The Paranoid Style in American Politics

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"The Paranoid Style in American Politics"[1] is an essay by American historian Richard J. Hofstadter, first published in Harper's Magazine in November 1964; it served as the title essay of a book by the author in the same year.

Published soon after Senator Barry Goldwater had won the Republican presidential nomination over the more moderate Nelson A. Rockefeller, Hofstadter's article explores the influence of conspiracy theory and "movements of suspicious discontent" throughout American history.


The essay was adapted from a Herbert Spencer Lecture that Hofstadter delivered at Oxford University on November 21, 1963. It was first published in the November 1964 issue of Harper's Magazine, and was published as the titular essay in the book The Paranoid Style in American Politics, and Other Essays (1964). The essay was originally presented when the conservatives, led by Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater (1909–1998), were on the verge of taking control of the Republican Party.[1]

Historical themes[edit]

Recurring paranoia in American politics[edit]

In developing the subject, Hofstadter initially establishes that his use of the phrase "paranoid style" was a borrowing from the clinical psychiatric term "paranoid" to describe a political personality, and acknowledges that the term is pejorative:

American politics has often been an arena for angry minds. In recent years, we have seen angry minds at work, mainly among extreme right-wingers, who have now demonstrated, in the Goldwater movement, how much political leverage can be got out of the animosities and passions of a small minority. But, behind this, I believe, there is a style of mind that is far from new, and that is not necessarily right-wing. I call it the paranoid style, simply because no other word adequately evokes the sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy that I have in mind.[1]

The background U.S. history details political paranoia against Illuminism (intellectual subversion), freemasonry (corporate subversion), and the Jesuits (religious subversion), then progresses through U.S. politics to its contemporary (1950s–60s) modern incarnations of McCarthyism and the John Birch Society.

The paranoid style[edit]

Given that the world is manichean, such politics requires a politician who, as:

The paranoid spokesman, sees the fate of 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 does not see social conflict as something to be mediated and compromised, in the manner of the working politician. 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 a 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. This demand for total triumph leads to the formulation of hopelessly unrealistic goals, and since these goals are not even remotely attainable, failure constantly heightens the paranoid’s sense of frustration. Even partial success leaves him with the same feeling 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.[1]

The Enemy reified[edit]

In the politics of paranoia:

The enemy is clearly delineated: he is a perfect model of malice, a kind of amoral superman — sinister, ubiquitous, powerful, cruel, sensual, luxury-loving. Unlike the rest of us, the enemy is not caught in the toils of the vast mechanism of history, himself a victim of his past, his desires, his limitations. He wills, indeed, he manufactures, the mechanism of history, or tries to deflect the normal course of history in an evil way. He makes crises, starts runs on banks, causes depressions, manufactures disasters, and then enjoys and profits from the misery he has produced. The paranoid’s interpretation of history is distinctly personal: decisive events are not taken as part of the stream of history, but as the consequences of someone’s will. Very often, the enemy is held to possess some especially effective source of power: he controls the press; he has unlimited funds; he has a new secret for influencing the mind (brainwashing); he has a special technique for seduction (the Catholic confessional).[1]

Emulating the enemy[edit]

Psychological projection is essential to the paranoid style of U.S. politics:

It is hard to resist the conclusion that this enemy is, on many counts, the projection of the self; both the ideal and the unacceptable aspects of the self are attributed to him. The enemy may be the cosmopolitan intellectual, but the paranoid will outdo him in the apparatus of scholarship, even of pedantry. Secret organizations, set up to combat secret organizations, give the same flattery. The Ku Klux Klan imitated Catholicism to the point of donning priestly vestments, developing an elaborate ritual and an equally elaborate hierarchy. The John Birch Society emulates Communist cells and quasi-secret operation through “front” groups, and preaches a ruthless prosecution of the ideological war along lines very similar to those it finds in the Communist enemy. Spokesmen of the various fundamentalist anti-Communistcrusades” openly express their admiration for the dedication and discipline the Communist cause calls forth.[1]

In the personal realm, the paranoid politician usually ascribes “sexual freedom” as a personal vice of his enemy, yet Hofstadter reports that “very often, the fantasies of true believers reveal strong sadomasochistic outlets, vividly expressed, for example, in the delight of anti-Masons with the cruelty of Masonic punishments”.

Historical applications[edit]

Two different approaches to the Radical Right were taken by social scientists in the 1950s and 1960s. Hofstadter sought to identify the characteristics of the groups. Hofstadter defined politically paranoid individuals as feeling persecuted, fearing conspiracy, and acting over-aggressive yet socialized. Hofstadter and other scholars in the 1950s argued that the major left-wing movement of the 1890s, the Populists, showed what Hofstadter said was "paranoid delusions of conspiracy by the Money Power."[2] Historians have also applied the paranoid category to other political movements, such as the conservative Constitutional Union Party of 1860.[3] Hofstadter's approach was later applied to the rise of new right-wing groups, including the Christian Right and the Patriot Movement.[4][5]


In a 2007 article in Harper's, Scott Horton wrote that "The Paranoid Style in American Politics" was "one of the most important and most influential articles published in the 155 year history of the magazine."[6]

Laura Miller writes in that "'The Paranoid Style in American Politics' reads like a playbook for the career of Glenn Beck, right down to the paranoid's 'quality of pedantry' and 'heroic strivings for 'evidence'..."[7]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f Hofstadter, Richard (November 1964). "The Paranoid Style in American Politics". Harper's Magazine. Retrieved November 27, 2012. 
  2. ^ Tindall, George B. (October 1972). "Populism: A Semantic Identity Crisis". Virginia Quarterly Review 48 (4): 501–18. 
  3. ^ Mering, John (1978). "The Constitutional Union Campaign of 1860: An Example of the Paranoid Style". Mid America 60 (2): 95–106. 
  4. ^ D. J., Mulloy (2004). "Approaching extremism: theoretical perspectives on the far right in American history". American Extremism: History, Politics and the Militia Movement. pp. 17–34. ISBN 978-0-415-32674-2. 
  5. ^ Kamiya, Gary (December 5, 2011). "The infantile style in American politics". Salon. 
  6. ^ Horton, Scott (August 16, 2007). "The Paranoid Style in American Politics". Harper's Magazine. 
  7. ^ Miller, Laura (September 15, 2010). "The paranoid style in American punditry". Salon. Retrieved February 1, 2011.