Thursday, August 30, 2012

Rogin's McCarthyism

There's a lot to read about McCarthyism. When I was finishing my dissertation proposal circa 2006, I felt reasonably sure I'd read most everything out there, from old-fashioned catalogues of misdeeds like David Caute's The Great Fear to many studies on specific industries like Hollywood or academia or even the discipline of anthropology, to rigorous analyses of institutions like that of Ellen Schrecker, whose work is still the gold standard in my opinion. And there's the pro-McCarthy stuff, like M. Stanton Evan's revisionist biography of the man, or Ann Coulter's Treason. Of course, more stuff is always coming out at a rate that's hard to keep up with. In the "currently-on-my-bedside-table-waiting-to-be-finished" list there's Haynes Johnson's history that attempts to connect McCarthyism with the War on Terror, and David Everitt's very promising looking account of blacklisting in the broadcasting industry. I'm also trying to track down a copy of Richard Power's history of anticommunism, which I gather from reviews is sympathetic to the McCarthy cause.

What most of these works lack, however, is intelligent analysis of the big picture. The trend has definitely been to look at the small details, examining how blacklisting worked in particular contexts. That's fine as far as it goes, but it seems that many scholars have given up trying to explain why McCarthyism as a phenomenon happened the way it did, and when it did.

Perhaps part of the reason is that the early phase of McCarthy historiography dwelt a bit too heavily on the big picture, at the expense of reality. As early as 1954, a group of left-leaning (at the time; many would drift into neoconservatism) scholars convened a faculty seminar at Columbia to try to explain McCarthyism. Their responses were published in a book edited by Daniel Bell, The New American Right. Largely, their focus was on psychology, asking what it was about the psyche of the American people that lead to McCarthyism. In essence, they decided it was a combination of authoritarian personalities (borrowing from Adorno) and status anxiety on the part of newly-emboldened middle-class ethnics, revolting against the old WASP elite. In their telling, the old agrarian radical populist tradition was fundamentally transformed into a right-wing movement. The New American Right makes for juicy reading, and its authors went on to great prominence in political and academic worlds, but it's hard to take their analyses seriously today, especially after a critique launched at the book by the then-young scholar, the now-late Michael Rogin.

Rogin's doctoral dissertation, later published as Intellectuals and McCarthy: The Radical Spectre was a full-throated takedown of the New York intellectuals work, crucially coming from a leftist perspective. Rather than admit McCarthyism's success as a social movement, he showed (in painstaking empirical detail) that there was no continuity between previous radical populist traditions and McCarthy, nor was there genuine mass-based support. Rather, McCarthyism was pushed by the same right-wing elites who have always existed, aided both by a timid liberal press and a Republican Party savvy enough to use McCarthyism to win the 1952 election, and then dump it as soon as he encroached upon conservative elite institutions such as the Army and the Executive branch. In other words, McCarthyism was not a genuine social movement, but rather a manipulation upon the part of conservative elites to create the impression of one. The New American Right authors took McCarthyism as an excuse to reject overheated populism, and started their slide towards Humphrey-Nixonism; Rogin showed that it wasn't democracy that was the problem, but its perversion by center-right and center-left.

Rogin on McCarthyism is not as fun and sexy as his later work, but it's still quite relevant today, especially since the right wing in this country has very successfully claimed the mantle of agrarian populism: in the conservative evangelical movements of the 70s and 80s, in the red state-blue state binary of the 2000s, and in the Tea Party today. One of the depressing things about reading early Rogin, however, is how much has changed since he wrote the book in the early 1960s. As much as we talk about astro-turfing in the Tea Party today, I don't know of many who would say that right-wing populism isn't a real thing, a genuine social movement. A wrong-headed and dangerous one, but one that has a considerable amount of staying-power and traction amongst a large chunk of this country's population. I think Rogin was very right that McCarthyism did not fall into that category, but, depressingly, I do think that by the 1970s the conservative elite had their way, and a right-wing mass-based social movement was born, and, so far, here to stay.

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