- Rural? Radical?
An accident of alliteration has contributed considerably to our misunderstanding of the American political spectrum. Four decades ago consensus historians and pluralist social theorists in search of a term to fit nationalist movements less urbane and more militant than the conservatism typified by Herbert Hoover and Robert Taft settled on the label “radical right.” “Raucous right” might have sounded just as melodious but, during the peak of the Cold War, “radical” had the advantage of suggesting a parallel between twin “extremist” threats assaulting the vital center—Communists from the left flank and sundry McCarthyites, John Birchers, and nativists from the right.
In The New American Right (1955), and in the enlarged edition of that book called The Radical Right (1963), pluralists Daniel Bell, Nathan Glazer, Seymour Martin Lipset, and Richard Hofstadter offered a theory of political behavior as well as a lyrical label. Extremists, especially those on the radical right, were said to differ from sensible centrists in two main ways. First, instead of practicing practical interest politics, in which deals were made and goods or services apportioned, they indulged in mere “status politics” or “cultural politics,” thereby venting their feelings about such extraneous matters as personal identity or religious faith. Indeed, for the pluralists, wheeling-and-dealing to advance piecemeal reform was the only legitimate brand of politics. Second, the radical right’s expressions often took the form of ungrounded conspiracy theories, a way of thinking Hofstadter called the “paranoid style.” 1
Although scholarly interest in the far right derived initially from concern about the contemporary successes of Senators Joseph McCarthy and Barry [End Page 659] Goldwater, the pluralists quickly compiled a long list of precursor paranoids: status anxious Federalists obsessed with an international conspiracy of Illuminati, anti-Catholic Know-Nothings, leaders of the People’s party and the Robert LaFollette wing of the Progressive movement, Huey Long, pre-World War II “isolationists,” and the leading anti-Semites of the 1930s and 1940s, Father Charles Coughlin, Gerald L. K. Smith, William Dudley Pelley, and Gerald Winrod. Late-nineteenth-century agrarian rebels, typically dubbed “populists” whether or not they supported the Populist party, played the starring roles in the pluralist chronicles of extremism. Populists were assumed to be the chief source of the twentieth-century far right in general and anti-Semitic conspiracy theories in particular. 2
The foremost pluralist theorists of extremism deserve credit for stirring debate about sordid aspects of our history that many post-World War II American celebrationists preferred to ignore. Nor were they wrong in seeing some connection between nineteenth-century agrarian protest and twentieth-century bigotry (as C. Vann Woodward had shown almost a generation earlier in Tom Watson: Agrarian Rebel, 1938). Unfortunately, the pluralists were so determined to squeeze dissident social movements into their extremism model that they homogenized U.S. history even beyond the accepted standards of social science simplification. In their most flamboyant accounts, such as Seymour Martin Lipset and Earl Raab’s The Politics of Unreason, these cosmopolitan intellectuals used rural, small town, provincial, moralistic, evangelical, and fundamentalist as virtual synonyms. Thus, thirty-five years ago, anyone trying to understand the Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s would have been well advised to pass over the latest social theory and read the best accounts written at the end of the 1920s. 3
Although the pluralist model of extremism remained the academic orthodoxy well into the 1980s, skeptics questioned its theoretical and empirical adequacy from the outset. Several writers, including Michael Rogin, Geoffrey S. Smith, and I (interests must be confessed) doubted that far right activists differed qualitatively from mainstream political actors in their ideas, modes of operation, or psychological makeup—especially during the country’s frequent countersubversive scares. 4 Other scholars showed that Populists, Klan members, isolationists, McCarthyites, and Goldwaterites were not the stick...