WORTH REPEATING: Why The Mad Hatter Is So Mad


NEW YORKER: One factor that the Times [Tea Party] article tiptoed around, but which undoubtedly plays some role, is racism. For some white Americans of a certain age and background, the sight of a black man in the Oval Office, even one who went to Harvard Law School and conducts himself in the manner of an aloof WASP aristocrat, is an affront. While President Obama’s approval rating has fallen in almost all groups, the biggest slippage has taken place among whites, especially middle- and working-class whites. A Gallup poll identified this trend last November, and it surely played a role in Scott Brown’s victory in Massachusetts.

Another factor, which rarely gets mentioned, but which appears obvious to people who didn’t grow up here, such as myself, is that many Americans reach adulthood with a set of values and sense of self-identity that is historically inaccurate and potentially dangerous. If you have it banged into your head from the cradle to adolescence that America is the chosen nation—a country built by a rugged and God-fearing band of Anglo-Saxon individualists armed with pikes and long guns—you are less likely to embrace other important features of the American heritage, such as the church-state divide, mass immigration, and the essential role of the federal government in the country’s economic and political development. When things are going well, and Team USA is squashing its rivals, this cognitive dissonance is kept in check. But when “the Homeland” encounters a rough patch and its manifest destiny is called into question, the underlying tensions and contradictions in the American psyche come to the fore, and people rail against the government.

Not all Americans are subject to this unfortunate mental condition, of course. Many, perhaps most, of our citizens are pragmatic, open-minded, and justifiably proud of the nation’s cultural and ethnic diversity. But at any period of time, there is a certain segment of the population—a quarter, perhaps—that provides fertile ground for what Richard Hofstadter, back in 1964, called the “paranoid style” of American politics, which trades in “heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy.” MORE

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