Head Games

Paranoia Crept into American Political Life a Long Time Ago

Fifty Years ago, “The Paranoid Style of American Politics” changed how we think about modern conservatism. The American polity has been dealing with it ever since.

10.19.14 9:45 AM ET

Political paranoia. It’s everywhere.

Dr. Ben Carson, the Fox News contributor and Tea Party favorite, thinks America will be in such a state of anarchy by 2016 that the Presidential election might actually be cancelled.

Phyllis Schlafly, the long-time right-wing activist, believes President Obama is deliberately introducing Ebola into America, to make it more like Africa.

And Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) claims at least 10 ISIS fighters have been caught at the Mexican border (A charge refuted by the Department of Homeland Security).

“American politics has often been an arena for angry minds,” wrote historian Richard Hofstadter in his groundbreaking essay, “The Paranoid Style In American Politics.” “In recent years we have seen angry minds at work mainly among extreme right-wingers. … It is the use of paranoid modes of expression by more or less normal people that makes the phenomenon significant.”

Contemporary as it might sound, that quote is from a 50-year-old essay published in Harper’s Magazine November 1964 issue.

Hofstadter’s classic piece was a reaction to the anti-Communist hysteria and nativist sentiments expressed by Sen. Joseph McCarthy, the John Birch Society, and some supporters of Republican Presidential candidate Barry Goldwater—the Tea Party crowd of its day. And thanks to birthers, truthers, climate change deniers, and other crackpots, it remains staggeringly relevant.

“The essay was written in the context of the Goldwater campaign, which was a landslide victory for Lyndon Johnson,” says Meg Jacobs, a history professor at Princeton, “and Hofstadter was saying that [this was] the stuff of the state of anxiety of the losers in history. Hofstadter’s essay is seen as a starting place in the history of conservatism in the U.S.”

“Hofstadter's essay helped to shift thinking about conservatism—and American politics more broadly—by focusing attention on the symbolic, psychological elements of political life, instead of seeing political ideology as a natural outgrowth of material or economic interests,” adds NYU history professor Kim Phillips-Fein.

Starting with a brief history of American paranoia involving anti-Masonic, anti-Catholic and other reactionary groups, “The Paranoid Style In American Politics” moved ahead to dissect the fantasies of then-contemporary right-wing movements. Hofstadter stated that the modern right-wing “feels dispossessed: America has been largely taken away from them and their kind. … The old American virtues have already been eaten away by cosmopolitans and intellectuals; the old competitive capitalism has been gradually undermined by socialistic and communistic schemers; the old national security and independence have been destroyed by treasonous plots.”

Sound familiar? Like maybe the line that Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck and others of their ilk are pushing?

“Hofstadter probably would have said that the right is especially susceptible to this kind of thinking because people drawn to these politics have a very limited set of tools for thinking about power and about social change, especially about economic power,” says Phillips-Fein. “They feel themselves to be the victims of forces they can't control. Paranoid politics is the result.”

Yet the essay does not absolve the Left from paranoid thinking. Hofstadter mentions abolitionists who felt the U.S. was in the grip of a slaveholders’ conspiracy, and Populists of the late 19th century who railed about an alleged conspiracy of international bankers. More recently, you can point to Hillary Clinton’s contention that there was a “vast right-wing conspiracy” aiming to undermine her husband, then-President Bill Clinton.

“Certainly there's left paranoia,” says Phillips-Fein,  “but I would say that it is less elaborate than paranoia on the right—less developed, and less mainstream, and also with some exceptions, less focused on developing paranoid or conspiratorial theories of society and how it works. This is of course partly because the right is a lot larger and possesses many more institutions (eg. Fox News) than the left today.” 

But it’s the right that seems to have excelled in this sort of thinking, especially today. Despite the passage of time, Hofstadter’s contention that a basic element of right-wing paranoia involves the belief that there has been a long-running attempt, culminating in the New Deal, to undermine capitalism, rings as true today as it did 50 years ago.

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So does his comment about treason, which plugs into the mentality of those accusing the President of sedition and disloyalty. “Any historian of warfare,” said Hofstadter, “knows that it is in good part a comedy of errors and a museum of incompetence; but if for every error and act of incompetence one can substitute an act of treason, many points of fascinating interpretation are open to the paranoid imagination.”

This mindset, says Jacobs, is “a style of those who feel a certain nostalgia for the past, a more pure imagined past, and that comports with a more conservative impulse. It’s this idea of people who were once powerful, no longer having the place they once had, and they see themselves as more marginalized.”

Whether or not we live in a more paranoid era than the one Hofstadter was writing about is, however, open to question. Certainly FDR attracted his share of crackpot attention, and the hugely popular 1930s radio priest Father Joseph Coughlin, who pushed an anti-New Deal, anti-Semitic, pro-fascist line, was a precursor of the rabid anti-Obama media of today.

Jacobs, who’s not certain that political paranoia is any worse now than in years past, says it might seem that way because of “the explosion of different mass media outlets that allow for more segmented markets. There’s frustration that our political process does not function in the way we want it to, and with this inaction you get these louder and louder voices.”

So remember. If someone tries to tell you that Common Core is indoctrinating our children into the intricacies of Islam; or if they say the Sandy Hook massacre never happened; or the UN is preparing to attack America from a staging ground in Alabama—well, this kind of nut job thinking is nothing new.

“The paranoid style,” Hofstadter wrote 50 years ago, “has a greater affinity for bad causes than good. We are all sufferers from history, but the paranoid is a double sufferer, since he is afflicted not only by the real world, with the rest of us, but by his fantasies as well.”