POLITICAL HYSTERIA IN AMERICA: The Democratic Capacity for Repression by Murray B. Levin

POLITICAL HYSTERIA IN AMERICA: The Democratic Capacity for Repression

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If you have read de Tocqueville, Louis Hartz' The Liberal Tradition in America, Hofstadter's The Paranoid Style in American Politics, Fromm's Escape from Freedom, and Marcuse, you can skip Professor Levin's new book. It narrowly escapes being political pastiche. Levin (Boston Univ.) reiterates that Americans have no recognizable political philosophy save a stale Lockian-Smithian liberalism and that the political system operates from a majoritarian authority base which effectively reinforces the liberal consensus while concurrently quashing both radicalism and conservatism (all from the Hartz line). Levin then contends -- and this is his main point -- that selectively fomented political hysteria has been one of the most effective devices used by liberal elites to maintain control and interdict competing ideologies; during those few times when the liberal consensus has been seriously threatened, ""conspiratorial mythmakers"" have created a kind of vague total-scare, super-bogeyman to keep the masses emotionally preoccupied or distracted -- and of course to keep the elites in power. (Levin uses the Red Scare of 1919-20 as his case history, perhaps because it has been less pawed over than the McCarthy years, the best example of what he's talking about.) He analyzes the psychology of the politics of hysteria (who acts why, when, how, etc.) but it is lamentably superficial (cf. Fromm, Hofstadter), tending to lapse into such sweepers as ""our proclivity for conspiratorial thinking."" There are other problems here too: not only is the book insultingly repetitious but Levin's characterization of liberal elites as omnipotent manipulative masterminds able to generate national hysteria at will ignores those spontaneous, unpredictable socio-economic forces over which no leadership has complete control; indeed the professor himself appears to be a victim of the conspiratorial penchant. In the end, Levin suggests that hysteria as a political technique is now passe -- the liberals (or was it Marcuse?) have discovered repressive tolerance and cooption which are much more efficacious. Murray Levin is obviously capable of much more than this (The Compleat Politician, etc.); perhaps the answer is he should stick to grassroots politics.

Pub Date: Jan. 31st, 1971
Publisher: Basic Books