The Political Psychology of Tom Watson

The worst vice of a fanatic is his sincerity.—Oscar Wilde

The writings of famed Southern historian C. Vann Woodward are often admired as pieces of cultural regionalism. But his classic biography Tom Watson: Agrarian Rebel  (1938) can also be read on another level, as a profile of extremism. As the author explains, politics for Watson was “a potent magic whereby a distraught and oppressed people might conjure up forgotten, as well as imaginary, grandeurs, united with intense purpose, and cast off their oppressors.”

The young Watson growing up in post-Civil War Georgia was not without certain charms. He devoured literature and precociously outstripped mediocre educators. His attitudes were idealistic and fantastic, though not yet marred by the pathological edge that would come later. The danger of any autodidact, however, is that learning becomes random and fastidious. There is no discipline to counteract flights of fancy—whether dreaming of famous battles or the conquests of romantic heroes. Amid this mental activity is also an unpleasant remoteness. The Southern senator may seem outwardly a gregarious rabble rouser, but like so many political animals, he remains aloof from the common aspirations of mankind. This egotism is all the more dangerous because it is wrapped in the mantle of disinterested idealism.

What was true of Watson on a political level was also true spiritually. “When a ‘revival’ came along,” says Woodward, “he even tried religion, embracing it with the impulsiveness and emotionalism that characterized his conversion to anything from an economic doctrine to a political platform.” Any religiosity was, of course, a passing whim for this agrarian devotee of Voltaire.

Like most ideologues, the Georgia politician was fundamentally “anti-intellectual.” Learning was a means to power. Watson never thought about things very deeply and so revealed the glaring contradictions of the fanatic (the positions of “radical” or “reactionary” being surprisingly interchangeable). Even his contrariness comes across as another form of attention-seeking.

Watson was an admirer of Napoleon and a self-styled “anti-imperialist” and isolationist. He lauded Lenin and the Russian Revolutionaries while indulging in anti-black and anti-Jewish bigotry. For good measure, he called Catholicism the “deadliest menace to our liberties and our civilization.” Watson went from being a tenacious defense attorney, who got even the worst criminals acquitted, to one of the loudest voices calling for the death of Leo Frank, the Jewish factory foreman who was wrongly convicted of murder and later hanged by a vigilante mob in 1915. 

One suspects that the ardor of fanatics stems less from the “principles” of a given cause then from fact that whatever cause they embrace is a projection of their uninhibited ego. In the case of Watson, who started as an egalitarian socialist and ended as a racist revolutionary, political labels are mainly a self-justifying afterthought for dysfunctional psychology.

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