“If something is not done shortly, this country is going the way of…Italy, Germany…or Russia, and it is high time we did something,” exclaimed Irénée du Pont, one of the more prominent conservatives of the 1930s. Many of his fellow Americans agreed there was good cause to be alarmed: a new Democratic president was proposing an unprecedented expansion of federal power that would increase taxes on the well-off and dole out benefits to the jobless and other unfortunates. Several spokesmen on the right made more ominous vows: “So help me God, I will be instrumental in taking a Communist from the chair once occupied by Washington,” declared Father Charles Coughlin, who commanded one of the largest radio audiences in the nation.
There is nothing particularly novel about today’s protesters, including one failed vice presidential candidate and the chairman of the Republican Party, who have been screaming that Barack Obama is a closet socialist–or fascist–whose plans for reforming the healthcare system will destroy their freedoms and perhaps kill off their loved ones. They are just the latest representatives of a long national tradition: fear of a strong central government that periodically leads some Americans to make extraordinary leaps of logic and challenge the power of the alleged leviathan.
This tradition is, in fact, as old as the nation itself. During the 1760s colonists along the Eastern Seaboard were convinced that King George III and his ministers meant to abolish their liberties and yoke their economy to the venal desires of the imperial court in London. They made a revolution to thwart this wicked plot, one that historians now agree never existed. Even after the Constitution was ratified, Americans were more comfortable when state and local governments levied taxes and enforced moralistic laws like Prohibition than when the feds tried to do the same thing.
Meanwhile, the drumbeat of conspiracy thinking went on. In 1860 most white Southerners were certain that Abraham Lincoln, newly elected president, was, like John Brown, encouraging slaves to murder their masters. This fear helped make secession–and civil war–inevitable. Almost a century later, Senator Joseph McCarthy, then near the height of his popularity, charged that George Marshall, a decorated general and former secretary of state, was enmeshed in “a conspiracy on a scale so immense as to dwarf any previous such venture in the history of man.”
Some figures on the left have made outsize accusations of their own. In the 1990s Maxine Waters, the liberal Congresswoman from California, charged the CIA with flooding the streets of South Central Los Angeles with crack cocaine. And Oliver Stone’s cinematic exposé of a fanciful civilian-military plot to assassinate JFK did quite splendidly at the box office.
But the habit has always been more common on the right, and with good reason. Most liberals and radicals want the federal government, the only national institution chosen by the people at large, to satisfy social needs that business will not meet and private charities lack the resources to fulfill. Although socialism has never been a very popular faith in the United States, the American left’s call for a stronger, more caring government does echo its more class-conscious counterparts in other industrial and postindustrial nations.
And conservative movements that stoke panic about the designs of big government have often won the day. In the 1870s Democrats who attacked Radical Republicans for imposing “Negro rule” on the South did much to sap Northern white support for Reconstruction; the result was a brutal segregationist order that endured for almost a century. The same fear that white Americans are losing control to blacks and recent immigrants has animated other wild attacks on federal power over the years, one reason it took so long for Congress to pass strong civil rights and voting rights bills. Redbaiting has done effective service as well. In the late 1940s the American Medical Association helped defeat Harry Truman’s plan for national health insurance by publishing an erroneous quote by Lenin declaring that “socialized medicine is the keystone to the arch of the Socialist State.” If all this be paranoia, the right has certainly made the most of it.