Article — From the November 1964 issue

The Paranoid Style in American Politics

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Emulating the Enemy

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 constantly lives at a turning point. Like religious millennialists he expresses the anxiety of those who are living through the last days and he is sometimes disposed to set a date fort the apocalypse. (“Time is running out,” said Welch in 1951. “Evidence is piling up on many sides and from many sources that October 1952 is the fatal month when Stalin will attack.”)

As a member of the avant-garde who is capable of perceiving the conspiracy before it is fully obvious to an as yet unaroused public, the paranoid is a militant leader. 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.

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).

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.[2] Spokesmen of the various fundamentalist anti-Communist “crusades” openly express their admiration for the dedication and discipline the Communist cause calls forth.


 In his recent book, How to Win an Election, Stephen C. Shadegg cites a statement attributed to Mao Tse-tung: "Give me just two or three men in a village and I will take the village." Shadegg comments: " In the Goldwater campaigns of 1952 and 1958 and in all other campaigns where I have served as consultant I have followed the advice of Mao Tse-tung." "I would suggest," writes senator Goldwater in Why Not Victory? "that we analyze and copy the strategy of the enemy; theirs has worked and ours has not.

On the other hand, the sexual freedom often attributed to the enemy, his lack of moral inhibition, his possession of especially effective techniques for fulfilling his desires, give exponents of the paranoid style an opportunity to project and express unacknowledgeable aspects of their own psychological concerns. Catholics and Mormons—later, Negroes and Jews—have lent themselves to a preoccupation with illicit sex. 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.

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.

  • 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.


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