‘The Paranoid Style in American Politics’

Political Scientist Richard Hofstadter wrote a famous essay for Harpers Magazine in 1964 called “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” that surely resonates in 2016. This year, we hear candidates scapegoating immigrants and foreigners (especially Mexicans, Chinese, Indians) for low wages of “real Americans”; greedy business owners for moving their businesses overseas; Muslims and/or the gun lobby for the constant sense of fear and danger people feel from terrorism and massacres; big banks, Wall Street, wealthy donors to politicians, and “the one percent” for income inequality. If we could just pass laws ridding the country of bad people or big problems, all would supposedly be well.  Excerpt:

“American politics has often been an arena for angry minds…(a) sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy…Of course this term is pejorative, and it is meant to be; the paranoid style has a greater affinity for bad causes than good. But nothing really prevents a sound program or demand from being advocated in the paranoid style. Style has more to do with the way in which ideas are believed than with the truth or falsity of their content.”

He goes on to cite many examples, including hysteria about the Illuminati, the Masons, or Catholics controlling the world, quotes from Senator Joseph McCarthy in 1951 fomenting fear of communists in the US government; leaders of the Populist Party in 1895 claiming that European governments were (implictly) sending immigrants to America and seeking to undermine the prosperity of the US; a Texas newspaper in 1855 asserting that the “Monarchs of Europe and the Pope of Rome” were sending Catholics to take over America.

Paranoids have emerged when conflicting interests are “not susceptible to the normal political processes of bargain and compromise,” Hofstedter observed, and concludes:

The situation becomes worse when the representatives of a particular social interest—perhaps because of the very unrealistic and unrealizable nature of its demands—are shut out of the political process. Having no access to political bargaining or the making of decisions, they find their original conception that the world of power is sinister and malicious fully confirmed. They see only the consequences of power—and this through distorting lenses—and have no chance to observe its actual machinery. A distinguished historian has said that one of the most valuable things about history is that it teaches us how things do not happen. It is precisely this kind of awareness that the paranoid fails to develop. He has a special resistance of his own, of course, to developing such awareness, but circumstances often deprive him of exposure to events that might enlighten him—and in any case he resists enlightenment.

We are all sufferers from history, but the paranoid 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.

Liam Kennedy makes the case in Newsweek that Trump and Cruz represent the paranoid style of politics in 2016.

The paranoid style of politics was particularly prevalent in Turkey when I lived there. Everyone seemed to have their own pet conspiracy theory of politics. Fortunately, at least then, 2009-2011, the country was prosperous and expansive, so nearly everyone was feeling generous.  Nowadays, I read that some former allies are bickering and fighting with each other, with paranoid suspicions about many factions.

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