Historian Richard Hofstadter should be living at this hour to savor the new flavors of what he called ''the paranoid style in American politics.''
Last Sunday, several newspapers carried ads by the National Abortion Rights Action League, which began its assault on Robert Bork like this:
''You wouldn't vote for a politician who threatened to wipe out every advance women have made in the 20th century. Yet your senators are poised to cast a vote that could do just that.''
Auto-intoxication is an occupational hazard of those who work at manufacturing hysteria, and paranoiacs are not easily embarrassed, but really: ''every advance women have made''?
That sentiment should be preserved in amber and sent to the Smithsonian. It is a perfect caricature of the liberal notion that all goods issue from government. Indeed, it implies that all progress for women has come from, and can be undone by, the judiciary. According to this reading of history, neither economic growth nor technological advances nor the pill nor changed cultural attitudes have contributed to the advance of women.
Odd, is it not, that organizations purporting to speak for women insist that all women's advances have been bestowed by men in judicial robes? Carla Hills, former assistant U.S. attorney general and former secretary of housing and urban development, has a better grasp of history, noting that women's greatest gains from public policy have come from legislative, not judicial, bodies.
Prof. Mary Ann Glendon of the Harvard Law School notes that not a single one of the more than 100 majority opinions Judge Bork has written on the court of appeals has been reversed in the Supreme Court. He has joined in more than 400 opinions, yet has written only nine dissents and seven partial dissents. Glendon wonders why so much hysteria has attended the nomination of ''a judge whose career on the bench has been as uneventful and conventional'' as Bork's.
Part of the answer, she suggests, is the uncritical political echo of ''the assessments of some of his law-review articles by a few academics who are in the mainstream neither of American life nor American legal thought.'' She notes that Bork has been critical of what he calls ''the professoriate,'' which she defines as ''a small but influential corps of constitutional law professors at leading schools who deeply mistrust popular government.
''As Judge Bork has pointed out many times with gentle humor in his law-review articles, there is no group in America whose political and social attitudes are so faithfully mirrored in the Supreme Court's more controversial decisions than this professorial elite.''
It has been 19 years since Chief Justice Warren retired, and not a single landmark ruling of the Warren Court has been reversed. Yet the liberal lobbies practicing today's paranoid style of politics insist that Bork threatens all American liberties. The evident presumption is that he would join four other tyrannical misogynists (is Sandra Day O'Connor one?) already on the court.
Last Sunday, Planned Parenthood's full-page advertisement began: ''If your senators vote to confirm the administration's latest Supreme Court nominee, you'll need more than a prescription to get birth control. It might take a constitutional amendment.'' Is there even a scintilla of sincerity in such rhetoric? Is it militant cynicism -- or ignorance?
Could Planned Parenthood name a single state that would proscribe contraceptives if (this, too, is wildly improbable) the court received a case that provided an opportunity for reversing the 1965 decision overturning Connecticut's law against contraceptives? (Bork considered the law ludicrous but criticized the court's reasoning in overturning it.)
Planned Parenthood says that, so far, ''our democratic system'' has blocked the ''extremists'' who think as Bork does. But Planned Parenthood clearly distrusts democracy. Its position is that Bork ''could radically change the way Americans live'' because he favors enlarged deference toward representative institutions such as state legislatures -- 61 percent of whose members are Democrats. Planned Parenthood clearly suggests that those institutions are straining to slip the short leash liberal courts have them on, and if they get off the leash they will legislate an end to (among other things) contraception.
Among the flops that Planned Parenthood says are not ''far-fetched'' are government-imposed childbearing quotas for families. Such nonsense has not been heard in American politics since the John Birch Society was saying Eisenhower was a communist agent.
Birchers, like some of Bork's critics, despise Americans as manipulable fools. But at least Birchers did not have the effrontery to advertise themselves as models of moderation. And there were no senators at that time willing to use such paranoia as fuel for presidential campaigns.