“Although American political 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.”
Richard Hofstadter wrote this sentence 50 or so years ago in his excellent essay The Paranoid Style of American Politics but the statement is just as real today as it was then. In an effort to help American citizens understand the dangers of fanatical, conspiratorial political thinking, Hofstadter delineated the “paranoid style” that can be so prevalent in public discourse. Unfortunately his essay is not widely read in our modern times. Yet, it remains a clear and important analysis of the status of American political thought and the dangers inherent in it.
What is the “paranoid style?” Quite simply, it is a mode of thought that sees vast political conspiracies in the actions of the government. It is a hyperpartisan ideology that separates American politics into a battle of good versus evil, where the evil side is supported by a network of anti-American forces that are working to undermine our values.
I plan to point out the seven characteristics of the paranoid style using quotes from Hofstadter’s essay in order to help us to identify the paranoid style whenever we see it in politics. This is a style that infects both parties and is something that we should be able to pick out when confronted by it. A key point is that realizing that something is in the paranoid style does not actually discredit the argument. Good programs can be advocated in the paranoid style, but it more often than not lends itself to conspiratorial or biased opinions. Recognizing that somebody is using the paranoid style gives us reason to be cautious and take their opinion with a grain of salt.
In our current political environment, the paranoid style is rampant, and as Hofstadter says, is mostly used by a minority opinion, even if they do not believe that they are. Often the paranoid style is used by those who belong to the opposite party as the president. The fact of the matter is, they lost the election, so although they may have some grand scheme of voter fraud (see below) they constitute the minority of the politically active opinion.
Well.. let’s jump in shall we?
1.“The distinguishing thing about the paranoid style is not that its exponents see conspiracies here and there in history, but that they regard a ‘vast’ or ‘gigantic’ conspiracy as the motive force in historical events.”
The first point is self explanatory and is one that has made resurgence in modern times. Current paranoid theorists (especially those of the more extreme right wing movements) see contemporary events as a result of a battle that has been occurring for years and years. Over time forces outside and inside of America have been waging a war in order to destroy classic American values. Paranoid theorists of the modern times see the past century as the decline of the vision of what the founding fathers wanted for America with each event tied into a grand plot by maligning individuals on both sides of the aisle. No event stands alone.
2. “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.”
This is the most recognizable form of the paranoid style of politics. When Michael Moore talks about the Iraq War, he is not only wasting money and pursuing a dangerous foreign policy course. He is talking about how America is allowing itself to single handled usurp the peace of the world! Talk to Glenn Beck about health care and it is not a discussion about whether the health care system is financially viable. It is a discussion about how the current administration is single handedly out to undermine the principle values of the constitution! These grand extrapolations are so dangerous because they never allow us to discuss the actual issue. We are not dealing with facts or figures; we are dealing with some hyperbolic destruction of the whole order of American society. That is something that is hard to discuss on objective terms.
3. “He constantly lives at a turning point: it is now or never in organizing resistance to conspiracy.”
I see this one all over the place, but two examples do suffice. Recently on a liberal forum I saw some memes floating around about finally removing Boehner from office in the upcoming November elections. The sole attention was focused on him and the idea that once he was gone, the course of the nation would finally turn around. Now was the time to take back congress! Another example is the upcoming Tea Party rally on May 16th entitled “Operation American Spring.” Their mission: “Restoration of Constitutional government, rule of law, freedom, liberty ‘of the people, by the people, for the people’ from despotic and tyrannical federal leadership.” The plan involves enough people sitting in Washington DC that Obama and friends will have to leave office. Critically, the idea is that right now is the time to organize resistance. We cannot wait until the next presidential election. We must take matters into our own hands. It is now or never.
4. “As a member of the avant-garde who is capable of perceiving the conspiracy before it is fully obvious to a yet unarosed public, the paranoid is a militant leader. 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. His sense that his political passions are unselfish and patriotic, in fact, goes far to intensify his feeling of righteousness and his moral indignation.”
This happens nearly every election cycle. Those who lost the election are convinced that the people who elected such a terrible leader are not fully awakened to the conspiracy that is brewing in their own homeland. I believe that the current term for the un-awakened are “sheeple”. Not only does the paranoid fail to see some of the validity of the election and some of the good qualities of the elected leader, they often view the results as directly rigged in order to facilitate the evil plan of the commander in chief. This is because the paranoid political activist sees the opposition as being absolutely evil, with absolutely no redeeming qualities. Thus, the fact that the opposition leader was elected despite being evil is either the result of a blind and unintelligent public or the evil machinations of said leader.
5. “This enemy is clearly delineated: he is a perfect model of malice, a kind of amoral superman: sinister, ubiquitous, powerful, cruel, sensual, luxury-loving. He is free, active, demonic agent. Very often the enemy is held to possess some especially effective source of power: he controls the press; he directs the public mind through “managed news”; he has unlimited funds; he has a new secret of influencing the mind; he has a special technique for seduction; he is gaining a stranglehold on the education system.”
I am just going to say it: this seems to describe many members of current far right wing movements in their view of President Obama. To them, he is the perfect example of everything that can go wrong in America. Not only that, but he is a shapeshifter of evil, able to use multiple forms of subterfuge. One day he is a iron-fisted dictator leader, the next he is a weak president that is embarrassing us to the world. Not only that, but accordingly Obama is able to manipulate the American public with the “mainstream” media or get in our kids head with Common Core cirruculum. The key here is that these observations do not become discussions about the effects of media bias, or whether or not Common Core is effective education. Rather they become discussions on how Obama is single handedly trying to take over the country and usurp our constitutional rights. From what is claimed, Obama is the most productive brilliant man ever, able to personal maneuver all of the disparate legislations and pieces of the government into a carefully laid net of sinister socialism. Yet still.. He takes too much golf vacations. There is nothing wrong with criticizing the policies of the current administration, the problem is when people allow themselves to see public leaders (especially the president) as the source of all that is wrong in the country. And just so I am not picking on conservatives only, it should be noted that the same thing occurred during the Bush administration.
6. “Yet in his very zeal for freedom he curiously assumed many of the characteristics of the imagined enemy. By condemning the subversive’s fanatical allegiance to an ideology, he affirmed a similarly uncritical acceptance of a different ideology.”
The sad truth is that those who embrace paranoid thinking ultimately become exactly what they are opposing. Both Bill O’Reilly and Keith Olberman are extensive critical of the other sides biased reporting of news, but both of their networks are among the most biased news sources in the country. In an ironic twist, Bill O’Reilly has even named his show the “No Spin Zone” even though of all the news shows, his is leading the forefront of spun news. This leads to a pernicious underlying truth. As often as people the likes of Michael Moore or Glenn Beck have decried the extremism and blind ideology of their respective foes, they have done nothing more than to substitute their own blind ideology to replace that which they view as subversive.
7. “One of the impressive things about paranoid literature is precisely the elaborate concern with demonstration it almost invariably shows. The typical procedure of the higher paranoid scholarship is to start with such defensible assumptions and with a careful accumulation of facts, or at least of what appear to be facts and to marshal these facts towards an overwhelming ‘proof’ of the particular conspiracy that is to be established.”
When we talk about contemporary conspiratorial thinking, we can agree that at the foundation of their thinking, paranoids do have correct assumptions at the core. Communism is bad. The overreach of the NSA into American lives is bad. Preemptive strikes and American hegemony are bad. The difference between an enlightened discussion on those issues and a paranoid rant is that the paranoid activist starts with these assumptions and pulls seemingly unrelated facts together in order to find some sort of grand overarching master scheme. Just spend some time on internet forums and you will find countless people who are able to pull together a bewildering collection of disparate facts in order to create some grand scheme to undermine core American values. No fact stands alone. Everything is coming together to undermine our classic values. They are just as eager to find connections as UFO theorists are to find little green men in Area 51. Unfortunately, the political paranoids find more traction because their base assumptions are valid and in fact are based on morally defensible statements.
To conclude, it must be stated that neither I, nor Richard Hofstader are advocating that people do not remain critical of their leaders and elected officials. Some of the claims of paranoid theorists may have some validity. We must always be able to recognize the flaws in public officials and realize that neither side is completely evil or complete good.
What makes paranoid activists different is that they are one sided, uncompromising and driven to see only their way. This mindset hurts us in two ways. First of all, we become unable to have real discussions about the issues, rather we are forced to talk with fellow citizens who either blindly follow one party or have spun such a conspiratorial net that they will not allow themselves to see anything but the destruction of American virtues. Secondly, we become unable to see good laws and ideas on purely objective terms. Once everything is grouped into boxes of “evil conspiracy” and “all that is good and holy” it becomes impossible to see any good ideas that fall outside of our ideology, notwithstanding their value.
Yes, there are problems and yes, there are serious issues that need to be addressed in the conduct of our government, but staying away from the styles of paranoid politics will allow us to more clearly view the problems and in turn give us a better chance of solving them. It allows us to keep the things that work, no matter what party initiated them, and objectively view the things that do not work without resorting to blind ideology and paranoid hysteria. As we do this and urge our fellow citizens to follow suite, we will be able to ensure that our country remains free and for the people, as the Founding Fathers planned.
Please read Richard Hofstadter’s fully article. Here’s the link: