Monday, October 4, 2010

The paranoid style, revisited

In November 1964, Harper's Magazine published an essay by Richard Hofstadter entitled "The Paranoid Style in American Politics". The essay deals with what Hofstader describes as a paranoid style prevalent (although by no means limited to) in the right wing of American politics. The paranoid style, he argues, is defined by an attitude of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and 'conspiratorial fantasy'. Under the umbrella of the paranoid style, Hofstadter includes movements against Illuminism and Freemasonry, against Jesuit intellectuals and a nebulous mid-century Communism. What makes "The Paranoid Style" worth revisting, however, is the way in which Hofstadter's description almost perfectly describes the current political discourse in the US.

The modern right-wing -- in Hofstadter's time institutionalized in the anti-Communist John Birch Society and the Barry Goldwater campaign -- feels "largely disposessed". He goes on:
America has been largely taken away from them and their kind, though they are determined to try to repossess it and to prevent the final destructive act of subversion. The old American virtues have already been eaten away by cosmopolitans and intellectuals*; the old competitive capitalism has been gradually undermined by socialistic and communistic schemers; the old national security and independence have been destroyed by treasonous plots, having as their most powerful agents not merely outsiders and foreigners as of old but major statesmen who are at the very centers of American power. Their predecessors had discovered conspiracies; the modern radical right finds conspiracy to be betrayal from on high.
The similarity of the rhetoric described here to the claims made by followers of the Tea Party is almost prophetic. Here is Glenn Beck on his television show on Sept 2, 2009, exploring the secretly 'communist' and 'fascist' of the Rockefeller Center. He alternately ties the art to Mussolini and Italian fascism, communism, and the United Nations, as well as to Rockefeller himself:

Hofstadter goes on to describe the 'paranoid spokesman':
The paranoid spokesman sees the fate of conspiracy in apocalyptic terms--he traffics in the birth and death of whole worlds, whole political orders, who systems of human values. He is always manning the barricades of civilization...Since what is at stake is always a conflict between absolute good and absolute evil, what is necessary is not compromise but the will to fight things out to the finish. 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 theatre of operations to which the paranoid directs his attention.
Glenn Beck on his radio program, on October 4, 2010 (with bonus mention of Canada):

The relevance of Hofstadter's essay today is not only in its description of a political discourse that seems to map quite well onto the contemporary political landscape. It is also in its ability to trace this political style through the annals of history. The paranoid style is nothing new, Hofstadter points out. It does not have its genesis in the Tea Party, nor in the McCarthyism of the mid 20th century. While many contemporary article look to explain the Tea Party without the long-view of historical context -- see Matt Taibbi in Rolling Stone for an excellent recent example -- Hofstadter's article points to a problem embedded in American public life, one that requires analysis and careful understanding, rather than dismissal. While he uses the word 'paranoid' in the title of his essay, Hofstadter never dismisses those who engage in the paranoid style as crazy, and thus easy to marginalize. Rather, he takes seriously the idea that something in American civil society prompts the emergence of this style in the form of the mass movement, rather than the modest minority. It is this insight that renders "The Paranoid Style in American Politics" worth revisiting.

For an excellent dramatic reading of sections of the essay, and an interesting panel discussion on the piece in relation to contemporary American life: CBC's The Sunday Edition from September 20, 2009.

For a lengthy portrait of Glenn Beck and his career, see the NYTimes Magazine: Being Glenn Beck.

*For more on the anti-intellectualism in American politics, see Hofstadter's excellent Pulitzer Prize-winning Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. 

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