Focus on Individual Aberration

Over time centrist/extremist theory has created the impression that dissidents are psychologically maladjusted extremists. In the same way racism and antisemitism are seen as primarily a problem of militant supremacists who are psychologically maladjusted-mainly a lunatic fringe of ignorant bigots primarily composed of working-class Whites who are labeled "rednecks." Similarly, the countersubversion rhetoric of right-wing populist movements is dismissed as reflecting irrational hysteria on the margins of society. These ideas reflected the centrality of individualism and psychological explanation prevalent in the postwar period.

In the 1950s the American Jewish Committee sponsored a five-volume Studies in Prejudice where the "Nazi Holocaust became a paradigm for all intergroup conflict," and prejudice was explained as largely a matter of psychologically-determined personality types.33 The keystone of this approach was codified by Theodor W. Adorno and his colleagues in The Authoritarian Personality. Two other influential studies commissioned by the AJC included The Dynamics of Prejudice by Bruno Bettelheim and Morris Janowitz, and Anti-Semitism and Emotional Disorder by Nathan W. Ackerman and Marie Jahoda.34 These studies pioneered descriptions of a variety of psychological disorders and categorized different forms of prejudice and discrimination, but wrongly implied that psychological disorders caused prejudice and discrimination, and that authoritarian personalities explained the political right.35 These ideas popularized the notion of prejudice as primarily "an emotional disorder," while "[i]ntergroup conflict became a simple matter of ignorance or malice."36

Second, the contributors to Bell's anthologies (and other authors) bridged these psychological theories into history, sociology, and political science. Hofstadter's essay "The Paranoid Style in American Politics" contains useful descriptions of the content and patterns of conspiracist allegations popular on the US right, but in this and other essays he relied on the AJC studies and wrongly located the phenomenon as primarily a "persistent psychological complex" and "a mentality to see the world in the paranoid's way" resulting in a "pseudo-conservative revolt" reflecting a "largely unconscious hatred of our society" by extremist persons who manifested Adorno's "authoritarian personality."37 After the centrist/extremist school established its dominance, many analysts went off looking for purely psychological explanations of right-wing behavior.38

Third, the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith sponsored several studies of right-wing movements whose members displayed varying degrees of antisemitic and racist beliefs. These books, by Arnold Forster and Benjamin R. Epstein, accomplished much groundbreaking investigative reporting, and took seriously the institutional networks of what they called the radical right and extreme conservatives.39 As their books progressed through the years, however, they increasingly adopted core tenets of centrist/extremist theory, and began losing some of their earlier nuance and shading; reducing their originally complex analysis of conservative, reactionary, and fascist movements to monitoring "the hostility of the Radical left, the Radical Right, pro-Arab groups, black extremists, and a malingering anti-Jewish hatemongering apparatus," as one cover blurb proclaimed.40 What most people remember about the Forster and Epstein series are the terms "extremist" and "radical right." One unrelated 1969 study sponsored by ADL concluded that antisemitism was a problem associated with "unenlightened culture."41

Centrist/extremist theory paved the way for the neoconservative movement, which allied with the Right on issues such as affirmative action, military spending, and gay rights.42 Daniel Patrick Moynihan was among the early chief theoretical figures in the neoconservative movement, and his report The Negro Family: The Case for National Action, popularly called The Moynihan Report, set the stage for the backlash against the civil rights movement and women's movement by blaming problems of African Americans on Black family structure.43 As Carl Ginsburg points out:

"Sometime toward the end of 1964, as the civil rights movement was losing steam, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, an ambitious assistant secretary in the Department of Labor, came forward with a revelation. It appeared to him that black poverty was no longer the result of "external forces," such as general economic conditions, but rather that the black family had inflicted upon itself its own demise such as to render it "disturbed." The structure of the poor black family, rather than of corporate society-its ruling elite, economic organization, social isolation, and racial discrimination-became the focus of understanding black poverty. The problem became the black family structure."44

Similarly, a prevailing pattern of neoconservatism became the redefinition of social and economic issues in individualized terms.45 Centrist/extremist theory and neoconservatism reinforced each other while rephrasing conservative and reactionary critiques of social problems in more palatable language. The early emphasis on prejudice as the result of personality disorders by analysts working with the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee flowed easily into the neoconservative point of view, and was circulated widely through AJC's Commentary magazine.46 There were diverse sources of similar analyses, and a resultant was a growing mainstream consensus that social problems were largely the fault of individual character flaws. Racialized imagery was frequently a subtext of the debate, and throughout there was, according to Lucy A. Williams, a "continuing framing of subtle themes and twisting of information to appeal to white working class resentment of the gains of the civil rights movement and fears of inflation." Michael Lind notes this diverts "populist anger from Wall Street and the Rich."47

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