Ever have the feeling you’re being lied to by the news media, the authorities, the corporate world? That somebody — or something — is out to get you? You’re not alone. Welcome to 21st-century America.
Look around. Trust is hitting historic lows. Just a third of Americans have a favorable view of the federal government, a decline of 31% since 2002, according to the Pew Center for People and the Press. Gallup has Congress’ approval rating is in the low 20s, after nearing single digits last summer. And the news media aren’t much better off.
“Negative opinions about the performance of news organizations now equal or surpass all-time highs on nine of 12 core measures the Pew Research Center has been tracking since 1985,” a Pew report said.
Add in our wired, social media-addicted world, and rumors reign. You’ve heard them all, whether they involve the presidential candidates, global climate change or illegal immigration. They’re our little open secrets. They give us the sense that we’re on to Them.
“It’s easier to be suspicious,” says Geoffrey Vaughan, a political science professor at Assumption College in Worcester, Massachusetts. “There is something attractive in thinking that you know something, that you haven’t bought into the mass public opinion.”
That attitude is nothing new. In a famous 1964 essay, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” historian Richard Hofstadter traced what he called “the paranoid style” through American history. What he found was that a fearful strain of mistrust flows through the blood of the republic, whether it was 18th-century religious leaders worried about the Illuminati, politicians suspicious of immigrants or McCarthyites convinced of Communist infiltration.
Hollywood has dined out on these feelings for years: “The Manchurian Candidate,” “The Parallax View,” “Wag the Dog,” the TV series “The X-Files,” even the James Coburn comedy “The President’s Analyst” — all are based on the idea that some kind of secret, malevolent operation is going on behind the curtain.
It’s as American as apple pie — filled with razor blades.
Sure, like the stories about those razor blade-tainted apples, there are sometimes bits of truth within. More often, however, the truth is overwhelmed by panic and hyperbole.
Which is a problem, because fear and mistrust have real-life implications, especially in an election year like this one, where it has seeped into the body politic like acid.
To 17% of Americans, President Obama is a Muslim — and 65% of that group are “uncomfortable” with that. It’s not enough for many opponents to disagree with the president on the issues; he has been characterized as a socialist and even the Antichrist.
Mitt Romney’s had his own problems. During the Republican primaries, he struggled to attract evangelical voters who considered his Mormonism a “cult.” (It wasn’t until mid-October that the Rev. Billy Graham’s organization decided to remove that designation from its website.)
This election year, in fact, has been one for the books. Facts, apparently, don’t matter anymore. Both campaigns have earned “pants-on-fire” ratings from the fact-checking site Politifact; both sides have blithely ignored them and moved forward. After the Romney campaign was called out for some falsehoods, pollster Neil Newhouse responded, “We’re not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact-checkers.”
Worse are the actual laws on the books based on some kind of perceived threat. Oklahoma banned courts from considering Islam’s Sharia law. (Oklahoma’s law has been temporarily blocked.) The Texas state Republican Party even created a platform opposing “critical thinking” in state schools, though a spokesperson was quick to point out that the platform regards “critical thinking” as another name for “outcome-based education” (which the platform criticizes as having “the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority”).
Paranoia isn’t on the fringe anymore, like it was in Hofstadter’s day. It’s now closer to the beating heart of the mainstream.
“The fringe has begun to blur with the base,” says John Avlon, author of “Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe Is Hijacking America.” As the title of Avlon’s book indicates, he’s concerned about this. “That’s the key dynamic, and that’s the key danger.”