The roots of American political rage

Turn on any news program or pick up any newspaper in 2022, and you’re likely to encounter a depiction of everyday Americans acting in enraged, uncontrolled ways. From physical altercations on airplanes to unruly school board meetings about critical race theory and mask mandates, Americans have seemingly lost our ability to be civil in the public sphere. Perhaps nowhere has this trend been more evident than in the nation’s capital on Jan. 6, 2021, when hordes stormed barricades to enter the U.S. Capitol building hoping to subvert the democratic process. The insurrection was a physical manifestation – broadcast in real time across social media and news channels – of the fears, feelings of dispossession and unbridled anger that have come to characterize American politics. We might be tempted to perceive this rage as something new and aberrant, a product of internet-fueled conspiracies run amok, the result of Donald Trump’s presidency. But it is neither new nor anomalous. Rather, this rage is a product of the inherent contradictions between the American political system and American political values.

For roughly 60 years, historians and political scientists have been concerned about the growing threat of conspiratorial thinking and the associated rage. No article has been more influential in this arena than Richard Hofstadter’s seminal 1964 essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” which ran in Harper’s Magazine. Defined by hostility, suspicion and the perception of threat, the paranoid style has been embedded in American political culture since at least the 18th century, according to Hofstadter. It stems from the nebulous – or pluralistic – nature of the American state and has been historically directed at anyone not perceived to be American or anyone believed to pose a threat to America. The paranoid style is therefore a mode of political thought that helps to define outsiders and insiders.

Underpinning the paranoid style is the belief that those who exhibit this hostility are the true Americans and the rightful owners of the nation. Although political paranoia has been with us from the beginning, the mid-20th century saw a significant transformation in the paranoid style on the political Right. Adherents of the Right began to see themselves as dispossessed. Its proponents were no longer defending what was actively theirs, because they no longer perceived themselves to be in power. Rather, they saw conspiracies arising not from marginalized outsiders but from insiders — the powerful, even the government.

Hofstadter astutely described the prevalence of paranoia in American politics and identified the identity of dispossession that he saw emerging on the Right in the mid-20th century. But rather than join Hofstadter in focusing on paranoia as a product of status (or its perceived loss), I suggest that American rage is a by-product of the design of the American state. To understand how we have arrived at this moment, therefore, we need to shift attention to the relationship between American political institutions (understood as the formal and informal structures that compose the American state) and American political ideologies (not just ideas, but also ways of meaning-making that guide our understanding of the world).

This brief essay necessarily leaves out many historical events, institutions and groups that have informed and transformed American politics. Instead, I describe American political development as part of our understanding of contemporary political rage. From the origin of the American state, political rage proceeds in fits and starts. This account provides key snapshots that illuminate how we have come to inhabit this political moment.

The Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution

Let us begin with the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” These are the ideals on which the American nation claimed to be founded.

But these ideals were not institutionalized in the Constitution of the United States. Rather, the Constitution enshrined inequality as the highest law of the land by institutionalizing chattel slavery and ensuring some people’s fundamental inequality and unfreedom through the creation of the Electoral College, the composition of the Senate, limited voting rights and the three-fifths compromise (in which each slave counted as only three-fifths of a person in censuses).

The United States thus began with a deep awareness of the fundamental contradiction between the values ascribed to the nation (equality, liberty, individual and inalienable rights) and the realities of how the state allocates and organizes power. The American nation, as it originally existed for White Christian men, could only be sustained through state violence against historically underrepresented, oppressed and subjugated groups. So alongside the ideology of freedom and equality there flourished a corresponding ideology of supremacism.

The ideology of supremacism

The ideology of supremacism – expressed through beliefs in the supremacy of Whiteness, maleness and Christianity – provided a rationale for maintaining unequal systems of power as well as the means to reconcile the nation-state’s founding contradictions. In other words, the paranoia-inducing status anxieties that Hofstadter described can be explained as the necessary product of the institutional organization of the state.

We can easily see how an awareness of the contradiction between the nation’s ideals and the state’s reality produces fear, even among those who (temporarily) benefit from the arrangement. On one hand, this deep-seated anxiety manifests in the form of conspiracy theories. On the other hand, this anxiety has also been expressed through state-sponsored violence and antipathy against Indigenous people, enslaved people, immigrants, Catholics and Jews, among others.

From the Civil War into the 20th century

As long as those who feel entitled to power benefit from the status quo, they can direct their political fear at targets outside the state. For the most part, conspiracy theories – along with the persecution of historically marginalized and underrepresented groups – have been ways to channel anger outside the established political system. The Civil War certainly challenged this system; but Reconstruction-era efforts to remedy the persecution of marginalized groups were short-lived, and Jim Crow segregation reestablished the status quo.

But we began to confront the supremacist political regime in the mid-20th century. From the 1930s through the 1970s, four key developments challenged the increasingly precarious triangle formed by the nation, the state and supremacist ideology: the New Deal, the Cold War, the civil rights movement and subsequent rights revolution, and the emergence of the New Right and Christian Right movements. As the supremacist regime has transformed, the political suspicion, fear and rage that were previously funneled outside the system have been turned inward.

The New Deal and the new political order

The New Deal ushered in a “new political order,” as Yale University’s Stephen Skowronek described in his 1997 book The Politics Presidents Make. In this new political order, the national political consensus has shifted to support a larger, more robust bureaucracy and to embrace a social safety net sponsored and run by the government. Although social welfare states began developing in Europe in the mid-19th century, the United States followed suit only slowly and reluctantly, under the extreme economic duress of the Great Depression.

Considerable diversity exists within and between welfare states, but in general a “welfare state” is a state that takes responsibility for its citizens’ basic needs and provides some institutional support to meet them. In response to the Great Depression, the U.S. government began to make some provision for social welfare, which necessitated growth in the bureaucratic arm of the state. While many, if not most, New Deal programs benefited only White people, the programs nonetheless began transforming the state’s relationship to marginalized and underrepresented groups. The state was increasingly in the business of helping the dispossessed, not maintaining the supremacist status quo.

The externalized threat of the Cold War

On the heels of the New Deal, the state identified an externalized and international threat in the form of first fascism and then communism. The Cold War thus provided a way to maintain supremacist ideologies.

Communism was defined by its relationship to atheism, a strong centralized state and a controlled economy. Anticommunism was defined by its embrace of Christianity, limited government and the free market. Although the state saw the communist threat as being both internal and external, it is significant that the state viewed domestic communists as un-American. So even as antigovernment sentiment began to percolate, White Christians could still perceive themselves as the rightful beneficiaries of the (limited) state — and for the most part, they continued to direct their hostility outside the political system.

The Civil Rights Movement and rights revolution

Against the backdrop of the Cold War, the civil rights movement sought more widespread and enduring challenges to the state’s unequal institutions. Two landmark pieces of legislation – the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act – fundamentally transformed the state’s relationship to Black Americans. In turn, the civil rights movement paved the way for the rights revolution more broadly as other historically marginalized and subjugated groups – including women, lesbians and gays, Indigenous and Chicanx people – fought for equal rights and representation.

All these rights movements ushered large-scale reforms into the state’s legal, electoral, social and economic systems. These reforms, in turn, transformed the perceived threat to the supremacist regime. That is, threats to White, Christian, male supremacism no longer appeared to come from outsiders; rather, they seemingly emerged from inside the state.

The New Right and Christian Right response

As the civil rights movement gained momentum in the early 1960s, conservatives made a concerted effort to revitalize the Right and redefine conservatism. William F. Buckley Jr. and Frank Meyer, along with colleagues at the National Review, promoted a new brand of conservativism termed “fusionism.” By fusing ideologies of free-market capitalism, limited government and social traditionalism, fusionism offered an alternative to the New Deal. This effort initially mobilized a grassroots Right-wing movement that led to Barry Goldwater’s nomination as the 1964 Republican Party presidential candidate. Goldwater’s overwhelming loss dealt a blow to the Right, but not for very long.

Richard Nixon won the 1968 presidential election by mobilizing White Americans’ fears of racial dispossession and promoting a return to “law and order” — the thinly veiled status quo of rule by the “silent majority” and the supremacist regime. Nixon’s propensity for corruption created an opening for a more “pure,” more radical conservative movement termed the New Right. Throughout the mid-1970s, the New Right promoted single-issue politics, such as gun rights and parental rights, to mobilize a grassroots Right-wing base. Toward the end of the decade, recognizing the potential of the evangelical base, the New Right helped incubate the Christian Right. The two movements cohered around a socially conservative “pro-family” political platform.

We can understand the 1970s emergence of a new wave of Right-wing movements as a backlash against the gains made by underrepresented and subjugated groups. But fear of the state’s capacity to institutionalize oppression has characterized American politics from the beginning, and the fundamental aim of the Right – namely, maintaining supremacism – has not changed. Rather, this period featured two new perceptions: first, that the true victims are the perpetrators of inequality, and second, that the real threat to America and Americanness comes from the state.

Crucially, the institutions associated with the state’s historic maintenance of inequality – like the Electoral College and the composition of the Senate – were not altered by the civil rights movement or the rights revolution. For those who used the state to uphold the supremacist regime, the tables had changed — but the game had not. Being aware that the institutional game is rigged helps spur a new identity of dispossession on the American Right, or what we might term an “ideology of victimhood.”

The New Right/Christian Right coalition promoted an ideology of victimhood premised on the belief that ownership of the nation and of the state had been stolen from its rightful possessors. The two groups worked successfully to cast the transformation of the original nation/state contradiction (and their perceived resulting loss of power and privilege) as an illegitimate assault by outsiders-turned-insiders. In this way, the New Right/Christian Right reframed domination as self-defense.

Enter the culture wars

We have come to accept this framing as culture-war politics. The influential sociologist James David Hunter, in his book Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America, described the culture wars as a battle to define what it means to be American. But this definition obscures a fundamental conflict over institutional control, which is to say, over sovereignty and the right to rule over one another.

In 1932, the Nazi jurist Carl Schmitt had proposed that the political boils down to the ability to define and distinguish between friends and enemies. Politics is understood to reflect antagonism, and it is characterized by the desire to destroy the other. Culture-war politics is merely the friend/enemy distinction by more palatable name. Accepting an existential politics of enmity requires a corresponding rejection of individual rights and pluralist values. It has no place in a liberal democratic state.

The ongoing desire to destroy the outsider

The desire to destroy the other, the outsider, continues to characterize much of American politics. For most of America’s history, the fundamental contradiction between the nation’s ideology and the state’s institutions has been reconciled through maintaining a supremacist regime that affords freedom, equality and individual rights to those within the system — and channels political anxiety, fear and rage toward those regarded as outsiders. The Right’s ideology of victimhood has merely encouraged and justified the outward expression of an age-old rage.

But as the targets of that rage have been brought inside the political system, the rage that has historically been directed at unequal political institutions is no longer on the margins. Our failure to meaningfully remake political institutions has promoted and maintained systems of oppression. Without our reckoning with structural inequalities and large-scale institutional transformation, political rage will continue to rule the day.