Paranoid Left, Paranoid Right

1959/3/10 Joseph McCarthy headshot, as US Senator from Wisconsin, B&W photo
This commentary was written by's Dick Meyer.
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.