Commentary Magazine


McCarthy and Populism

To the Editor:

Richard Hofstadter cannot speak for himself, alas, but I feel that Nelson W. Polsby [“Down Memory Lane with Joe McCarthy,” February] has gotten wrong the characterization of McCarthy as a populist which Hofstadter, Seymour Martin Lipset, and I (“the Columbia group” he refers to) tried to draw in the 1950′s.

Mr. Polsby cites Michael Rogin’s view that “McCarthyism had no authentic populist roots and McCarthy no disproportionate number of populist followers” to support his “elite-Republican” argument. But this is to mistake the figure for the ground.

The questions we raised were about the rhetoric and imagery of McCarthy. Briefly put, this was a demonology which, while perhaps not drawing deliberately on the rhetoric of Ignatius F. Donnelly, Tom Watson, and other populist writers and politicians, was derived from them, as can be seen in its appeal to the “small-town” and “redneck” mentality, the fear of modernity, of cosmopolitanism, of nonconformity—and behind all that, historically, the stereotype of the Jew, of the money powers, and of liberalism.

This analysis of ours (which I have been forced to simplify for lack of space, but which is available in the volume I edited, The Radical Right) was joined to a broader historical picture of politics in American life. Against the view of Charles A. Beard (and a crude version of Marx) which saw economic divisions as the axis of conflict, we argued that there was also a cultural division on social issues. Thus we tried to utilize two axes (one of Left/Right on economic issues, the other liberal/conservative on social issues) and the salience of one or the other seesawed, so to speak, with the times. In the 1950′s, we said, as in the 1920′s (a period described by Joseph Gusfield in his Symbolic Crusade), status anxieties were more salient than economic divisions as the ground of politics. And this was the basis of Lipset’s idea of “working-class authoritarianism,” a “Left” stance on economic issues, but a “conservative” belief in social issues.

What McCarthy tried to do was to mobilize an anti-elite sentiment, and he did so in populist imagery—but instead of Wall Street, or “the Octopus,” or the Banker, or the Jew, it was the Communist. (I leave aside the question of the reality content of that or the previous charges; the question is one of the techniques he employed, the passions he sought to stir.)

The McCarthy period was relatively short in American politics—fewer than five years. McCarthy himself did not seek to organize a social movement, for he was a rogue elephant. But the way McCarthy formulated his appeal derived from something deep in the moralizing strain of the American temper, in the willingness to believe in conspiracy and that debunkers are usually more right than wrong. McCarthy was in the line of a Tom Watson or a Huey Long, though not on economic issues. His focus was on the Ivy League colleges, the Eastern establishment, the liberals, the media, etc. And that has reechoed in the natterings of Spiro Agnew, Richard Nixon, and, today, in some of the New Right.

The double prisms that we tried to draw more than thirty years ago, to redress the simplicities of the economic determinists, are less distinct today (though still somewhat relevant) since there have been new cross-cutting lines: namely, the greater salience of foreign policy, the issues of governmental bureaucracy and the like, rather than the axes of economic and cultural division alone. Yet regarding McCarthy and those times, I think the main lines of our argument still stand.

Daniel Bell
Cambridge, Massachusetts

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Nelson W. Polsby writes:

McCarthy and McCarthyism stimulated a lot of speculation—some of it very imaginative and interesting, as Daniel Bell’s helpful summary of his views illustrates. As a student, years ago, I wondered how much of what was being said on these subjects was true. My conclusion, as I have indicated, is not that the ideas contributed by Mr. Bell and his colleagues were wrong, but only that in some instances I could not tell whether or not they were wrong, and in others the evidence in their favor was “pallid and inconclusive.” Despite some efforts, especially by Seymour Martin Lipset in various of his publications, to bring added evidence to bear on these matters, in my view verification of these ideas has stood, along with the ideas themselves, roughly where they were left twenty-odd years ago.

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