The Return of the Paranoid Style in American Politics

Posted on 12. Nov, 2009 by in Uncategorized

I must confess to the fact that I’ve never read Richard Hofstadter’s classic work, The Paranoid Style in American Politics, cover to cover. However, I feel like I’ve read enough to know that, were he alive, Hofstadter would probably be morbidly fascinated by how presciently he’d described our current political moment.

Of the paranoid style, Hofstadter wrote:

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.

If you simply swap out Goldwater’s name and replace it with, say, Glen Beck’s, the formulation still holds. “Heated exaggeration”? “Suspiciousness”? “Consipatorial fantasy”? Watch this clip of Jon Stewart channeling Beck and see if those claims don’t fit:

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If it were just Beck, who is, at the end of the day, just a talking head, this kind of thing might be tolerable. But it’s quite something else when we see elected politicians indulging in this kind of talk. Take for example Texas’ Republican governor, Rick Perry. Just yesterday, Perry said that President Barack Obama was “hell-bent” on turning America into a socialist country and that he wanted to “punish” Texas (for what it’s unclear). A Colorado state senator, Dave Schultheis (R-Colorado Springs), posted this on Twitter yesterday:

“Don’t for a second, think Obama wants what is best for U.S. He is flying the U.S. Plane right into the ground at full speed. Let’s Roll.”

“Let’s roll,” if you’ll recall, was the rallying cry for the passengers aboard United Airlines Flight 93 who revolted against their terrorist captors on 9/11.

So now we have elected officials comparing the president of the United States to unappeased militant Muslim fundamentalists. Once again, it’s useful to revisit Hofstadter’s words:

The paranoid spokesman sees the fate of conspiracy in apocalyptic terms — he traffics in the birth and death of whole worlds, whole political orders, whole systems of human values. He is always manning the barricades of civilization… he does not see social conflict as something to be mediated and compromised, in the manner of the working politician. Since what is at stake is always a conflict between absolute good and absolute evil, what is necessary is not compromise but the will to fight things out to a finish. Since the enemy is thought of as being totally evil and totally unappeasable, he must be totally eliminated — if not from the world, at least from the theatre of operations to which the paranoid directs his attention.

Perry’s wild talk of a socialist America. The creation out of thin air the notion of things like “death panels”; an effort to make something as benign as end of life counseling sinister and subversive. We’ve even come to a point where religious leaders are praying for the president to die:

“You would like for the president of the United States to die?” Colmes asked once more.

“If he does not turn to God and does not turn his life around, I am asking God to enforce imprecatory prayers that are throughout the Scripture that would cause him death, that’s correct.”

Now here’s Hofstadter again, on the way the “enemy” is defined in the paranoid style:

The enemy is clearly delineated: he is a perfect model of malice, a kind of amoral superman—sinister, ubiquitous, powerful, cruel, sensual, luxury-loving. Unlike the rest of us, the enemy is not caught in the toils of the vast mechanism of history, himself a victim of his past, his desires, his limitations. He wills, indeed he manufactures, the mechanism of history, or tries to deflect the normal course of history in an evil way. He makes crises, starts runs on banks, causes depressions, manufactures disasters, and then enjoys and profits from the misery he has produced. The paranoid’s interpretation of history is distinctly personal: decisive events are not taken as part of the stream of history, but as the consequences of someone’s will. Very often the enemy is held to possess some especially effective source of power: he controls the press; he has unlimited funds; he has a new secret for influencing the mind (brainwashing); he has a special technique for seduction (the Catholic confessional).

That almost perfectly describes the way in which Obama has been cast by some of his opponents.

It’s probably not news that the paranoid style is back in fashion. In times of tremendous social upheaval, people base instincts assert themselves and/or they’re preyed upon by those who know how to exploit those instincts. With banks failing, homes being lost, two wars going on and a fundamental change being proposed to the American social contract in the vehicle of health care reform, it’s perhaps not shocking that there’s a certain fear of the unknown in the air. However, that doesn’t mean we should give in to those feelings. Times are tough, but that’s when we need to pull together, not push each other away. Hofstadter was writing during the mid-1960s, another time of great societal change in the United States. We know looking back that the rest of that decade ended as one of the most violent political eras of our history. The circumstances now, in some ways, echo those of that time period, and so we’re left with a choice. We’ve seen what happens when we embrace the fear. Can we go a different way and embrace the idea of hope?

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