The Grand Old Neophobic Party

by on November 15th, 2012

The political commentator, Matthew Dowd, recently suggested that the Republicans have become a ‘Mad Men’ party in a ‘Modern Family’ America. In light of the drubbing Gov. Romney and many Republicans took in the recent election, I think Dowd was mostly right. But the debacle for the Republicans, in my view, goes beyond being stuck in the era of Don Draper. I believe that the far-right wing in this country has managed to infect the Republican Party with a cultural form of neophobia– an irrational fear of new situations, places, or things. More broadly, the term may be used to describe a “fear of the modern”—for example, of recent changes in cultural attitudes, norms, or beliefs.

I claim no originality in reaching this conclusion. According to a report by Jodi Kantor in the New York Times (Nov. 7, 2012), several historians who have been meeting regularly with President Obama told him much the same thing. These scholars reportedly described the Tea Party as being motivated less by economic issues and more by “…nativism and a fear of modernity.” Consider the various groups and constituencies who pushed back hard against the right-wing Republican agenda, in the recent Presidential and congressional election: women, African Americans, Latinos, and younger voters. Behind these constituencies are cultural trends that have emerged largely within the past 50 years; e.g., the women’s rights movement (including reproductive rights); the civil rights movement; recent efforts at immigration reform; and the student activism that began in the late 1960s. (In 1971, the 26th amendment to the Constitution granted 18-year-olds the right to vote).

Coming of age in the early and mid-60s, I grew up in the small town version of Don Draper’s world. There were no corporate board rooms in my little town, but there was plenty of intolerance and “neophobia.” To be fair, most of my friends and their parents, as well as my teachers, were decent, good-hearted people. But the same strains of nativism and fear of the modern that tainted the 2012 presidential campaign also colored the attitudes of many in the town where I grew up.

There were only a handful of black and Hispanic students in my high school, and they were usually regarded with a mixture of curiosity and contempt. My school’s one Native American student was widely believed to have his heart literally “on the wrong side”, and was shunned by the other students. The term “gay” had yet to achieve wide usage, and those with homosexual leanings were called by names nowadays considered archaic slurs. “The pill” had been in use for only a few years and—as of 1964—was still illegal in eight states. Women who used it were called “loose”, or worse. Indeed, women were generally regarded with the same sort of amused condescension and leering looks as exhibited by the men in Don Draper’s “Mad Men” office. My mother—a psychiatric social worker—was considered an oddity at the time: a smart, professional woman with a life outside the home.

Mitt Romney governed my state, Massachusetts, for four years, and I believe he is, at heart, a decent and caring man. But he is also a man of an earlier and less enlightened age.  Furthermore, my impression of the far right wing of the Republican party—particularly those inspired by the Tea Party–is that its membership would have been quite at home in my little town, circa 1963. Their ideas seem starkly at odds not only with modernity, but with the views of most Americans who voted in the recent election. The far right’s antipathy toward immigrants, minorities, women, gay people, welfare recipients, and those who do not view the U.S. as a “Christian nation” seems to have alienated large segments of the electorate. And the right wing’s gravity seems to have tugged the Republican Party into the black hole of neophobic fear-mongering.

H.L. Mencken once said, “The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed — and hence clamorous to be led to safety — by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.” I believe the right wing of the Republican Party has preyed on just such fears, invoking hobgoblins that haunted an earlier and darker America—aliens, socialists, feminists, gays, “welfare queens,” and scary incarnations of “The Other.” The America of “Mad Men” is not the country we know or desire today. Most of the American people seem to have said that with their votes.

Ronald Pies MD

Ronald Pies MD is Professor of Psychiatry and Lecturer on Bioethics & Humanities, SUNY Upstate Medical University, Syracuse, NY; and Clinical Professor of Psychiatry, Tufts University School of Medicine. Dr. Pies is the author of several textbooks of psychiatry, as well as books on philosophy and religion. He is the author, most recently, of Becoming a Mensch: Timeless Talmudic Ethics for Everyone; Ziprin's Ghost (a collection of short stories); and The Heart Broken Open (a collection of poems).