Thursday, September 26, 2013

The Paranoid Style In American Politics: Prologue

During the past year many references have been made within the stories and opeds posted here to Richard Hofstadter's "The Paranoid Style In American Politics," who "...pointed out a half-century ago how many practitioners of his famous theory—the paranoid style in American politics—found their roots in the arrival, in 1913, of the 16th Amendment. That amendment, ratified on the eve of World War I, resolved disputes over the meaning of the phrase “direct taxes shall be apportioned,” and in doing so ushered in the modern income tax." (

In our reprint of "The Tea Party's Paranoid Aesthetic" on September 2nd, for example, the author noted:

"The classic treatment of paranoia in American politics is, of course, the Columbia historian Richard Hofstadter’s essay 'The Paranoid Style in American Politics.'* Hofstadter originally delivered the piece as a lecture in 1963 (one day before the assassination of JFK), then revised it for publication in Harper’s about a year later. Writing in Harper’s in 2007, the human rights attorney Scott Horton called it 'one of the most important and … influential articles published in the 155 year history of the magazine.'

"'The Paranoid Style' is, among other things, a brilliant exemplar of the qualities that made Hofstadter (who died in 1970 at the tragically early age of 54) one of the great Americanists of his generation. In lucid, energetic prose, it marshals a wide variety of historical sources in support of its main contention:
"'American political life… has served again and again as an arena for uncommonly angry minds. Today this fact is most evident on the extreme right wing… Behind such movements there is a style of mind… that has a long and varied history. I call it the paranoid style simply because no other word adequately evokes the qualities of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy that I have in mind.'
"There is no way to improve on Hofstadter’s delineation of this 'style of mind':
"'The central image is that of a vast and sinister conspiracy, a gigantic and yet subtle machinery of influence set in motion to undermine and destroy a way of life. One may object that there are conspiratorial acts in history, and there is nothing paranoid about taking note of them. This is true…The distinguishing thing about the paranoid style is not that its exponents see conspiracies or plots here and there in history, but that they regard a ‘vast’ or ‘gigantic’ conspiracy as the motive force in historical events. History is a conspiracy, set in motion by demonic forces of almost transcendent power, and what is felt to be needed to defeat it is… an all-out crusade. The paranoid spokesman sees the fate of this conspiracy in apocalyptic terms— he traffics in the birth and death of whole worlds, whole political orders, whole systems of human values.'
"Hofstadter tracks the long career of political paranoia in our history, following it through 18th-century warnings of 'systematic means' at work 'to overthrow' Christianity, to 19th-century indictments of Catholics, immigrants and Mormons, to those who saw a cabal of munitions makers behind the carnage of World War I. His principal concern, however, was its reemergence in the right-wing movements of the early Cold War years, first in the form of McCarthyism and the John Birch Society, later in the strain of Republican politics that would evolve into the Goldwater campaign of 1964.

"Hofstadter attributed these periodic outbreaks of paranoid thought to social causes, specifically to 'conflicts that involve ultimate schemes of values and that bring fundamental fears and hatreds, rather than negotiable interests, into political action.'

"Such conflicts often derive from 'ethnic and religious' differences, or from class tensions. Unlike the clinical paranoid, who interprets his conspiracies 'as directed specifically against him,' the political paranoid 'finds [them] directed against a nation, a culture, a way of life whose fate affects not himself alone but millions of others.'

"It would be foolish to deny that social fissures of this sort are involved in the 'paranoid style.' They quite obviously are. We’ve already observed the deeply religious cast of Tea Party politics, and its racial and ethnic anxieties, as reflected in its virulent response to the election of Barack Obama and to the prospect of immigration reform, are perhaps too obvious to require mention. But as an explanation of political paranoia, this reliance on social conflict raises an obvious question: Why do some people experience such conflicts as a clash of 'ultimate values' while many, even most, others do not? We could reply that only the paranoid respond in this way, but this would involve us in an obvious circle. What we need is an account of why these kinds of conflicts trigger a paranoid response in some people but not in others.

"I think Hofstadter’s work itself provides the basic materials for such an account, though to construct it we have to move beyond his text in ways he might have found uncongenial. In later essays, Hofstadter famously distinguished between 'interest politics,' the clash of material desires in the give-and-take of everyday political life, and 'status politics.' His usage of the latter phrase was notoriously slippery — a fact he readily admitted — but one critical element of it consisted in 'the problem of American identity, as it is complicated by our immigrant origins and the problem of ethnic minorities.' The intuitive idea is familiar enough: America, unlike most other nations, has no 'natural' citizens — no racial or religious or ethnic group that uniquely defines what it means to be 'American.' We might gloss this as the claim that no particular class of Americans is normative with respect to “Americanness” as a whole. Our identity, what it means to be us, is always and essentially contested."

This synopsis generated much curiosity, and many who read the piece have asked for more information, so his article, once a staple for political science students, will be reprinted for your education and enlightenment.

From our piece, "Stupid Is As Stupid Does, The Never Ending Story," "The rise of Idiot America, though, is essentially a war on expertise. It's not so much antimodernism or the distrust of the intellectual elites that Richard Hofstadter teased out of the national DNA, although both of those things are part of it."

From our reprint of "Limbaugh, Conservatism, and "Projecting Fascism," "Indeed, one of the lessons I've gleaned from carefully observing the behavior of the American right over the years is that the best indicator of its agenda can be found in the very things of which it accuses the left."

"This is known as 'projection.' One of the first to observe this propensity on the right was Richard Hofstadter, whose 1964 work The Paranoid Style in American Politics remains an important contribution to the field of analyzing right-wing politics."

From our article, "Answers To The Sandy Hook Conspiracy Theories," "Soon Washington replaced London as the object of concern for conspiracists on the fringes of both the right and left. This dynamic helped created a culture where fearing the government is not only accepted, but patriotic. Richard Hofstadter famously explored this in his seminal 1964 essay on the 'paranoid style in American politics.' 'You heard it with Barry Goldwater, you heard it with Ronald Reagan, and you hear it today, particularly in regards to the gun rights people,'"

From our reprint of "U.S.: NOT A "Christian Nation," "Several distinguished historians (including Drs. James McGregor Burns and Richard Hofstadter, each of whom won the Pulitzer Prize for history) have pointed out that in 1776 and much of the 19th century, as much as 90 percent of the population did not identify with the Christian church."

And last, our article, "Conservatism Is Radical Extemism," "Historian Richard Hofstadter wrote an analysis in his influential 1964 essay 'The Paranoid Style in American Politics'. Hofstader sought to identify the characteristics of the groups. Hofstadter defined politically paranoid individuals as feeling persecuted, fearing conspiracy, and acting over-aggressive yet socialized. Hofstadter and other scholars in the 1950s argued that the major left-wing movement of the 1890s, the Populists, showed what Hofstadter said was 'paranoid delusions of conspiracy by the Money Power.'

"Historians have also applied the paranoid category to other political movements, such as the conservative Constitutional Union Party of 1860.  Hofstadter's approach was later applied to the rise of new right-wing groups, including the Christian Right and the Patriot Movement.
The original essay by Hofstadter was an article in Harper's Magazine, and it was a bit lengthy so we shall probably have to reprint it over the next few days rather than as one fell swoop.

But to understand the role of Conservatism in today's political world, it will be well worth it.

Next: The Paranoid Style In American Politics by Richard Hofstadter.


Sheldon: Scissors cuts paper, paper covers rock, rock crushes lizard, lizard
poisons Spock, Spock smashes scissors, scissors decapitates lizard, lizard eats
paper, paper disproves Spock, Spock vaporizes rock, and as it always has, rock
crushes scissors.

The Big Bang Theory, "The Gorilla Experiment."


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