The Paranoid Style in American Politics
"The Paranoid Style in American Politics" is an essay by American historian Richard J. Hofstadter, first published in Harper's Magazine in November 1964. It was the title essay in a book by the author the following year.
Published soon after Senator Barry Goldwater won the Republican presidential nomination over the more moderate Nelson A. Rockefeller, Hofstadter's article explores the influence of a particular style of conspiracy theory and "movements of suspicious discontent" throughout American history.
Hofstadter adapted the essay from a Herbert Spencer Lecture he delivered at Oxford University on November 21, 1963. An abridged version 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 (1965). 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.
Recurring paranoia in American politics
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. Psychological projection is essential to the paranoid style of U.S. politics.
Historians have also applied the paranoid category to other political movements, such as the conservative Constitutional Union Party of 1860. Hofstadter's approach was later applied to the rise of new right-wing groups, including the Christian Right and the Patriot Movement.
The political scientist Michael Paul Rogin, in his book The Intellectuals and McCarthy: The Radical Specter (1967), offered a thorough criticism of Hofstadter's thesis regarding the People's, or Populist, party of the 1890s and similar progressive groups, showing that the ethnic and religious groups that supported Joseph McCarthy and other "paranoid style" figures differ from those who supported the Populists and their successors, and thus that the origins of McCarthyism cannot be found within agrarian radical groups. Despite Rogin's work, the tendency to conflate left-wing and right-wing populism, ignoring significant differences between the two, remains a significant long-term effect of Hofstadter's work.
Another aspect of Hofstadter's thesis has been challenged by Samuel DeCanio's 2013 article "Populism, Paranoia, and the Politics of Free Silver," which argues that instead of being a paranoid delusion, the Populists' position regarding bankers' use of bribes to influence 19th century monetary policy was largely correct. DeCanio offers evidence that the Coinage Act of 1873, legislation that eliminated bimetallism and which the Populists' denounced as the "Crime of 73," was influenced by bribes that William Ralston, president of The Bank of California, paid to Henry Linderman, director of the Philadelphia Mint. DeCanio's article includes a copy of the actual check Ralston used to pay Linderman, indicating the Populists' claims were far more accurate than Hofstadter ever suspected.
A 2020 study claimed that President Donald Trump used the paranoid style (described by Hofstader) substantially more than his post-World War II predecessors.
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." Thomas Frank, in a 2014 essay for Harper's, suggested that Hofstadter's method had popularized a "pseudopsychological approach to politics."
Laura Miller writes in Salon.com 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'..." Economist Paul Krugman titled a 2018 op-ed in The New York Times "The Paranoid Style in G.O.P. Politics" and explicitly referred to the 1964 essay.
Researcher Travis View, who has extensively studied and written about the QAnon conspiracy theory for The Washington Post has described it in 2019 as an example of the paranoid style as described by Hofstadter.".
Several academics have suggested that Hofstadter's argument has been outpaced by events. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick has observed that Hofstadter's essay assumes "a presumptive 'we' -- apparently still practically everyone," who regards conspiracy theories "from a calm, understanding, and encompassing middle ground." Sedgwick, and later Gordon Fraser, argued that conspiracy theories after the middle of the twentieth century proliferated to such a degree that Hofstadter's imagined, rationally liberal audience no longer exists, if it ever existed in the first place.
In popular culture
- The garage rock band The Paranoid Style, formed in 2012, is named after the article.
- The punk rock band Bad Religion's song Do The Paranoid Style is inspired by Richard Hofstadter's essay and the state of American politics. It is on their 2019 album Age of Unreason, which was released on May 3rd, 2019.
- Hofstadter, Richard (November 1964). "The Paranoid Style in American Politics". Harper's Magazine: 77–86. Retrieved November 27, 2012.
- Hofstadter, Richard (2008). "The Paranoid Style in American Politics". The Paranoid Style in American Politics, and Other Essays. New York: Vintage Books. p. xi. ISBN 9780307388445.
- Mering, John (1978). "The Constitutional Union Campaign of 1860: An Example of the Paranoid Style". Mid America. 60 (2): 95–106.
- 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.
- Kamiya, Gary (December 5, 2011). "The Infantile Style in American Politics". Salon. Retrieved 2016-08-19.
- "Michael Rogin's relevance in the Age of Trump | History News Network".
- Gamson, William A. (1968). "The Intellectuals and Mc Carthy: The Radical Specter.Michael Paul Rogin". American Journal of Sociology. 73 (5): 636–637. doi:10.1086/224541.
- "The American Historian: If Trump and Sanders Are Both Populists, What Does Populist Mean?".
- "Studies in American Political Development". journals.cambridge.org. Cambridge University Press. 25 (1): 1–26. doi:10.1017/S0898588X11000010. Retrieved August 2, 2016.
- Hart, Roderick P. (2020). "Donald Trump and the Return of the Paranoid Style". Presidential Studies Quarterly. n/a (n/a): 348–365. doi:10.1111/psq.12637. ISSN 1741-5705.
- Horton, Scott (August 16, 2007). "The Paranoid Style in American Politics". Harper's Magazine.
- Frank, Thomas (February 2014). "Easy Chair: Tears for Fears". Harper's Magazine. pp. 4–7. Retrieved 31 January 2021.
- Miller, Laura (September 15, 2010). "The paranoid style in American punditry". Salon. Retrieved February 1, 2011.
- "Opinion: The Paranoid Style in G.O.P. Politics". The New York Times. October 8, 2018.
At one level, this isn’t new. Conspiracy theorizing has been a part of American politics from the beginning. Richard Hofstadter published his famous essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” back in 1964 and cited examples running back to the 18th century. Segregationists fighting civil rights routinely blamed “outside agitators” — especially northern Jews — for African-American protests.
- Rozsa, Matthew (August 18, 2019) "QAnon is the conspiracy theory that won't die: Here's what they believe, and why they're wrong" Salon
- Fraser, Gordon (November 2018). "Conspiracy, Pornography, Democracy: The Recurrent Aesthetics of the American Illuminati". Journal of American Studies. 54 (2): 273–294. doi:10.1017/S0021875818001408 – via Cambridge University Press.