The New McCarthyism?
Sixty years ago an angry, ambitious, argumentative Wisconsin politician burst on to the national scene in the United States. He was a plain-speaking, hard working, “two-fisted” figure who drew accolades for his willingness to brawl with established, elite, and entrenched bastions of power. He was the small town David from rural Wisconsin who traveled to Washington to fight the big town Roosevelts, Achesons, and Kennedys. He was the hero of “Middle Americans” who elected him to office convinced that they had lost control of their lives, and that Joseph McCarthy would defend their basic interests.
Joseph McCarthy was not a unique figure. He represented a broader postwar movement that echoed previous periods of political and economic uncertainty in American history. The Upper Middle Western states – with their mix of agriculture and industry, small towns and medium size cities – are a repository for a deep American skepticism toward urban elites, educated experts, and cosmopolitan internationalists. There are, of course, many powerful interests that embody these qualities in the region, but they are always tempered by a stronger populism, localism, and isolationism than in any other part of the United States.
Time and again, these Midwestern tendencies encouraged citizens in Michigan, Indiana, Ohio, and Wisconsin to oppose American military adventures in the Philippines, Vietnam, Iraq, and other places. Time and again, Midwestern priorities encouraged attention to small town needs: high tariffs on agricultural and industrial goods that competitors sold at lower costs abroad, rural electrification, road construction, and restrictions on immigrants who would under-price local workers. The Upper Midwest of the United States has consistently slowed (and sometimes resisted) the dominant trends toward global expansion and free market capitalism in American history.
Joseph McCarthy played to all of these Midwestern assumptions during a period, after the Second World War, when many small-town citizens believed they had lost control of their lives to a global set of forces they could not understand. Communist regimes appeared to be on the march in Europe and Asia, threatening the security of patriotic Americans. Federal policies that emphasized centralized management of the economy, income redistribution, and targeted investments in urban (and suburban) areas threatened assumptions about economic freedom on Main Street. Washington D.C. asked small town businesses and families to pay higher taxes, negotiate more stringent regulations, and cede power to more distant figures.
This was the modern American New Deal state. “Joe” McCarthy, the brawling poker player known in many a local tavern, tapped into popular uncertainty and frustration throughout his home state of Wisconsin, the Midwest, and many other parts of the country. McCarthyism was a rebellion against a modern, globalizing America.
McCarthy had three tactics that he deployed with remarkable consistency. First, he refused to follow established “rules” in his home community, in the Senate, and in national politics. The norms of decorum and fair play, he argued, only served the empowered elites. The small town street fighter had to punch hard, cheat when necessary, and take no prisoners. Unlike any other Senator of his day, McCarthy began and ended his career by attacking his colleagues (even in his own party), brow beating witnesses, and lying consistently to get his way. He intimidated, he blustered, and he always attacked. Politics was war for McCarthy. It was about destroying enemies, not building compromise or consensus.
Second, McCarthy exploited the modern media. He had an instinctive understanding for the power of simple and sensationalist headlines. He recognized that strong accusations, even if untrue, would stick if they were stated authoritatively, consistently, and ahead of efforts at correction. McCarthy did not seek to explain complexity, he aimed to simplify for the sake of broad appeal. He turned political advertisements into character assassinations, congressional hearings into show trials, and political speeches into personal harangues. He replaced Roosevelt’s “fire side chats” with the fireworks of an ordinary “Joe” unmasking the greedy outlaws in our midst.
The outlaws, of course, were not the real beneficiaries of American political and economic transformation after the Second World War. Wealthy businessmen and prominent media moguls in the Midwest were McCarthy’s earliest supporters. The outlaws, for McCarthy, were the national and international organizations that small town Americans distrusted most of all: the unions, the university professors, and, of course, the communists. This was McCarthy’s third and most important tactical insight: small town citizens admired “self-made” rich men, but they distrusted groups of workers and thinkers who defined themselves by their profession, not their local community. They resented those who looked beyond kitchen table and bar-room politics for authority, status, and income.
McCarthy’s communist witch hunts combined his three political tactics: he flagrantly broke all the rules of civility (and due process), he made a media show of his efforts, and he attacked the most vulnerable figures who had the weakest connections to small town politics: Jews, Hollywood celebrities, intellectuals, and government civil servants. As many historians have observed, McCarthy’s appeal came from his effectiveness in voicing popular frustrations and targeting distrusted groups as scapegoats. Guilt by association was a form of public catharsis for frustrated men and women across the country.
Today, the Tea Party has revitalized McCarthy’s playbook. Based largely in small towns and rural areas of the United States, Tea Party supporters have broken most assumptions of civil discourse, attacking their opponents, often denying that their opponents are even “American.” They have exploited the modern media with simple catchy phrases, distorted images, and intentional distortions of the truth. Most of all, they have targeted vulnerable groups with weak local ties, groups that resemble those attacked by McCarthy: unions, mainstream celebrities, intellectuals, and civil servants. Sometimes they even lapse into their accusations against Jews and communists – such as when they attack Chicago mayor-elect Rahm Emanuel as un-American and condemn health care reform as socialism. The rhetorical extremism of the Tea Party is McCarthyite in tone and substance.
In Wisconsin, Governor Scott Walker has gone farther than any other elected politician since Joseph McCarthy in applying this agenda. (It is not a coincidence that he and McCarthy come from similar Wisconsin circumstances.) Walker has spoken explicitly of “dropping the bomb” on established political figures around the state, transforming government rapidly to reflect the needs of allegedly over-taxed small town business owners. He has played to the national media, with frequent invocations that the “state is broke” and that he is standing up to the “vested interests.” Most distressing, Walker has targeted public employees (teachers, hospital workers, firefighters, police officers, and others) with a venom that makes these modestly paid figures sound like corrupt fat cats milking the poor small town citizens of the state. The governor has used every opportunity, even when budget issues were not on the line, to crush the power and voice of organized workers.
He has done this because he can. He has done this because the public workers are an easy target for people around the state who feel someone must shoulder the blame for their recent economic difficulties. Wealthy figures support Walker, ironically, because his agenda reduces their tax burden and the scrutiny for their misdeeds that might share some blame for the recent recession.
Popular demonstrations and political resistance to the Tea Party and Governor Walker are on the rise. Recall efforts against Republican legislators (and eventually Governor Walker) in Wisconsin are likely to succeed. Like McCarthy, Walker has over-reached, turning many of his supporters against him as they see the hateful consequences of his actions. Midwestern voters are frustrated and scared, but they are not mean-spirited.
If the history of McCarthyism teaches us anything, we should expect more attacks from Walker and the Tea Party in coming months. They will raise their venom. Walker and his supporters have already begun to accuse their opponents of being “outsiders” (from out of state, from the wrong backgrounds, from the wrong religions) with no right to voice their dissent. Walker and his supporters have pushed more legal boundaries, holding votes without public notice and denying transparency for their actions. Walker has even mused about deploying force or instigators among peaceful crowds. Like McCarthy, Walker and the Tea Party have traveled so far down the path of hatred that they cannot turn back. They will get nastier, and more uncontrolled, before they are stopped.
McCarthy’s career crashed when the leaders of the U.S. Army and the Republican Party refused to tolerate him anymore. The opposition of his own party and the most respected institution in the country made it impossible for him to continue. The same will be true for Walker and the Tea Party. Despite the growing crowds of opponents, they will continue until contemporary Republicans, business leaders, and other respected right-of-center groups renounce them.
Walker’s hateful politics undermine stability, security, and business. This should be evident to everyone observing events in Wisconsin. Sane supporters will eventually recognize this and turn away in disgust, but a lot of damage will already be done. We must hope that this process of McCarthyite self-destruction happens faster in the second decade of the twenty-first century than it did in the 1950s. Otherwise, we should brace ourselves for more witch hunts, more deception, and probably more law-breaking. Joseph McCarthy reminds us how nasty American politics can become, especially in a state like Wisconsin.
Three books everyone should read on McCarthyism: David M. Oshinsky, _A Conspiracy So Immense_; Richard Fried, _Nightmare in Red_; Ellen Schrecker, _Many are the Crimes_.
I want to thank my graduate students, Daniel Hummel and Kevin Walters, for their comments on the ideas in this post.
The opinions expressed in this blog are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of either Global Brief or the Glendon School of Public and International Affairs