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America’s Paranoid History

From the Muslim witch hunt to Hollywood's "The Watch," the paranoid style still infects our culture.

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Like the characters in “The Watch,” most of us don’t notice, most of the time, what’s really going on. I’m aware of the hazards of the paranoid style, but let’s try this: Despite the overheated partisan rhetoric on both sides, electoral politics in America has become far more a matter of style and symbolism than it was in Hofstadter’s day, when the choice between Lyndon Johnson and Barry Goldwater offered vastly different views of government and America’s place in the world. I’m not saying there are no important difference between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, although one could argue that American governance has become so paralyzed that the differences won’t matter much in practice.

I am saying, rather, that successive Democratic and Republican administrations, with the help of Supreme Court justices who allegedly span the ideological spectrum, have eagerly collaborated in gutting the Constitution and creating a technology-driven national security state with beefed-up super-secret executive powers, which isn’t something that anybody on the left or right ever consciously voted for. Almost all of us carry devices that allow us to be tracked by the government or unknown private interests wherever we go. Of all the social changes the Internet age has wrought, perhaps the biggest is the complete abandonment of any expectation of privacy, which was considered an unassailable personal right even 20 years ago. I could suggest that this situation threatens to make democracy untenable, or even irrelevant — but that might sound paranoid.


Andrew O'Hehir is a senior writer for Salon.

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