Here’s why I call it “Electoral McCarthyism”

First, there’s this report in The Hill about the potential plan of House Republicans, if they take back control after the midterms, to hold hearings on election-related conspiracy theories like those in the film “2000 Mules.” Despite the widespread debunking of the film, including by former AG Barr (see also Philip Bump’s analysis), the MAGA caucus in the House wants to give the film’s outlandish allegations the platform of a congressional hearing:

Rep. Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.) led a letter signed by 10 other Republicans last week to House Oversight and Reform Committee Chairwoman Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) asking for hearings to “investigate the potential illegal activities revealed in the documentary film 2000 Mules.”

The comparison to the McCarthyism of the 1950s Red Scare seems obvious. Whatever the motivations of those like Joe McCarthy or Andy Biggs, it’s the use of official government power like congressional hearings to foment what amounts to a kind of mass hysteria detached from reality and evidence that is so dangerous to democracy. The “paranoid style in American politics” is the term that Richard Hofstadter used to describe the phenomenon. What worries me so much is that, from my own historical research, I’m unaware of another instance in which this kind of collective paranoia has affected the counting of ballots, and it seems especially threatening to the functioning of self-government for the capacity to count votes based on what the ballots objectively show (along with related demonstrable evidence) to collapse. There is no such thing as a “post-truth” tally of votes.

The term “McCarthyism” suggests that the 1950s version of this political paranoia was confined to the demagoguery of just one senator. But although Joe McCarthy was especially instrumental in spreading Red Scare hysteria, the social pathology of the era was much broader than his role alone. For the same reason, “Ballot Scare” might be a better term for the era that we are unfortunately in–to emphasize that it’s not just Trump’s Big Lie about the 2020 election, but the broader and more insidious danger of election denialism in general. The term “Red Scare” usefully captures the pervasive fear that was at the core of the anti-communist hysteria of the 1950s, and similarly widespread evidence-lacking fear is at the core of the current “Electoral McCarthyism” (or “Ballot Scare” if we want to use a term that emphasizes its broader scope).

This brings me to the second news account to mention on this front: the N.Y. Times Magazine has a major piece on the origins of “Stop the Steal” election denialism. I will do a separate ELB post on that piece itself. Here I want to link to David Leonhardt’s summary of the piece in The Morning newsletter. Leonhardt compares “Stop the Steal” to another aspect of the 1950s: the John Birch society. And Leonhardt briefly alludes to the Red Scare when he mentions “the Birchers’ claim that Dwight Eisenhower was a secret communist.”

I wish Leonhardt would have invoked McCarthyism and the Red Scare as a much broader phenomenon than just the John Birch Society. Limiting the comparison of Stop the Steal to just the John Birch Society makes the current problem of “Electoral McCarthyism” or “Ballot Scare” much more a fringe element of American politics than unfortunately it actually is. As Leonhardt notes, “few Birchers won statewide or federal office.” On the contrary, the current paranoia of election denialism has gripped a large majority of rank-and-file Republican voters, according to repeated polling. Thus, it has consumed a large portion of the body politic in the same way that McCarthyism and the Red Scare did. It is no fringe matter. Thus, the relevant comparative measure from the 1950s is not how many professional politicians embraced the John Birch Society, but how many participated in the broader Red Scare. When viewed this way, the current Ballot Scare is even more alarming that Leonhardt depicts it.

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