Eric Hoffer, the author of True Believer, was an odd guy by all accounts. People just assumed he was thinking about the Nazis and their capture of Germany in the 1930’s, but no one every really knew for sure. His official biography says he was born in New York, but there’s evidence he moved to America in the 20’s or 30’s. He was dodgy about a lot of details, including what he had in mind when he wrote the book.
My sense is Hoffer really never had any one group in mind. He was familiar with unionists, communists, fascists, progressives of various types, as well as the full spectrum of religious types in America. Having been around working class progressives that you find in union movements, I always suspected that was his inspiration. He worked on the docks and longshoremen are unusually fanatical in their unionism. Even today these guys are the truest of true believers in the union way.
I was thinking about this when I saw this last week. E.J. Dionne is a B-list talking head, but a committed member of the Left. He’s a very smart guy, but a fanatic. In his youth he was a rabid Catholic and then he transferred that to political liberalism. This is not uncommon, as Hoffer pointed out. People who join mass movements tend to move from one to another. John Podhoretz explains this phenomenon with Jews.
Dionne’s column has the usual things you see with the fanatic.
The several dozen people gathered at a street corner just off the main square of this southeastern Kansas town of 5,600 were polite and friendly in the Midwestern way. They did not look in the least like a band of counterrevolutionaries intent on reversing the direction of the government in Topeka.
Yet the results of the tea party rebellion four years ago have led these civic-minded, middle-of-the-road Kansans to a quiet but fierce determination to take their state back from those who once talked incessantly about taking their country back.
What brought them together this week was a visit from Paul Davis, the Democratic candidate for governor. Davis has generally been running ahead of Republican incumbent Sam Brownback in one of the country’s most consequential showdowns on Tuesday’s ballot.
The Left has an obsession with Kansas. I suspect they look as Kansas as typically American. If they can succeed there, it validates a big chunk of their mythology. After all, they are members of the vanguard leading the people to the promised land, so what better group to use as a test of their strategy. Alternatively, they may just view Kansas as emblematic of whiteness, which they truly hate.
Brownback set things up this way by launching what he called, proudly and unapologetically, a “real, live experiment” that he hoped would provide a model of red-state governance. He pushed steep income and business tax cuts through the legislature, insisting that his program would spur unprecedented economic growth. The results have been less than inspiring: large budget deficits, credit downgrades and substantial cuts in education spending, some of which were reversed only because of a court order. Only rarely does an election pose such a clear philosophical and policy choice.
Brownback often cited low-tax Texas as his model, prompting a ready reply from Davis. Voters “don’t want to be like Texas,” he said in an interview at his storefront headquarters here. “They just want to be Kansas.”
What it means to be Kansas is precisely what’s at stake, and it’s why Davis’s campaign uses #RestoreKansas — a traditionalist’s slogan, when you think about it — as its Twitter battle cry. The choice Davis is offering is not between liberalism and conservatism but rather between two kinds of conservatism: the deeply anti-government tea party kind, and an older variety that values prudence and fiscal restraint but also expects government to provide, as Davis put it, “the basic services that are essential to the state’s vitality.”
Setting Brownback up as a Tea Party guy is necessary to make this election fit the narrative. Brownback is a conventional Republican. Similarly, the Democrat must be cast as an earthy, tribune of the people. Davis is a career hack and about as populist as Mr. Burns from the Simpsons. None of this really matters as the fanatic only sees what confirms his fanaticism. In this case, lunatics like Dionne imagine a world where entitled snobs like themselves are saving the rubes from the clutches of the non-believers they call the Tea Party.
I’ve noticed Hoffer getting mentioned more often by popular writers who are either rediscovering him or learning about him for the first time. There was a Hoffer revival in the late 70’s and early 80’s too. I suspect it corresponds to the waning of a liberal cycle. In the 18th and 19th centuries, Americans would go through periods of religiosity. When Christianity began to fade in the 20th century, this cycle transferred to the new religion of America. Now we have periods of Progressive Awakening. My hunch is the rediscovery of Eric Hoffer corresponds with the waning of a Progressive revival.