render it even more debilitating. “Difficulties in self-regulation” are what happens after decades of corruption and gridlock. Problems with “self-esteem maintenance” lead to an obsession with making America great again. “Lower tolerance levels” give rise to fears of alien hordes overrunning the border. “Phobias regarding the external world” are another term for mass paranoia about Russian agents lurking behind every bush and beneath every bed.
The upshot is a country that is lost, disoriented, and unable to tell where reality begins and fantasy leaves off. When the Washington Post recently reported that Russia is working behind the scenes to boost the Sanders campaign, a sensible person would have demanded to see the evidence. But not Bernie. To the contrary, he snapped to attention even though there was no evidence to be had and denounced Putin as an “autocratic thug” who should “stay out of American elections.”
Similarly, when CBS News asked Biden why he was doing so poorly, he replied that it’s because “the Russians don’t want me to be the nominee … they like Bernie.” When a reporter asked Pete Buttigieg what the Russias were looking to accomplish in the 2020 election, he explained with equal confidence: they “want chaos.”
They can’t process information concerning what Russia is really up to and therefore make up horror stories to scare themselves in the dark. Instead of exposing a petty imperialist like Jeff Bezos, the Washington Post’s owner, they allow themselves to be manipulated.
The upshot is a democracy that is too weak and fragmented to govern itself effectively. The big question is how to overcome Madisonian self-division so as to render democracy coherent and whole. But that’s a subject for another essay.