I’ve been reading “letters to the editor.” It’s fun, occasionally even enlightening. A sample:
“Once we get together and rout the extremists from the midst of the Grand Old Party we will be able to go back to sane and sensible party politics in which we debate alternative programs toward progress in terms of facts and feasibility.”
“To all who believe in the right of individualism and all freedoms the Constitution once, yes once, gave you, become alert to the poisoned gifts of socialist order or you shall surely march down the corridors of slavery to the end that Lenin and his disciples have promised you.”
“I am so ashamed of the man who calls himself governor of Idaho … I have known for quite some time he leaned left, or as they like to call themselves, moderates or liberals.” The same writer observed about the losing presidential candidate in the last election: “The abuse, lies, and all the venom that spewed forth, it seemed to me the evil forces of Satan were against him.”
And a particular favorite letter: “I am getting fed up about these so-called Americans who believe in the John Birchers, Ku Klux Klan and many others who are trying to undermine our society. I have read the trash they publish and air. It only appeals to the mind of a seven-year-old.”
Each quotation is from a genuine “letter to the editor” – and there are dozens more like them – that appeared in an Idaho newspaper – in 1964.
The radicalization of the conservative right in America has been a long time coming, but it is possible to pinpoint 1964 – the year the GOP nominated Barry Goldwater, a card-carrying right winger, for president – as a critical milestone in the radicalization. To be fair, the origins of the radicalization that grips the GOP today actually go back even farther to post-war McCarthyism and a manufactured crisis over communist infiltration of American society and government.
Even accounting for a few momentary detours to something less radical than today’s Republican Party – think Gerald Ford, John McCain or Mitt Romney – conservatism in America over at least the last 70 years has been the happy home of conspiracy, contempt for facts and commitment to grievance.
And Idaho has not infrequently been a central melting pot for the conspiracy and anti-government sentiment. Frank Church, arguably the state’s most important national legislator from the 1950’s through the 1970’s, regularly felt the sharp end of this kind of politics. At various points in his 24-year career in the Senate, Church was labeled a socialist sympathizer and a “baby killer.” His stand against the Vietnam War was reason for the right to label him un-American and his investigation of the nation’s intelligence agencies led to the ludicrous accusation, made by allegedly responsible voices on the right, that he had singlehandedly destroyed the CIA.
An essay Church wrote in January 1965 for Look magazine – the piece was entitled “Conspiracy USA” – gave me the idea of going back and looking at all those old letters.
Church dubbed what he saw in 1965 “the slowly boiling outrages of extremism” and he warned, “we have already become accustomed to a level of political absurdity that would have seemed, a few years ago, quite impossible.”
You might think the fabricated outrage about the teaching of American history among a new generation of the right’s conspiracy spreading McCarthyites is a recent phenomenon. It’s not.
In his essay, Church quoted a letter printed in the Idaho Statesman in 1964: “The ‘Social Studies’ program [in the high schools] was initiated 30 years ago by American education intelligentsia after the Soviet plan, for the acknowledged purpose of promoting the ‘collectivist society’ in America.”
That nonsense of decades ago is not all that different from the public education bashing “task force” formed recently by Idaho’s lieutenant governor and aimed at rooting out “teachings on social justice, critical race theory, socialism, communism (and) Marxism” from public schools.
The co-chair of this witch hunt, Representative Priscilla Giddings, is always in high McCarthy dudgeon. As reported by the Idaho Capitol Sun, Giddings said “she found examples of indoctrination or critical race theory in libraries, the Idaho Public Television budget, early childhood development programs and ‘a little bit’ in K-12 public schools. She said she was particularly concerned where the words ‘equity’ and ‘privilege’ are used.”
The late Senator Church provided some context for all this in his 1965 essay.
“Scholars differ on why so many conscientious Americans are being caught up in the Radical Right,” Church wrote. “It is clearly a revolt against the established order by the discontented, motivated by a mixture of reasons: a quest for some higher purpose than is satisfied by the commercial standards of our times; a fear of the new relationships being generated by the burgeoning growth, urbanization and automation of the country; a resistance to the complexities of modern life, to the bigness of government, to the racial revolution, to a ‘cold war’ that never ends, to the absence of quick and easy solutions; a frustration over the inability of the United States, in the nuclear age, to swiftly work its will upon the world. These are the conditions of life with which we must cope, but they stir a rebel to go forth in search of a cause.”
Church wrote – and again it’s important to remember he spent his career under attack from these merchants of conspiracy and fear – that it was essential to expose the “delusions of the fanatical right” including its “propaganda, its frequent resort to outright intimidation and coercion” and what he called nothing less than its “totalitarian methods.”
Church was a prophet before our time. The Morning Consult polling firm reported this week that 26% of the U.S. population now qualifies as being “highly right-wing authoritarian,” twice the share of people who hold similar views in Canada or Australia.
There is nothing new, absolutely nothing new, in the playbook of the radical right. Tossing off “socialism” at every opportunity, condemning public education, ridiculous allusions to Satan, the life and death struggle for “freedom” are all pages in its well-thumbed playbook.
Optimists might take comfort in the fact that Goldwater lost in 1964, but his followers – and now a new and even more radical generation – have kept right on. These radicals delude themselves into thinking they are saving their country. What they are actually doing is taking aim at the very ideas of America: free expression, tolerance, community, inclusion and reason.
But, then again, what they are trying to sell is an old story. You can look it up.