Sixty years ago an angry, ambitious, argumentative Wisconsin politician burst on to the national scene in the United States. He was a plain-speaking, hard working, “two-fisted” figure who drew accolades for his willingness to brawl with established, elite, and entrenched bastions of power. He was the small town David from rural Wisconsin who traveled to Washington to fight the big town Roosevelts, Achesons, and Kennedys. He was the hero of “Middle Americans” who elected him to office convinced that they had lost control of their lives, and that Joseph McCarthy would defend their basic interests.


Joseph McCarthy and the Midwest

Joseph McCarthy was not a unique figure. He represented a broader postwar movement that echoed previous periods of political and economic uncertainty in American history. The Upper Middle Western states – with their mix of agriculture and industry, small towns and medium size cities – are a repository for a deep American skepticism toward urban elites, educated experts, and cosmopolitan internationalists. There are, of course, many powerful interests that embody these qualities in the region, but they are always tempered by a stronger populism, localism, and isolationism than in any other part of the United States.

Time and again, these Midwestern tendencies encouraged citizens in Michigan, Indiana, Ohio, and Wisconsin to oppose American military adventures in the Philippines, Vietnam, Iraq, and other places. Time and again, Midwestern priorities encouraged attention to small town needs: high tariffs on agricultural and industrial goods that competitors sold at lower costs abroad, rural electrification, road construction, and restrictions on immigrants who would under-price local workers. The Upper Midwest of the United States has consistently slowed (and sometimes resisted) the dominant trends toward global expansion and free market capitalism in American history.

Joseph McCarthy played to all of these Midwestern assumptions during a period, after the Second World War, when many small-town citizens believed they had lost control of their lives to a global set of forces they could not understand. Communist regimes appeared to be on the march in Europe and Asia, threatening the security of patriotic Americans. Federal policies that emphasized centralized management of the economy, income redistribution, and targeted investments in urban (and suburban) areas threatened assumptions about economic freedom on Main Street. Washington D.C. asked small town businesses and families to pay higher taxes, negotiate more stringent regulations, and cede power to more distant figures.

This was the modern American New Deal state. “Joe” McCarthy, the brawling poker player known in many a local tavern, tapped into popular uncertainty and frustration throughout his home state of Wisconsin, the Midwest, and many other parts of the country. McCarthyism was a rebellion against a modern, globalizing America.


McCarthy’s Tactics

McCarthy had three tactics that he deployed with remarkable consistency. First, he refused to follow established “rules” in his home community, in the Senate, and in national politics. The norms of decorum and fair play, he argued, only served the empowered elites. The small town street fighter had to punch hard, cheat when necessary, and take no prisoners. Unlike any other Senator of his day, McCarthy began and ended his career by attacking his colleagues (even in his own party), brow beating witnesses, and lying consistently to get his way. He intimidated, he blustered, and he always attacked. Politics was war for McCarthy. It was about destroying enemies, not building compromise or consensus.

Second, McCarthy exploited the modern media. He had an instinctive understanding for the power of simple and sensationalist headlines. He recognized that strong accusations, even if untrue, would stick if they were stated authoritatively, consistently, and ahead of efforts at correction. McCarthy did not seek to explain complexity, he aimed to simplify for the sake of broad appeal. He turned political advertisements into character assassinations, congressional hearings into show trials, and political speeches into personal harangues. He replaced Roosevelt’s “fire side chats” with the fireworks of an ordinary “Joe” unmasking the greedy outlaws in our midst.

The outlaws, of course, were not the real beneficiaries of American political and economic transformation after the Second World War. Wealthy businessmen and prominent media moguls in the Midwest were McCarthy’s earliest supporters. The outlaws, for McCarthy, were the national and international organizations that small town Americans distrusted most of all: the unions, the university professors, and, of course, the communists. This was McCarthy’s third and most important tactical insight: small town citizens admired “self-made” rich men, but they distrusted groups of workers and thinkers who defined themselves by their profession, not their local community. They resented those who looked beyond kitchen table and bar-room politics for authority, status, and income.

McCarthy’s communist witch hunts combined his three political tactics: he flagrantly broke all the rules of civility (and due process), he made a media show of his efforts, and he attacked the most vulnerable figures who had the weakest connections to small town politics: Jews, Hollywood celebrities, intellectuals, and government civil servants. As many historians have observed, McCarthy’s appeal came from his effectiveness in voicing popular frustrations and targeting distrusted groups as scapegoats. Guilt by association was a form of public catharsis for frustrated men and women across the country.


The Tea Party and Governor Scott Walker

Today, the Tea Party has revitalized McCarthy’s playbook. Based largely in small towns and rural areas of the United States, Tea Party supporters have broken most assumptions of civil discourse, attacking their opponents, often denying that their opponents are even “American.” They have exploited the modern media with simple catchy phrases, distorted images, and intentional distortions of the truth. Most of all, they have targeted vulnerable groups with weak local ties, groups that resemble those attacked by McCarthy: unions, mainstream celebrities, intellectuals, and civil servants. Sometimes they even lapse into their accusations against Jews and communists – such as when they attack Chicago mayor-elect Rahm Emanuel as un-American and condemn health care reform as socialism. The rhetorical extremism of the Tea Party is McCarthyite in tone and substance.

In Wisconsin, Governor Scott Walker has gone farther than any other elected politician since Joseph McCarthy in applying this agenda. (It is not a coincidence that he and McCarthy come from similar Wisconsin circumstances.) Walker has spoken explicitly of “dropping the bomb” on established political figures around the state, transforming government rapidly to reflect the needs of allegedly over-taxed small town business owners. He has played to the national media, with frequent invocations that the “state is broke” and that he is standing up to the “vested interests.” Most distressing, Walker has targeted public employees (teachers, hospital workers, firefighters, police officers, and others) with a venom that makes these modestly paid figures sound like corrupt fat cats milking the poor small town citizens of the state. The governor has used every opportunity, even when budget issues were not on the line, to crush the power and voice of organized workers.

He has done this because he can. He has done this because the public workers are an easy target for people around the state who feel someone must shoulder the blame for their recent economic difficulties. Wealthy figures support Walker, ironically, because his agenda reduces their tax burden and the scrutiny for their misdeeds that might share some blame for the recent recession.

Popular demonstrations and political resistance to the Tea Party and Governor Walker are on the rise. Recall efforts against Republican legislators (and eventually Governor Walker) in Wisconsin are likely to succeed. Like McCarthy, Walker has over-reached, turning many of his supporters against him as they see the hateful consequences of his actions. Midwestern voters are frustrated and scared, but they are not mean-spirited.


The Future

If the history of McCarthyism teaches us anything, we should expect more attacks from Walker and the Tea Party in coming months. They will raise their venom. Walker and his supporters have already begun to accuse their opponents of being “outsiders” (from out of state, from the wrong backgrounds, from the wrong religions) with no right to voice their dissent. Walker and his supporters have pushed more legal boundaries, holding votes without public notice and denying transparency for their actions. Walker has even mused about deploying force or instigators among peaceful crowds. Like McCarthy, Walker and the Tea Party have traveled so far down the path of hatred that they cannot turn back. They will get nastier, and more uncontrolled, before they are stopped.

McCarthy’s career crashed when the leaders of the U.S. Army and the Republican Party refused to tolerate him anymore. The opposition of his own party and the most respected institution in the country made it impossible for him to continue. The same will be true for Walker and the Tea Party. Despite the growing crowds of opponents, they will continue until contemporary Republicans, business leaders, and other respected right-of-center groups renounce them.

Walker’s hateful politics undermine stability, security, and business. This should be evident to everyone observing events in Wisconsin. Sane supporters will eventually recognize this and turn away in disgust, but a lot of damage will already be done. We must hope that this process of McCarthyite self-destruction happens faster in the second decade of the twenty-first century than it did in the 1950s. Otherwise, we should brace ourselves for more witch hunts, more deception, and probably more law-breaking. Joseph McCarthy reminds us how nasty American politics can become, especially in a state like Wisconsin.


More Reading

Three books everyone should read on McCarthyism: David M. Oshinsky, A Conspiracy So Immense; Richard Fried, Nightmare in Red; Ellen Schrecker, Many are the Crimes.

I want to thank my graduate students, Daniel Hummel and Kevin Walters, for their comments on the ideas in this post.

This blog post originally appeared at

6 Responses to “The New McCarthyism?”

  • Dave Resnick:

    Reading this again, it is amazing how paranoid Suri is. It’s a popular thing among historians to say that conservatives and populists on the right are paranoid, but read Suri’s post and his paranoia is what is noticeable.

    “Most of all, they have targeted vulnerable groups with weak local ties, groups that resemble those attacked by McCarthy: unions, mainstream celebrities, intellectuals, and civil servants. Sometimes they even lapse into their accusations against Jews and communists . . . The rhetorical extremism of the Tea Party is McCarthyite in tone and substance. In Wisconsin, Governor Scott Walker has gone farther than any other elected politician since Joseph McCarthy in applying this agenda.”

    Yes, there’s nothing more vulnerable than a professor with a lifetime appointment. . . This is black helicopter stuff, and to attribute it to Walker is appalling. Suri doesn’t know the people he is writing about, but he is quick to assume the worst about them. Who is it that opposes dissent? Looks like it’s Suri, considering his slander against those who disagree with him. I wonder how free students, staff, and faculty on the Madison campus feel to not toe the liberal line, or how free he feels union members feel right now to disagree with their unions? If you want to talk about vulnerable populations, look there.

  • Dave Resnick:

    Wow. It’s hard to know where to begin to dissect such a shrill analysis. Professor Suri’s analysis of the Tea Party and its supporters is astonishingly narrow minded and hateful. The only “venom” I am seeing is in Suri’s analysis, which seems so blind with hate and rage toward those people who think differently than he does that he can barely stand it. Scott Walker has been saying people have the wrong religion? He has expressed venom toward public workers? When? He has said repeatedly that public workers do a good job, but that the state finances require them to make some sacrifices. This is venom? This is McCarthyism? What “hateful” things did Walker say or do? When exactly did Walker say that opponents have no right to voice their dissent? Protesters were allowed to camp out in the Capitol. Do you think that would happen in Washington DC? In most other states? He repeatedly said they had a right to voice their views. He repeatedly said they were civil. The bill was moving through all the normal procedures of committee hearings and action in the legislature. Amendments could have been proposed in the Senate. There were over 60 hours of debate in the Assembly. Some amendments were adopted in Joint Finance. Did Suri even bother to read the concessions in the emails from the governor’s office to the AWOL Democrats?

    “Are you now or have you ever been a supporter of Scott Walker?” That’s the most McCarthyist thing to come out of the past month, and it is labor unions and others on the left who are using it to harass businesses and other supporters of Walker. Threatening the economic destruction of people’s livelihoods unless they start agreeing with you? That’s McCarthyism, Professor Suri, and it is your side that is preaching it.

    I sincerely hope this posting does not reflect the way Professor Suri teaches or his academic writing. If I was a conservative student I would be worried about writing anything that this professor might disagree with.

  • That’s Professor Suri to you, Mr. Blaska.

  • “Broken most assumptions of civil discourse?” Like, occupying the State Capitol overnight? Banging drums and shouting down those who would disagree? Fleeing the state rather than debating the issues as our representatives were elected to do? Threatening life. Damaging property. Engaging in secondary boycotts? Closing down schools? Sloppy, tendentious, facile, and unprofessional. A disgrace to the profession, Suri.

  • [...] Nick on March 17, 2011 I came across a pretty wonderful blog post this evening comparing the tactics and behavior of Walker and Senator Joe McCarthy. It really [...]

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About Jeremi Suri
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Jeremi Suri holds the Mack Brown Distinguished Chair for Leadership in Global Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. He is a professor in the University's Department of History and the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs. Professor Suri is the author and editor of nine books on contemporary politics and foreign policy. Professor Suri's research and teaching have received numerous prizes. In 2007 Smithsonian Magazine named him one of America's "Top Young Innovators" in the Arts and Sciences. His writings appear widely in blogs and print media. Professor Suri is also a frequent public lecturer and guest on radio and television programs.