THE PARANOID STYLE...

THE PARANOID STYLE OF PATRIOTIC POPULISM.

Chris Hayes ' new article in The Nation about the mythical NAFTA Superhighway's populist backlash is interesting both for its exploration of the politics of paranoia and the nuanced manner in which Hayes approaches his subject:

In his essay "The Paranoid Style in American Politics," Richard Hofstadter famously sketched the contours of the American tradition of folk conspiracy--a tradition that has, at different times, seen its enemy in Masons, Jesuits, immigrants, Jews and Eastern bankers. There's certainly a strong continuity between that tradition and the populist/nationalist ire that drives the NAFTA highway myth. Hofstadter's original essay was motivated in part by the activities of the John Birch Society, which today is one of the leading purveyors of the highway myth.

But there's something more. The myth of the NAFTA Superhighway persists and grows because it taps into deeply felt anxieties about the dizzying dislocations of twenty-first-century global capitalism: a nativist suspicion of Mexico's designs on US sovereignty, a longing for national identity, the fear of terrorism and porous borders, a growing distrust of the privatizing agenda of a government happy to sell off the people's assets to the highest bidder and a contempt for the postnational agenda of Davos-style neoliberalism.

These complicated anxieties are precisely what many politicians and beltway insiders can't quite understand:

For corporatists within both partiesā€¦selling port security or road concessions to a multinational is inevitable, logical, obvious. To thousands of average citizens in Texas and elsewhere, it's madness or, worse, treason. Both the actual TTC and the mythical NAFTA Superhighway represent a certain kind of future for America, one in which the crony capitalism of oil-rich Texas expands to fill every last crevice of the public sector's role, eclipsing the relevance of the national government as both the provider of public goods and the unified embodiment of a sovereign peopleā€¦"We have so little control over our own government," she told me, the alienation audible in her voice, thunder punishing the air outside. "We are really the last beacon of freedom in the world--the land of the free and home of the brave--and we're letting it slip away from under our noses."

This belief in the exceptionalism of American freedom and democracy ties into the political debates over globalization and free trade in strange ways: America shouldn't get its food and clothes from other countries not only because it results in lost American jobs, but because it harms what America is. Of course, other countries are as free or freer, and free trade in itself -- whatever its pluses and minuses -- won't destroy American identity. But when highly patriotic people are alienated from political decision-making and there is such a strong disconnect between the reasonable suspicions of ordinary people and political actors in government, this NAFTA Superhighway backlash isn't so surprising -- it's just distrust of the free market taken to its isolationist, America-first extreme.

--Steven White

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