Rage Nation 2.0

(AP)
In 1964, the Columbia University historian, Richard Hofstadter, described in a magazine piece the "paranoid style in American politics" (a theme he later expanded in a book on the same topic).

Talk about political prescience.

The American lexicon is suddenly chockablock with a collection of colorful descriptions forged in the cauldron of an increasingly heated political debate - terms like tea parties, three percenters, birthers, town hall disrupters, and oath keepers. As language reflects the times we live in, this is the new nomenclature used to define an eruption of anti-government rage that increasingly has marked the Obama administration's first ten months in office.

Though other administrations have gotten an earful from critics, both from the left as well as the right, the Anti Defamation League has a new report out which makes the case that this is more than the usual political carping between political parties. The study should be required reading for anyone with even a passing interest in contemporary U.S. politics. Not that the ADL's narrative is going to settle anything - how long before Michelle Malkin, Alex Jones and the rest of the rage boys (and girls) work up a purple fury at the organization's chutzpah for daring to single out rightwing overkill? - but the report offers a disturbing examination into why our political debate has turned rancid. What separates this period from other epochs, the ADL suggests, is a widespread belief within anti-government circles that the Obama administration presents a danger to the future of this country.

"Some accuse Obama of plotting to bring socialism to the United States, while others claim he will bring about Nazism or fascism. All believe that Obama and his administration will trample on individual freedoms and civil liberties, due to some sinister agenda, and they see his economic and social policies as manifestations of this agenda. In particular anti-government activists used the issue of health care reform as a rallying point, accusing Obama and his administration of dark designs ranging from "socialized medicine" to "death panels," even when the Obama administration had not come out with a specific health care reform plan. Some even compared the Obama administration's intentions to Nazi eugenics programs."

It's too easy to chalk this up entirely to old fashioned racism - though the race factor can't be ignored - but the ADL report makes clear that paranoia and belief in conspiracies now informs many mainstream and grass-roots anti-government movements, which left unchecked, could spill over into violence. The ADL says the first warning signs flashed during the summer when people with extremist backgrounds showed up at public events ostentatiously packing heat. From the report:

"But some groups have gone much further, implicitly or explicitly suggesting armed resistance to the government of some sort. Open calls to violent action are rare; what is more common is rhetoric that speaks of resisting the government, "restoring" the government, or using weapons to defend one's rights from the "tyrannical" Obama administration."

"Significantly, many of these groups have appropriated an idealized version of Revolutionary War history for their own purposes, stressing the armed resistance of the American colonists to British "tyranny" and suggesting, in varying degrees of openness, that Americans today should act as their revolutionary forebears did and throw off the perceived shackles of the allegedly tyrannical government."

Too much? We'll only know for sure in retrospect. This much is clear: the fringe has found a way to insinuate its way into the national conversation. Let me know what you think in the talkback section below.

  • Charles Cooper On Twitter»

    Charles Cooper is an executive editor at CNET News. He has covered technology and business for more than 25 years, working at CBSNews.com, the Associated Press, Computer & Software News, Computer Shopper, PC Week, and ZDNet. E-mail Charlie.