Richard Hofstadter wrote a famous essay, The Paranoid Style in American Politics. It is about the recurring tendency of our political actors to allege that there is a vast and powerful conspiracy against the public interest. The Masons were alleged to be at the center of the conspiracy early in the nineteenth century, the Catholics later in the century.
In his opposition to Judge Gorsuch, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse embraces this style of argument. In his opening statement, he asserted that there is a “machine” that helps conservative Republicans get on the Supreme Court and then write amicus briefs to show them which way to rule. He endorses the characterization of the Roberts Court as a “delivery service” for the Republican party and right-wing ideology. How different in terms of respect for judicial independence is calling the Supreme Court a “delivery service” from referring to a judge as a “so-called judge?” Senator Whitehouse claims that this “delivery service” continually offers up cases against the public interest, protecting gerrymandering, money in politics and the rights of corporations against the people.
Like all conspiracy theories, it has a simplicity about it. But its simplicity is delusive because the world is a more complicated place.
The college students we keep hearing about aren’t in the new book by Andrew Burt, but they sure meet the definition of American Hysteria: The Untold Story of Mass Political Extremism in the United States. Burt, a journalist and lawyer who writes for Slate, El País, and other left-of-center publications, in fact may not want to study the hypersensitivities that are spreading from campus to campus, from coast to coast—like when that Yalie confronted one of the faculty with: “It is your job to create a place of comfort and home for the students who live in Silliman. . . . It is not about creating an intellectual space! It is not!”
To the surprise of many, scholarship on Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) has flourished in the last few years. A towering figure in Victorian Britain, Spencer was all but forgotten after his death. His works, which taken together form a “Synthetic Philosophy,” seemed alien to 20th century academics in an age of meticulous specialization. Also his commitment to individual liberty and (seriously) limited government has not been too common in the discipline that he helped establish, sociology. Talcott Parsons famously called him a victim of the very God he adored: evolution. Toward the end of the 20th century, however, interest in Spencer began…