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Paranoia in American politics . . . here they come again (Hint: They never left.)

Originally published on the blog Wickersham's Conscience.


Back in 1964, Dr. Richard Hofstadter, then a professor of American History at Columbia University, wrote a seminal essay titled, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.” In that essay, which is a pretty amazing read more than half a century later, he traced the recurring tendency of American voters to see enemies and conspiracies everywhere. He traced examples back to the 1830s, and forward to the the early 1960s, ranging from the anti-Masons and the Know Nothing Party to the John Birch Society and Senator Barry Goldwater’s capture of the Republican Party nomination in 1964.

Richard Hofstadter died in 1970, but his ideas, and particularly his idea of a consensus approach to understanding history, remains powerful and influential today. And WC can only wonder what Prof. Hofstadter would make of the ongoing manifestations of the paranoid style in American political culture today. The Tea Party nonsense, the right wing’s loathing of President Obama and, most recently, the xenophobia regarding the Syrian exodus are all largely consistent with the framework Hofstadter described back in 1964.

Hofstadter was careful to explain that by “paranoid style” he didn’t mean clinical paranoia, the mental illness. He chose the term for his connotative meaning, popular meaning, definitely including the perjorative aspects. After areview of the long history of the paranoid style in our political culture, he drew two distinctions between that history and then current events. First, the focus of the paranoia had shifted:

If, after our historically discontinuous examples of the paranoid style, we now take the long jump to the contemporary right wing, we find some rather important differences from the nineteenth-century movements. The spokesmen of those earlier movements felt that they stood for causes and personal types that were still in possession of their country—that they were fending off threats to a still established way of life. But the modern right wing, as Daniel Bell has put it, feels dispossessed: America has been largely taken away from them and their kind, though they are determined to try to repossess it and to prevent the final destructive act of subversion. 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, having as their most powerful agents not merely outsiders and foreigners as of old but major statesmen who are at the very centers of American power. Their predecessors had discovered conspiracies; the modern radical right finds conspiracy to be betrayal from on high.

Think of the late Senator Joseph McCarthy and his list of “140 known communists in the State Department,” of the fulminations of Joseph Welch, founder of the John Birch Society. Or perhaps Donald Trump, and his claim of a conspiracy to conceal President Obama’s true place of birth. Actually, listen to the Republican presidential debates and you’ll hear the constant claims of a conspiracy “to tear down our great nation.” So that difference is still with us, even in our nightly news.

The second difference identified by Hofstadter between the old and new paranoid styles was the mass media:

Important changes may also be traced to the effects of the mass media. The villains of the modern right are much more vivid than those of their paranoid predecessors, much better known to the public; the literature of the paranoid style is by the same token richer and more circumstantial in personal description and personal invective. For the vaguely delineated villains of the anti-Masons, for the obscure and disguised Jesuit agents, the little-known papal delegates of the anti-Catholics, for the shadowy international bankers of the monetary conspiracies, we may now substitute eminent public figures like Presidents Roosevelt, Truman, and Eisenhower, secretaries of State like Marshall, Acheson, and Dulles, Justices of the Supreme Court like Frankfurter and Warren, and the whole battery of lesser but still famous and vivid alleged conspirators headed by Alger Hiss.

Of course, the mass media effect Hofstadter noted has been multiplied by the arrival of the internet and social media. Now the true believers huddle together in their digital bunkers to reinforce and mutually support their paranoia. When the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act, WC noted at least three theories appeared as to how the Obama Administration had “gotten” to Chief Justice John Roberts.

Which takes us to the paranoid style of the hour, the political paranoia de jour, the wave of Syrian xenophobia. Apparently, one of the terrorists in the Parisian attacks claimed to be a Syrian refugee. It may or may not be true. That alleged claim has spawned a classic paranoid reaction, with some 30 state governors seeking to keep Syrian refugees out of the United States. Those governors apparently worry that there will be sleeper agents who will commit the same heinous crimes here that they did in Paris.

Anyone capable of rationally assessing risks might recognize that Syrian refugees who are permitted to emigrate to the united States are thoroughly, systematically checked by zealous Homeland Security before being permitted to re-settle here. Compare those persons with a Syrian refugee settled in, say, Germany, who can board a jet and be in the United States with absolutely no screening at all. Which might present the greater risk? Of the population of Syrian refugees seeking admission to the United States, only two percent are of combat age; the majority are children.

By count of instances of terrorism, it’s our homegrown folks who have committed the most terrorism. Think of Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols, who committed the Oklahoma City bombing, killing 168 people – more than were killed in Paris. Think of Theodore “Ted” Kaczynski the “Unabomber,” who between 1978 and 1995, engaged in a nationwide bombing campaign against people involved with modern technology, planting or mailing numerous homemade bombs, ultimately killing a total of three people and injuring 23 others. The left wing anarchists of the late 1960s – the S.D.S., the Black Panthers, the so-called Symbionese Liberation Army – were all home-grown American terrorists. The disaffected lunatic fringe may present a far greater threat to American safety than sleeper agents of ISIS.

But, as Hofstadter would say, facts don’t matter. It’s paranoia. In this case, classic xenophobia. It’s irrational fear of folks who are different. It’s the utter inaability to perform a sensible risk assessment. And it is all magnified by unscrupulous politicians in an election year. It’s not new; it’s nearly as old as our country. But it is utterly disheartening behavior in a nation of immigrants.


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