Political Paranoids in American Politics

“Since popular voting began in the 19th century, scarcely any winning candidate has received more than 60% of the vote, and very few losers have received less than 40%. Inevitably, Americans will differ over who should be in the White House. But this does not necessarily mean they are polarized.

“By polarization I mean something else: an intense commitment to a candidate, a culture, or an ideology that sets people in one group definitively apart from people in another, rival group. Such a condition is revealed when a candidate for public office is regarded by a competitor and his supporters not simply as wrong but as corrupt or wicked; when one way of thinking about the world is assumed to be morally superior to any other way; when one set of political beliefs is considered to be entirely correct and a rival set wholly wrong.

“In extreme form, as defined by Richard Hofstadter in “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” (1965), polarization can entail the belief that the other side is in thrall to a secret conspiracy that is using devious means to obtain control over society. Today’s versions might go like this: “Liberals employ their dominance of the media, the universities, and Hollywood to enforce a radically secular agenda”; or, “conservatives, working through the religious Right and the big corporations, conspired with their hired neocon advisers to invade Iraq for the sake of oil.” — Historian¬†James Q. Wilson in The Wall Street Journal, 2006. (Link no longer available.)

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