Article — From the November 1964 issue

The Paranoid Style in American Politics

It had been around a long time before the Radical Right discovered it—and its targets have ranged from “the international bankers” to Masons, Jesuits, and munitions makers.

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. In using the expression “paranoid style” I am not speaking in a clinical sense, but borrowing a clinical term for other purposes. I have neither the competence nor the desire to classify any figures of the past or present as certifiable lunatics. In fact, the idea of the paranoid style as a force in politics would have little contemporary relevance or historical value if it were applied only to men with profoundly disturbed minds. It is the use of paranoid modes of expression by more or less normal people that makes the phenomenon significant.

Of course this term is pejorative, and it is meant to be; the paranoid style has a greater affinity for bad causes than good. But nothing really prevents a sound program or demand from being advocated in the paranoid style. Style has more to do with the way in which ideas are believed than with the truth or falsity of their content. I am interested here in getting at our political psychology through our political rhetoric. The paranoid style is an old and recurrent phenomenon in our public life which has been frequently linked with movements of suspicious discontent.

Here is Senator McCarthy, speaking in June 1951 about the parlous situation of the United States:

How can we account for our present situation unless we believe that men high in this government are concerting to deliver us to disaster? This must be the product of a great conspiracy on a scale so immense as to dwarf any previous such venture in the history of man. A conspiracy of infamy so black that, which it is finally exposed, its principals shall be forever deserving of the maledictions of all honest men. . . . What can be made of this unbroken series of decisions and acts contributing to the strategy of defeat? They cannot be attributed to incompetence. . . . The laws of probability would dictate that part of . . . [the] decisions would serve the country’s interest.

Now turn back fifty years to a manifesto signed in 1895 by a number of leaders of the Populist party:

As early as 1865–66 a conspiracy was entered into between the gold gamblers of Europe and America. . . . For nearly thirty years these conspirators have kept the people quarreling over less important matters while they have pursued with unrelenting zeal their one central purpose. . . . Every device of treachery, every resource of statecraft, and every artifice known to the secret cabals of the international gold ring are being used to deal a blow to the prosperity of the people and the financial and commercial independence of the country.

Next, a Texas newspaper article of 1855:

 . . . It is a notorious fact that the Monarchs of Europe and the Pope of Rome are at this very moment plotting our destruction and threatening the extinction of our political, civil, and religious institutions. We have the best reasons for believing that corruption has found its way into our Executive Chamber, and that our Executive head is tainted with the infectious venom of Catholicism. . . . The Pope has recently sent his ambassador of state to this country on a secret commission, the effect of which is an extraordinary boldness of the Catholic church throughout the United States. . . . These minions of the Pope are boldly insulting our Senators; reprimanding our Statesmen; propagating the adulterous union of Church and State; abusing with foul calumny all governments but Catholic, and spewing out the bitterest execrations on all Protestantism. The Catholics in the United States receive from abroad more than $200,000 annually for the propagation of their creed. Add to this the vast revenues collected here. . . .

These quotations give the keynote of the style. In the history of the United States one find it, for example, in the anti-Masonic movement, the nativist and anti-Catholic movement, in certain spokesmen of abolitionism who regarded the United States as being in the grip of a slaveholders’ conspiracy, in many alarmists about the Mormons, in some Greenback and Populist writers who constructed a great conspiracy of international bankers, in the exposure of a munitions makers’ conspiracy of World War I, in the popular left-wing press, in the contemporary American right wing, and on both sides of the race controversy today, among White Citizens’ Councils and Black Muslims. I do not propose to try to trace the variations of the paranoid style that can be found in all these movements, but will confine myself to a few leading episodes in our past history in which the style emerged in full and archetypal splendor.

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was DeWitt Clinton Professor of American History at Columbia University. His book "Anti-intellectualism in American Life" was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction in 1964. This essay was adapted from the Herbert Spencer Lecture, delivered at Oxford University in November 1963.

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  • fool on the hill

    A coherent discussion of the wiing nuts who are always with us. Pray for common sense and sanity. It is in short supply.

    • DavidHarley

      “Common sense” is usually wrong. Consider the obvious truth of the Sun going round the Earth.

      • Sarmad Chaudhry

        Common sense isn’t “usually” wrong. It CAN be wrong at times, like in your example, but I think you’d have a hard time providing more examples where common sense fails rather than succeeds.

  • paralyzed

    There’s a new book out that uses Hofstader’s analysis as a foundation for looking at the alliance between neoconservatives and the Christian Right and the emergence of the Tea Party. It’s called America’s Right: Anti-Establishment Conservatism from Goldwater to the Tea Party, by Robert Horwitz. Check it out.

  • David Woody

    Totally uncited work that says such nonsense as “Illuminism had been started in 1776 by Adam Weishaupt, a professor of law at the University of Ingolstadt.” Really? 1776? Major fail.

    • Claude Jacques Bonhomme

      Actually, the quote you ridicule is correct. The Illuminati movement started in 1776 in Bavaria (even Wikipedia will tell you that, with a quote). This article in lay language is based on both a lecture and a Pulitzer-winning book chock full of literary references, and is cited at the end of the article.

    • Geek Cream

      What are facts?!

      Said a Republican “Daily”.

      • Mark Jones

        If you worship Ron Paul and or are a 9-11 truther, facts are a photo with words added in PhotoShop. Or a YouTube video.

  • Esperanza’s Servant

    Richard Hofstadter was one of my academic heroes at University and he
    persists to this day with his uncanny prescience about the
    sociopolitical paradigm of America today. This essay is 50 years old and
    just as relevant in 2014 as it was in 1964. Read, learn, mark, and
    inwardly digest this magisterial essay.

  • leadingedgeboomer

    Happy to have been pointed to this essay. Long ago I read Hofstadter’s “Anti-intellectualism in American Life,” and it’s time to read it again.

  • Ryan England

    Funny how little things have changed since this was written. Glenn Beck and the Tea Party could stand in for Bob Welch and the Birchers quite easily.

  • Jason Hops

    So are the Tibetans “paranoid” when they protest their genocide? No.

    ONLY White countries + millions of non-Whites + forced assimilation = White genocide. #WhiteManMarch

    • pantherburns

      You’re right. You are paranoid.

  • obbop

    The USA federal government was intended by the Founders to be owned and operated by an elite class.

    From its inception the USA has been in a state of class warfare with the intensity increasing greatly around 1972.

    What will be the spark igniting the inevitable much-needed Revolutionary War Two?

    • snaketrapper

      Hans Hoppe shows that there is no reason to sit back and wait for some spark – here:

  • JimGlover

    Are the anonymous paranoid? I admit much paranoia and in these times when hackers (The Interview) can set off international sanctions amounting to war without proof because it would be too hard to prove or reveal “national security secrets”. I blieve Paranoia is everywhere… fear is how we are controlled and if one is not at all paranoid one must be immune to reality.

    Reality after all like truth is perception and we perceive from our own personal point of view, and in this world public perception is controlled by powerful groups and interests. What is the War Economy, and big party politics and but political Psy-op wars motivating Domination and victory with increasing intake of the Paranoid Style inherited from most religious and all political traditions?!

    Just a hint about why Jefferson was so feared, He did not believe in “The Virgin Birth” while he liked the message and life of Jesus and other heros of History. Another thing can be said of the Paranoid style… it generates much great art and change, reform, and even revolution while trying to remain above it all is boring at best. Each side tends to think the other is the paranoid ones. For me, fear like courage is human and they are interdependent and part of our evolution.

  • Bob Cuddy

    I read this book back in college in the early seventies and found it again this week. Hofstadter’s analysis of the pseudo-conservative movement is incredibly prescient and still important for giving us an historical context for the political phenomenon we see in America today. It would appear that the “wing-nuts”, like the poor, will always be with us.

    • sjdowling

      Yes, but now those wing-nuts have a major political party. The poor should be so organized.

  • DavidHarley

    We are all apt to fall into the pitfalls of cognitive dissonance, confirmation bias, and confabulation. That is why we are rarely able to take seriously the arguments and emotions of our opponents.

    Clear thinking is rarely to be found, and those who try to practise it, to understand and explain the positions of those with whom they disagree, are usually condemned by all concerned.

  • C. Carr

    I am grateful for my History Professors at Villanova University. Drs. Joseph George, Henry Rofinot and Dr. Bhodan Procko. They carefully presented the material on 19th and 20th century US History. They spoke with enthusiasm about history and invited us to come in small groups and discuss current and historical events. From there, it was an easy road to Hofstadter, Leuctenberg, Manchester and some of our finest historical minds. They have been a compass for me and others for over 50 years.

  • Stogumber

    Hofstadter suffers from the (widespread) tendency to essentialize and exaggerate the difference between himself and his opponents. Basically we are all the same man, and so we can quietly acknowledge the good in the other (even in Robert Welch, all the more in Chodorov).
    And Hofstadter suffers from his nearness to the power elites. His elites are always benign and at worst inept to the situation, whereas his peoples are always to be distrusted (which represents the traditional standpoint of the Court Jew).


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