Paranoid Past the Fringe

Jonathan Chait

Los Angeles Times

November 12, 2004

Are conservatives crazier than liberals? I think so. Just consider the behavior of both on one topic: election fraud.

You may have seen e-mails circulating among liberals charging that President Bush won the election through skulduggery. Like most conspiracy theories, these begin with indisputable facts — a voting machine in Ohio that erroneously awarded Bush 4,000 votes; the manufacturer of touch-screens pledging to help Bush; counties in Florida whose tallies for Bush vastly exceeded GOP registration — and then careen off into implausible conclusions.

This sort of paranoia, of course, can be found on both edges of the ideological spectrum. But here's the difference: Mainstream liberals have thoroughly rejected it. Even magazines like the Nation and websites like dailykos.com, which represent the party's left, have unequivocally declared that these pieces of evidence do not add up to a fraudulent election.

Mainstream conservatives, by contrast, wallowed in just this sort of paranoid speculation four years ago when the election was still up in the air. Consider this disjointed passage from a Wall Street Journal editorial published Nov. 21, 2000: "With further desperation, we would not be surprised to see 1,000 Gore votes appear somewhere in the dead of night. Palm Beach County Commissioner Carol Roberts said the other day she would go to jail to drive the count forward, and someone offered a vote-punching machine on EBay."

A lead editorial in the conservative Weekly Standard, published around the same time, lingered suspiciously on an automatic recount in Florida that narrowed Bush's lead, and concluded: "In our bones, we're pretty sure what happened here. In the middle of the night on Nov. 8, Democratic ultraloyalists … watched a fevered [Gore campaign chairman] Bill Daley announce that things were still close in Florida — and that his party's campaign would 'continue' until the rectification of unspecified 'irregularities' in that state made Al Gore president. The ultraloyalists read this hint for what it was. And next, they set about, fast as lightning, before anyone was watching, doing 'anything to win.' "

The phrase "in our bones" reveals a lot about the mental habits of the author. When you say you know something in your bones, you're saying that you don't need actual evidence to impute a vast criminal conspiracy to the other side. All you need to know is that the other side represents pure evil.

And even this year, when Bush won a clear victory, conservatives still posited dark conspiracies. Michael Barone, the U.S. News columnist and Fox News talking head, wrote that he suspected that Democrats deliberately distorted exit polls in order to depress Republican turnout. Never mind that such a scheme would take thousands of activists in thousands of sites across the country, all keeping their dastardly plot a secret.

You can imagine what would have happened if the Republicans had lost. In fact, I don't even have to imagine. I once sat dumbfounded as a high-ranking Republican member of Congress said at an off-the-record luncheon that he thought President Clinton stole the 1996 election. (Keep in mind, Clinton won by more than 8 million votes.)

Historian Richard Hofstadter described this kind of thinking in his essay, "The Paranoid Style in American Politics." Hofstadter, writing in the 1960s, traced the paranoid style from 18th century anti-Masonites through the McCarthy and Goldwater movements. The latter, of course, laid the foundation for today's Republican Party.

Today, right-wing paranoia has achieved a power and respectability that left-wing paranoia has not. Michael Moore — who hints at conspiracies between the Bush family and the Saudi royal family in "Fahrenheit 9/11" — does not seriously influence the Democratic Party the way the Wall Street Journal influences the GOP. In fact, Moore didn't even support the Democrats before this election; in 2000 he backed fellow left-wing loon Ralph Nader.

We're accustomed to thinking of paranoids as residing only on the fringe. But what happens when the fringe takes over a party, and then the country?