The Paranoid Style in American Politics

May 3rd, 2009 at 4:58 pm David Frum | 2 Comments |

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Tens of millions of people have viewed an Internet video alleging that the 9/11 terror attacks were masterminded by the US government. The most popular host on the Fox News network accuses the president of plotting to fasten a fascist regime on the nation.

The president’s birth certificate is a fake! No, ailment the evidence for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq was faked! You’re a Marxist! You’re a torturer!

In short: it seems like Richard Hofstadter’s most famous book, physician The Paranoid Style in American Politics, click has never been more relevant.

Modern politics institutionalizes paranoia. More and more people live in communities surrounded by like-minded neighbors, as Bill Bishop and Robert Cushing demonstrate in their book, The Big Sort. To further insulate themselves from unwelcome realities, they withdraw themselves into belief-reaffirming media enclaves. Bishop and Cushing again make the point that back in the 1970s, the best predictor of how we felt about the economy was our own personal economic experience. In the Clinton and Bush years, the best predictor was: party identification.

The non-ideological party system of the years from 1939 through 1975 encouraged consensus-formation and interest-brokerage. But as Republicans evolved into a more ideological conservative party and Democrats into a more emphatically liberal party, passions that had once been confined to the margins of American political life came surging into the center.

Hofstadter explicates the concept of a “paranoid style” as follows:

Although American life has rarely been touched by the most acute varieties of class conflict, it has served again and again as an arena for uncommonly angry minds. …

When I speak of the paranoid style, I use the term much as a historian of art might speak of the baroque or mannerist style. It is, above all, a way of seeing the world and of expressing oneself. … [T]he clinical paranoid sees the hostile and conspiratorial world in which he feels himself to be living as directed specifically against him; whereas the spokesman of the paranoid style finds it directed against a nation, a culture, a way of life whose fate affects not himself alone but millions of others. …

[The paranoid style] is a common ingredient of fascism, and of frustrated nationalists, though it appeals to many who are hardly fascists …. In America it has been the preferred style only of minority movements.

Hofstadter then proceeds through a series of examples of this paranoid style, touching lightly on the anti-Masonic movements of the 1820s and 1830s, anti-Catholic agitation in the 1850s, the populist attacks on the “money power” and the gold standard in the 1890s, before settling upon his main subject, the McCarthy and Goldwater right wing of the 1950s and 1960s. Yet all these tendencies, Hofstadter argues, share certain common elements:

Let us now abstract the basic elements in the paranoid style. The central image is that of a vast and sinister conspiracy, a gigantic yet subtle machinery set in motion to undermine and destroy a way of life. … The distinguishing thing about the paranoid style is not that its exponents see conspiracies or plots here and there in history, but that they regard a “vast” or “gigantic” conspiracy as the motive force in history events. … The paranoid spokesman sees the fate of this 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 constantly lives at a turning point: it is now or never in organizing resistance to conspiracy. Time is forever just running out.

Exponents of the paranoid style doom themselves to perpetual frustration and subjective feelings of defeat.

Since what is at stake is always a conflict between absolute good and absolute evil, the quality needed is not a willingness to compromise but the will to fight things out to a finish. Nothing but complete victory will do. 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 theater of operations to which the paranoid directs his attention. This demand for unqualified victory leads to the formulation of hopelessly demanding and unrealistic goals, and since these goals are not even remotely attainable, failure constantly heightens the paranoid’s frustrations. Even partial success leaves him with the same sense of powerlessness with which he began, and this in turn only strengthens his awareness of the vast and terrifying quality of the enemy he opposes.

The exponent of the paranoid style may be fundamentally irrational. But he strives always to present himself in a rational manner.

One of the impressive things about paranoid literature is precisely the elaborate concern with demonstration it almost invariably shows. One should not be misled by the fantastic conclusions that are so characteristic of this political style into imagining that it is not, so to speak, argued out along factual lines. The very fantastic character of its conclusions leads to heroic strivings for “evidence” to prove that the unbelieveable is the only thing that can be believed. … What distinguishes the paranoid style is not, then, the absence of verifiable facts (although it is true that in his extravagant passion for facts the paranoid occasionally manufactures them), but rather the curious leap in imagination that is always made at some critical point in the recital of events.

Very familiar!

So much of the Hofstadter argument is both brilliantly perceptive and drily entertaining. But now we come to two problems with the Hofstadter approach. “The Paranoid Style” is an essay within a larger section of the same book. That essay is grouped with three others in a section subtitled, “Studies in the American Right.”

The suggestion that that paranoid style distinctively characterized the post World War II American right may have been just barely supportable in 1952, when the title essay was written. But by 1965, the date of publication of the larger book, it was rapidly becoming obsolete. The academic left of the 1960s and 1970s was a textbook illustration of the “paranoid style,” with “American imperialism” and then later “racist patriarchy” substituting for communism as the villain of the vast global conspiracy. And today, while there is no lack of paranoid style on the right (Glenn Beck, Mark Levin, and the rest), by far the most widespread and most sinister manifestation of the paranoid style is the 9/11 denial movement – a movement that surely qualifies as left-wing despite its appeal to elements of the Ron Paul following.

But maybe this distinction between paranoia of the right and left is likewise becoming obsolete. Is Ron Paul a left-wing or right-wing figure?

Yet Hofstadter’s failure of imagination about the future in no way implies a failure of analysis of the past and present. Indeed, the later essays gathered in The Paranoid Style offer good grounds to suspect that paranoid politics will become more prevalent over time.

As Hofstadter tells it, politics divides over two kinds of issues: issues of material interest and issues of social status. As society becomes wealthier, issues of status will come more and more to the fore. And it is status competition that opens the way to paranoid politics – because after all how else can one explain how one’s entitlement to just recognition could be denied?

And can we not see something of this kind of feeling at work around us? How much of the excitement around Sarah Palin involved accusations that Palin and people like her had been denied their due respect?  Hofstadter argued that Americans often asserted their own superior status in the national community by denying and denigrating the claims of others to superiority. Joe McCarthy’s followers were

much happier to have as their objects of hatred the Anglo-Saxon, Eastern, Ivy League intellectual gentleman than they are to have such bedraggled souls as, say, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. … [I]t is no special virtue to be more American than the Rosenbergs., but it is really something to be more American than Dean Acheson or John Foster Dulles – or Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Hofstadter insisted that the American right that emerged in the 1950s and 1960s was anything but a conservative force. British Conservatives sought to preserve a society with which they were basically contented. By contrast,

the literature of the American right was a literature not of those who felt themselves to be in possession but of those who felt dispossessed – a literature of resentment, profoundly anti-establishment in its impulses.

Anti-establishment fervor gave conservatism its impetus in 1964. But what followed next in that year carries some ominous premonitions for our time. This description of the events of four decades ago carries an ominous message for conservatives in our time. Goldwater’s followers, Hofstadter suggested,

were moved more by the desire to dominate the [Republican] party than to win the country, concerned more to express resentments and punish “traitors,” to justify a set of values and assert grandiose, militant visions than to solve actual problems of state. More important, they were immune to the pressure to move over from an extreme position toward the center of the political spectrum which is generally exerted by the professional’s desire to win.

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2 Comments so far ↓

  • ottovbvs

    David, I’m really pleased you reviewed these novels, two of which (the Stoic is very tedious) are in my opinion the best that have ever been written about business in America. Dreiser’s style is a little bit ornamental but once you catch the meter they are enthralling stories about the country in the age of the Robber Barons. I first read them when I was about 16 and have re-read them many times since. Dreiser is very out of fashion but he wrote some exceptionally powerful books. Sister Carrie and An American Tragedy, which are not really overtly about business but share some similar themes to his so called Trilogy of Desire, are also exellent. There is a wonderful cast of characters in both The Financier and The Titan apart from Cowperwood and his mistresses who are myriad, very different and very sexy. Many of them are modelled on actual people, as indeed is Cowperwood who is based on the Chicago street railway tycoon Charles Tyson Yerkes. But who can forget the corrupt Illinois Judge Nahum Dickinsheets, or Hosmer Hand, who Cowperwood cuckolds, and Norman Schryhart and Merrill Prince (modelled on Marshall Field) who are Cowperwood’s deadly enemies in Chicago. Great books.

  • scrowe

    A fair review of an interesting book — and absolutely right about the paranoid strain on the left in the 1960′s. I like David’s use of substantive quotation in his reviews — it gives the reader more of a chance to judge for him- or herself than many reviews do. I wonder if David has read David Bromwich’s “Politics by Other Means” — I picked it up recently (it’s about 20 years old) on the strength of some of Bromwich’s recent essays in NYRB and the London Review of Books — trenchant criticism of current administration that is uncomfortably acute, without making the least concession to the current idiocy on the right that David Frum has been on top of in some of his recent writing.