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Rec Room: Jake Whitney: “The Paranoid Style in American Politics”

February 5, 2010

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Jake Whitney.jpg“American Political life,” the historian Richard Hofstadter observed in “ The Paranoid Style in American Politics ,” “has served again and again as an arena for uncommonly angry minds.” He continued: “Today this fact is most evident in our extreme right wing.” One of the most influential historical essays of the twentieth century, Hofstadter penned it in 1964 with the political climate of the 1950s in mind, but it has an uncanny relevance today.

There is a startling degree of anger in America right now. Pick an issue and you’ll find people of all political persuasions yelling about it: the Wall Street bailout, the deficit, the wars, health care reform, gay marriage, campaign finance. But it remains primarily those on the far right—the birthers, the Tea Partiers, the Fox News bunch—that couch their vitriol in what Hofstadter referred to as the “paranoid style”: the espousal, unsupported by real facts, that “vast forces” are plotting to undermine their values and what they believe to be the traditionally American, and thus only legitimate, way of life.

To Hofstadter’s 1950s paranoiacs, these vast forces were composed of “cosmopolitans and intellectuals” and “socialist and communist schemers” who had destroyed capitalism and eaten away at classic American virtues. Sound familiar? When Sarah Palin refers to the Midwest as the real America, or when President Obama’s health care plan is denounced as a Bolshevik plot, it is this paranoid style that is being tapped into. Indeed, Hofstadter’s paranoiacs would be proud of their modern-day successors, whose “vast forces” are led by a president who they insist is a foreign-born, Socialist Muslim who “pals around with terrorists,” and who’s scheming to bankrupt the United States and usher in a Communist dystopia full of FEMA concentration camps, man-dog weddings and government death panels.

As absurd as this sounds, millions believe it. But as Hofstadter reminds us, Senator McCarthy’s rants were just as crazy, and millions believed him too.

But what Hofstadter is not saying in his famous essay is that history hasn’t seen its share of real conspiracies, or that it isn’t important to watch out for them. (“There are conspiratorial acts in history, and there is nothing paranoid about taking note of them.”) Nor is he saying that the paranoid style is confined to any particular era, or even that it’s strictly an American phenomenon. In fact, he traces it throughout American history in a variety of forms—anti-Mason, anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant, anti-Communist—and reminds us that it reached its most terrible modern triumph in 1930s Germany.

Rather, Hofstadter’s signal point is that the purveyors of the paranoid style, wherever or whenever they have thrived, are not content merely to wield verifiable facts in decrying their grand conspiracies, or attack them in a strictly political manner. Instead, they turn the argument into a struggle between absolute good and absolute evil, dehumanizing and delegitimizing their enemies (“Barack Obama is a Muslim,” “Barack Obama is a Lyin’ African”). Perhaps the most unnerving point Hofstadter makes in The Paranoid Style in American Politics is that what adherents of the paranoid style believe is necessary to win the argument is “not the usual methods of political give-and-take, but an all out crusade.”

If you don’t believe an “all out crusade” is currently being advocated, you haven’t watched Glenn Beck.


Bio: Jake Whitney is a writer originally from the Bay Area who now lives in Westchester. His work has appeared in a wide range of publications, including The New Republic, the San Francisco Chronicle, Editor & Publisher, New York Magazine, The Huffington Post, and many others. Jake holds a Master’s degree in journalism from Iona College. His most recent Guernica piece can be read here.

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