Forty-two years ago, in November of 1963, an American historian named Richard Hofstadter gave a lecture at the University of Oxford that is still cited often today.
The lecture's title gave a handy name to a complicated historical theme – "The Paranoid Style in American Politics." In the decades since Hofstadter made that psychiatric term a staple of political commentary, his seminal essay has been often marshaled, almost always by liberals or progressives, to buttress diagnoses of what makes the far right tick and what makes it scary.
Hofstadter, in this brief essay (an abridged version later appeared in Harper's and is available here) charted the course a bad virus through American politics, mostly conservative, from conspiracy theories about the Bavarian Illuminati in the late 18th century to the anti-Mason movement off the 1820s, the anti-Catholic fever of the mid-1800s and on through McCarthyism and the "pseudo-conservatism" of the John Birch Society in the early 1960s.
My contention, a disturbing one, is that the paranoid style has become much less ideological and partisan since Hofstadter's lecture and now afflicts both left and right without prejudice. Indeed, sometimes it seems like the paranoid style is almost now the ordinary style among the most politically active.
The immediate impetus for this little epiphany came after I wrote a couple columns that complained about what I felt was a demagogic charade of political blame and scapegoating after Hurricane Katrina. Many readers from the left wrote in, angrily, that I had absurdly called Katrina a "natural disaster." Did I not know that it was caused by global warming and could have been prevented if President Bush had only signed the Kyoto pact? Didn't I know that in four and a half years in office, the Bush administration had destroyed all the natural wetlands that would have protected New Orleans? This was not only a man-made hurricane; it was made by one omnipotent man who was president of the United States.
These e-mails reminded my of a passage from Hofstadter's essay describing how the paranoid sees The Enemy, The Conspirator:
"He is a free active, demonic agent. He wills, indeed he manufactures, the mechanism of history himself, or deflects 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."
He creates hurricanes. He starts wars for cheap oil. He steals elections.
My suspicion became conviction when I went to test my theory out on a psychiatrist who is a scholar of both mass psychology and American history, and a leftie. I told him that I had just reread the great work and thought it applied to current American politics as never before. Oh yes he agreed, the paranoid style had culminated when one of its practitioners claimed the White House in 2000. At that point, I really knew I was on to something.
When searching for paranoid style in history, Hofstadter's raw materials were sermons, pamphlets, the Congressional Record and campaign materials. Today, one would go to blogs, talk radio, cable talk shows, and not even the fringe ones of neo-Nazis, survivalists, LaRouchies or Moonies.
See if some of Hofstadter's riffs on the political paranoid don't ring true:
"… the spokesman of the paranoid style finds it [a hostile conspiracy] against a nation, a culture, a way of life whose fate affects not himself alone but million of others … His sense of his political passions are unselfish and patriotic, in fact, goes far to intensify his feeling of righteousness and his moral indignation …
The central image is that of a vast and sinister conspiracy, a gigantic and yet subtle machinery of influence set in motion to undermine and destroy a way of life … History is a conspiracy, set in motion by demonic forces of almost transcendent power, and what is felt to be needed to defeat it is not the usual methods of political give-and-take, but an all-out crusade." [bold emphasis mine]
Anyone come to mind? Perhaps Hillary Clinton's "vast right-wing conspiracy?" Or maybe the Rovists, those who are convinced "Bush's brain can control rainfall in Roanoke? Or Ann Coulter and Michael Savage? Or Bernie Goldberg's harrowing tales of how liberal media held him hostage for so many years by paying him hundreds of thousands of dollars a year.
Although Hofstadter had studied Joseph McCarthy's use of television and radio, he could not have foreseen how the mass media would fertilize the paranoid style — as both a tool and an object of paranoia. The Internet in particular offers fellow travelers a powerful tool: instant — if virtual — community, instant access to great libraries and databases for the precise, exhaustive research that almost always accompanies the paranoid thesis and an instant megaphone made of Web sites, blogs and e-mail. And in politics, consultants and media specialists use the techniques of modern marketing to merchandise paranoid politics.
The media has become of the great Rorschach's of the paranoid style, left and right. Each side is morally convinced the other side controls the media, which is then hopelessly biased. The media at the beginning of the 21st century is the fluoride of the 1950s — the great, invisible brainwasher.
What Hofstadter did foresee, what he saw in history, were the conditions that could incite great spasms of the paranoid. "Catastrophe or the fear of catastrophe," he wrote, "is the most likely to elicit the syndrome of paranoid rhetoric." In these times, 9/11 may be that catastrophe.
In the shadow of catastrophe, past and future, there will be increased "ethnic and religious conflicts" (which Hofstadter felt were much more important in America than class conflicts). The "paranoid tendency is aroused" when there comes a clash of interests that are "totally irreconcilable, and thus by nature not susceptible to the normal political process of bargain and compromise." These interests are, essentially, a way of life, a system of values. In the paranoid climate, what people fear is that The Enemy wants to take away your way of life.
Today we call that culture war. Or Red America vs. Blue America. The great dynamic is that so many people — politically engaged people, not most people, not most voters as is too often argued — are convinced that a malevolent opponent wants to destroy their very way of life and has the power to do so. Evangelical Christians may believe that gay marriage, abortion rights, promiscuous and violent popular culture and gun control are all part of a plot to destroy their community of values. Urban, secular liberals may believe that presidential God-talk, anti-abortion legislators and judges, intrusive Homeland Security programs and imperialist wars are part of a sinister cabal to quash their very way of life.
The political paranoid, according to Hofstadter, "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." My worry is that their fantasies are becoming our realities. But maybe that's a bit paranoid.
Dick Meyer was a political and investigative producer for CBS News and is the Editorial Director of CBSNews.com, based in Washington.
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By Dick Meyer