‘PROMOTING A PARANOID CULTURE’…. There’s been an ongoing conversation the last several days about the effects of rhetorical excesses in our political discourse, with many wondering the extent to which such talk might lead to violence. Harold Meyerson has a terrific column today, suggesting a separate question that may have more salience.

For example, Glenn Beck suggested he’d shoot public officials who tried to take his children if he didn’t give them flu vaccines. Erick Erickson said he’d point a shotgun at those who tried to prosecute him for resisting the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey. In Grown-Up Land, of course, neither scenario reflects reality — no one seizes children from parents over flu vaccines and no one arrests those who blow off the American Community Survey.

The gun-related rhetoric is worth considering in its own right, but another angle is just as important. From Meyerson’s piece:

The primary problem with the political discourse of the right in today’s America isn’t that it incites violence per se. It’s that it implants and reinforces paranoid fears about the government and conservatism’s domestic adversaries.

Much of the culture and thinking of the American right — the mainstream as well as the fringe — has descended into paranoid suppositions about the government, the Democrats and the president. This is not to say that the left wing doesn’t have a paranoid fringe, too. But by every available measure, it’s the right where conspiracy theories have exploded. […]

As much of the right sees it, the government is planning to incarcerate its enemies (see Beck and Erickson, above), socialize the economy and take away everyone’s guns. At the fringe, we have figures like Larry Pratt, executive director of the Gun Owners of America, who told a rally in Washington last April that, “We’re in a war. The other side knows they are at war, because they started it. They are coming for our freedom, for our money, for our kids, for our property. They are coming for everything because they are a bunch of socialists.”

It matters whether such nonsense contributes to a toxic climate that might even lead to violence. But a related question is how the nonsense reflects a deeply paranoid right.

This isn’t entirely new. Those who remember right-wing rhetoric in the Clinton era may recall overheated fears of black helicopters and the White House handing over power to the United Nations.

But much of this has gone mainstream in the Obama era. For example, given recent events, there’s been a fair amount of talk about Rep. Michele Bachmann’s (R-Minn.) talk about her allies being “armed and dangerous.” But let’s also note that this is the same loony lawmaker who said the Census may lead to “concentration camps,” and AmeriCorps might be used to force young people into “re-education camps.”

Indeed, it’s hard to avoid the paranoia running through contemporary conservatism. As they struggle with legitimate policy debates, they’re stuck manufacturing make-believe policy ideas that suit their worldview. Obama supports death panels! He wants to adopt a global currency! He’s going to impose a tax on every time we flip a light switch! The fears are absurd, but on the right, they’re ubiquitous.

Meyerson concluded:

American politics and culture have a rich history of paranoia, as historian Richard Hofstadter and many others have documented. Many of the incidents of anti-government violence over the past couple of years — flying a plane into an IRS building in Texas, shooting police officers in Pittsburgh and carrying out last weekend’s savagery in Tucson — came from people who, however individually loony they may have been, also harbored paranoid visions of the government that resembled, though by no means entirely, those put forth by the Becks and the Ericksons.

That doesn’t make Beck, Erickson, Rupert Murdoch and their ilk responsible for Tucson. It does make them responsible for promoting a paranoid culture that makes America a more divided and dangerous land.

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Steve Benen

Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.