Paranoia’s Place In U.S. Politics

Former Waipahu resident Edward Snowden. AP photo

Young Edward Snowden, recently of Waipahu, sees himself as an American patriot. So too do many of his fellow citizens who are concerned about government surveillance of their phone records or their Internet activity.

According to a Gallup Poll taken soon after Snowden’s flight to Hong Kong, 44 percent of the respondents said Snowden was right to share his knowledge of government surveillance, 42 percent said he was wrong to do so, 14 percent said they were unsure. Another poll found that 75 percent of Americans felt that the government should keep track of the phone records of suspected terrorists, but 58 percent said they didn’t think it should keep track of those of ordinary Americans.

Former Texas Congressman Ron Paul, the Libertarian Party favorite for president in 2012, finds villainy in precincts more rarified than Waipahu or the Hawaii offices of National Security Agency subcontractor Booz Allen Hamilton.

“It’s a shame that we are in an age where people who tell the truth about what the government is doing get in trouble,” Paul told Fox Business Network. “What about the people who destroy our Constitution? What do we think about the people who assassinate American citizens without trial and assume that that’s the law of the land? That’s where the problem is. Our problem isn’t with people who are trying to tell us the truth about what happens.”

The unnamed assassin in Paul’s telling is, of course, President Barack Obama. The untried American citizens were residents of the Arabian Peninsula publicly fomenting terroristic acts against the United States.

Last year the 29-year-old Snowden contributed $250 to the presidential campaign of then-U.S. Rep. Paul. The appeal of Libertarian Party philosophy to young people across the country brought a passion and fervor to Paul’s campaign that was the envy of every other Republican candidate. Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum garnered more votes, but Paul got the love of the young, the most passionate and the pure.

The secret of Paul’s success was the simplicity of Libertarian message: The enemy is always the government. A meddling government took us into Iraq and Afghanistan, costing us trillions of dollars and thousands of shattered lives. So get out. A free-spending government that’s far exceeded its constitutional powers is beggaring us and infringing on out liberties. So cut back, obey to the letter our 18th century Constitution and be free.

The message is powerfully seductive and extraordinarily simplistic. No one can be entirely comfortable with drone warfare or a government checking our phone records. But to make an assassin out of the constitutionally elected president of the United States who’s taken our armed forces out of Iraq and will soon begin to withdraw them from Afghanistan is unfair. Or to argue ad nauseam that our government’s intent is to enslave us is hyperbolic.

A half-century ago, American historian Richard Hofstadter attributed the likes of Paul’s Libertarian message and Snowden’s martyrdom to “the paranoid style in American politics.”

Hofstadter argued that our democratic politics has been “an arena for angry minds” where “a sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness and conspiratorial fantasy” prevails. The “paranoid spokesman … is always manning the barricades of civilization” against a tyrannical government, an oligarchic elite or worse.

Witness ex-congressman Paul. Witness young Mr. Snowden.