The Paranoid Style in American Politics and Other Essays

The Paranoid Style in American Politics and Other Essays

by Richard Hofstadter

This timely reissue of Richard Hofstadter's classic work on the fringe groups that influence American electoral politics offers an invaluable perspective on contemporary domestic affairs.

In The Paranoid Style in American Politics, acclaimed historian Richard Hofstadter examines the competing forces in American political discourse and how fringe groups can influence and derail the larger agendas of a political party.

With such other classic essays as Free Silver and the Mind of 'Coin' Harvey and What Happened to the Antitrust Movement?, The Paranoid Style in American Politics remains both a seminal text of political history and a vital analysis of the ways in which political groups function in the United States."Recent months have witnessed an attack of unprecedented passion and ferocity against the national government.

  • Language: English
  • Category: Politics
  • Rating: 4.16
  • Pages: 346
  • Publish Date: 1996 by Harvard University Press
  • Isbn10: 0674654617
  • Isbn13: 9780674654617

What People Think about "The Paranoid Style in American Politics and Other Essays"

America as a self-described Christian nation defines itself historically with a similar ambiguity. Being unique, in the minds of its citizens, America is self-defined as exceptional. Hofstadter tactfully points out that the paranoid style is not unique to American politics. And I think he makes the implicit point that although the style he has in mind is potentially universal, it is particularly, even extremely, well developed in the United States, where it occurs not just periodically but as a persistent and continuous theme of American democracy (one cannot help but think of the X-Files as something peculiar to America). Hofstadter sees this condition hard-wired, as it were, into the American political system and psyche: One of the most impressive facts about the paranoid style..

(as crazy as that theory was too.) I mean, this is a large, well-publicized event, involving hundreds of salt-of-the-earth country music fans, an event which happened during a pro-NRA Republican administration! Then my next thought: Ive been promising myself I was going to read The Paranoid Style in American Politics. This essay, first widely available in Harpers November 1964 issue (I read the unabridged Oxford Lecture version, delivered a year before), may have been occasioned by the rise of Barry Goldwater, but it detects the paranoid strain as something that was present from the early days of the republic: from Federalist fear of the Illuminati (1796-1798) through the related Anti-Masonic Movement (1820s and 30s) and the anti-Catholic Jesuit Threat (1840s and 50s). But I must admit that the following excerpt from a contemporary account of the Jesuit Threat is my favorite part of the essay.

Granted, there is discontent with Obama because of the economy, and Eisenhower on foreign policy, but why this new criticism clouding debate? Hofstadter classifies this as the 'paranoid style' - not necessarily limited to conservatism, but broadly associated with it. It includes a fear of compromise (seen in both Eisenhower and Obama), and redefining the opponent into a broadly conspiratorial role, which must be defeated utterly.

Starting right with the title, Hofstadter zeroes in on the contradictions and pathologies of the pseudo-conservative revolt and its adherents.

In fact, even though Hofstadter admits the 'paranoid' style infects both parties (but concentrates on the right-wing), it seems to me that in contemporary times, both sides have let paranoid politics consume them. Hofstadter traces this trend from its early beginnings, through panics over Illuminati or Masonic conspiracies up to his contemporary time--the Barry Goldwater campaign. The second half of the book is a different kettle of fish entirely--titled Some Problems of the Modern Era, Hofstadter looks at the political battle over the annexation of the Philippines in the 1890s, the progression of the Antitrust movement, and the battle over free silver, also in the late 1800s. A hundred years later, it's difficult to understand the passion engendered by the idea of 'free silver', but I wonder if, a hundred years from now, people will even be capable of understanding the incredible amount of argument over the Affordable Care Act. So; highly recommended to political junkies and history buffs.

I felt the last essay was unnecessary and seemed added as padding of a sort; while it did tangentially relate to the book's theme, it spent more time on a scenic tour of now-obscure 19th- and early-20th-century fiscal policy than on the paranoia that sometimes entered arguments on that subject, and when it did address the paranoia it didn't add anything to the examination in the earlier parts of the book.

This collection of essays is especially insightful in today's political environment where the Tea Baggers' boiling kettle is making such a ruckus. While it has characterized the political left at times, Hofstadler, writing in the 50s and Goldwater 60s, is most concerned with it's modern "pseudo-conservative" bent. According to Hofstadter, "Status Politics," not rational economic interest, is the motivating factor for pseudo-conservativism. Compare with "What's the Matter with Kansas." Americans are more prone to status anxiety because of their geographic mobility and relatively democratic, multi-cultural, and egalitarian social structure. Since Americans have an anomic rootlessness in terms of status they are more prone to the paranoid style in politics.

First, Hofstadter is unfair to some of the historical movements he cites as presaging the "Paranoid Style". The preachers who fanned the Illuminati scare in 1790s New England were wrong, it's true, but they were responding to a very real revolution in public mores and religious views. The anti-Masonic party may have overestimated Masons' evil influence, but they were responding to a system of governance that served the elite, at a time when democratic institutions and the need of working people to be represented were coming into conflict with this system. Because he has to harmonize his analysis of the Paranoid Style with his Consensus View of American history. The Consensus View is wrong. It is an overgeneralization from the situation that prevailed in post-war America, when Hofstadter happened to form his opinions -- this was a period when the party in power represented northern liberals, big-city machines, organized labor, the mafia, and the white supremacists in the south, and the other party broadly agreed with its program but promised to administer it better.

The phrase paranoid style has been bandied about in discussions of American politics ever since Hofstadter wrote his article, back in the 1960s. It points to an irrational fearfulness directed by the American right towards such people as communists, socialists, liberals and ethnic minorities. The paranoia comes in when we have elaborate and loopy fantasies about people and when our fears are disproportionate and extreme.

Its a pretty honest attempt to rake through McCarthyism and Goldwater's rise to discern the common themes, the rhetoric and perhaps the underlying emotional, psychological and social phenomena that keep this unique American brand of anti-intellectual aggression disguised as the defense of liberty a vital force, a bad dream we can't wake up from.

Richard Hofstadter was an American public intellectual, historian and DeWitt Clinton Professor of American History at Columbia University. His most important works are Social Darwinism in American Thought, 18601915 (1944); The American Political Tradition (1948); The Age of Reform (1955); Anti-intellectualism in American Life (1963), and the essays collected in The Paranoid Style in American Politics (1964). He was twice awarded the Pulitzer Prize: in 1956 for The Age of Reform, an unsentimental analysis of the populism movement in the 1890s and the progressive movement of the early 20th century; and in 1964 for the cultural history, Anti-intellectualism in American Life. In 1942, he earned his doctorate in history and in 1944 published his dissertation Social Darwinism in American Thought, 18601915, a pithy and commercially successful (200,000 copies) critique of late 19th century American capitalism and those who espoused its ruthless dog-eat-dog economic competition and justified themselves by invoking the doctrine of as Social Darwinism, identified with William Graham Sumner.