The Paranoid Style in American Politics


Way back in 1964 Richard Hofstadter in an important essay nailed down what he characterized as “the paranoid style in American politics”. It did not appear out of nowhere. It was part of the soil in which the country was born. It did not suddenly disappear from American politics in the 60s either. It has been around for a long time and it is far from dead. In fact I think it is more alive than ever before and Hofstadter’s analysis is still vital.

Remember the word “paranoid” may sound odd, but it really means an unreasonable fear. Fears are good because they alert us to dangers. But unreasonable fears are well unreasonable. They are without reason, or at least in sufficient reason.

Kurt Anderson in his very readable book called FantasyLand which I have posted about earlier, traces the roots of this paranoid style to the arrival of Puritans 400 years ago! It is baked in to America.

I really think it has something to do with America right from the start being subjected to the dominant will of groups of people, like the Puritans, who wanted to abandon reason in favor of faith—but only their kind of faith. When this is done for long periods of time—and 400 years is certainly plenty of time—people learn to abandon reason and when that happens  as Goya said, “the sleep of reason brings forth monsters.” And no one knew this better than Goya.

America, like Canada, has always had plenty of those. I have commented on this in an earlier post as well. That is why the United States thinks that it must spend more on its military than the next 9 highest spending countries combined! That is why I call this paranoia in high def. Fears are natural and good. They help us stay alive. But unreasonable fears are something else. Unreasonable fears are delusions. They are dangerous. And America has plenty of those. I would not be surprised if someone counted them and found they have more of them as well than the next 9 countries on the list combined.

This is what Hofstadter said:

“American politics has often been an arena for angry minds. In recent years we have seen angry minds at work mainly among extreme right-wingers, who have now demonstrated in the Goldwater movement how much political leverage can be got out of the animosities and passions of a small minority. But behind this I believe there is a style of mind that is far from new and that is not necessarily right-wing. I call it the paranoid style simply because no other word adequately evokes the sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy that I have in mind.”

I think this is even more important today than it was 50 years ago. Does this not describe to perfection Sean Hannity and a legion of Fox News pundits? Hofstadter pointed out the toxic brew that was created when anger, resentment, heated exaggeration, a suspicious mind and conspiratorial fantasy were combined. Anyone who follows American politics is very familiar with it. Donald Trump is merely the most recent practitioner in a long line of ignoble politicians and other demagogues who took advantage of this poisonous strain for their own political advantage.

 Hofstadter acknowledged that this was a pejorative phrase, but he was comfortable with that because “the paranoid style is an old and recurrent phenomenon in our public life which has been frequently linked with movements of suspicious discontent.”

Hofstadter in the 1960s pointed to the toxic brew that was created when anger, resentment, heated exaggeration, a suspicious mind and conspiratorial fantasy were combined. Anyone who follows current  politics is very familiar with it. Donald Trump is merely the most recent practitioner in a long line of ignoble politicians and other demagogues who took advantage of this poisonous strain for their own political advantage.

In politics or religion or other social settings this toxic brew is particularly dangerous. I think it applies even more to current times than the 1960s when Hofstadter  wrote about the paranoid style. It helps us to understand the crazy times we live in.

3 thoughts on “The Paranoid Style in American Politics

  1. hofstader’s take on yanqui history was well perused in the 60s and 70s.

    and i think we forget just how paranoid the situation was at that time. outside of the automatic weapon mass murder of today that era was far more paranoid and violent that this one. frequent bombings, assassinations of political figures such as mlk, the kennedys, medgar evers, whole cities burned to the ground, and on.

    our contemporary outrage about police brutality and injustice precisely rests on that history and the modest improvements made as a result of the resistance at that time. we are pissed because we know better and because we see the possibility of those modest improvements being smashed by the, let’s call it, recidivism of the christian far right.

    improvements were really made and obama’s election would never have been possible without them.
    widespread hunger was mitigated by food stamps, infant feeding programs, actual welfare, etc.
    police brutality was far more widespread then. in the early 70s in nyc police regularly killed up to a 100 people per YEAR, now a handful. nationally, deaths due to police shootings went from more than 6/100,00 residents down to less than 2/100,000. that is a LOT fewer people in total. as we know most of them were people of color.
    affirmative action enlarged the african american middle class significantly, opened to the academy to african americans at the student and teaching level, and opened up the public sector to jobs for same even at the administrative and leadership levels.
    immigration was opened up to non-white people, many in this hemisphere, in a significant and meaningful way.

    obviously none of these improvements were nearly sufficient. the mass stop and frisk police strategy and the new jim crow of mass incarceration in the last 20 plus years were highlights of the renewed contemporary paranoid attempts to retract voting rights, destroy the modest welfare programs for low income individuals, continue to occupy low income neighborhoods, destroy affirmative action, etc.
    it should also be said that this “recidivism” of the religious right succeeded with the cooperation of liberals such as bill and hilary clinton, for example. mass incarceration and the the pillage of welfare programs began with clinton.

    what is at risk at the moment is a real return to the dark days before the war on poverty and the onset of the civil rights movement.

    1. I agree completely. Your points are very well made. Did I really say that? I love that expression recidivism of the Christian right.” A friend privately emailed me that Hofstadter’s history was seriously discredited as biased. Do you know anything of this? I was going to post more about his article which I thought was fantastic? But given that my subject is truth I thought I better hold off until I know more about him.

      1. you are probably asking the wrong person.

        i had/have no problem with his theory. certainly it was not mainstream though, if for you “truth” must be mainstream.

        the yanqui have always been isolationist. i think this derives from their puritan christian orientation. it was only post wwii that they really came out of their shell. that has not gone well, witness the decided ambiguity of the korean war, the defeat in vietnam, the failure in iraq/afghanistan, etc.
        and so you get the renewed isolationism of orangey. guess who is his base of support. this base is after call called the tea party, the christians in boston as antecedent.

        paranoia can often lead to violence. the yanqui are an unprecedented violent over-developed country.
        i think that the violence is never as satisfying as the “national ego” “anticipates”, and in fact is overwhelmingly confusing and frustrating. you now have hundreds of years of actual slaughter, which only leads to more of the same. the trauma of being violent and of suffering from the violence builds in layers, like sediment.
        uncle sigmund often talked of the compulsion to repeat, following trauma. this is what you have as a national culture, paranoia leading to violence, leading to more of the same.
        there are spuks around every corner. the “o/Other” always lurks in the yanqui “unconscious.”

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