McCarthyism: American Politics and the Paranoid Style
Senator Joseph McCarthy’s name is enshrined in the American lexicon to symbolize a style of paranoia and fear that goes far beyond his original red-baiting. Just as the path to McCarthyism was in fact paved decades earlier—as conservative factions deployed both ideological and state violence in their early fights against organized labor—the McCarthyist manner of politics has found new acolytes in the Trump era. From references to “outside agitators” and foreign contamination to the belief that government agencies have been infiltrated by shadowy conspirators, one needn’t look very far to locate what historian Richard Hofstadter called the “paranoid style in American politics.”
In this course, we will explore the history of McCarthyism in its crucial Cold War context as well as its prehistory and subsequent legacy. How did the anti-Communism of the early 1950s intersect with other material and ideological shifts in American politics, from the extension of American empire abroad to Left purges at home? This class will approach the complex phenomenon of McCarthyism by giving attention to topics including: the rise of Marxism and the Communist Party in the U.S.; the onset of the Cold War and the vision of a liberal international order centered in Washington; the emergence of modern conservatism in response to the New Deal; and civil liberties as a defense against the national security state. Students will further examine the crucial events, methods, and figures of McCarthyism, including J. Edgar Hoover, Whittaker Chambers, the Rosenbergs, and Roy Cohn. What were important precursors to this style of politics (Haymarket, Sedition Acts, Palmer Raids, HUAC)? How did the purges of the early 1950s impact the development of the Left in America, foreclosing many radical options for decades? What is Trump’s ideological lineage, especially through his mentor Cohn? How has the end of the Cold War influenced the politics of empire and the available range of critiques? Readings will be drawn from primary sources (court cases, hearings, speeches, political essays) as well as secondary accounts by Richard Hofstadter, Melvyn Leffler, Ellen Schrecker, Corey Robin and others.
Course ScheduleThursday, 6:30-9:30pm EST
July 23 — August 13, 2020