No Comment — August 16, 2007, 3:04 pm

The Paranoid Style in American Politics

It’s about us every day, but some days it is stronger than others. And today it is stunning. Consider these examples:

  • In an interview with the Anchorage Daily News, the senior Republican in the U.S. Senate, Ted Stevens, says “This paper has done nothing but try to assassinate me.”

  • Fox News’s John Gibson, one of the most partisan and venomous figures on the airwaves, accused Democrat John Edwards of having “whored his wife’s cancer as a fundraising gimmick.” When he drew criticism over this, he responded that “[t]he war on Gibson is real” and that “it is pursued everyday by the people who just can’t abide by what you hear on this radio program.”

  • Karl Rove, in some of his parting comments, stated that he was “Moby Dick” and that “we’ve got three or four members of Congress who are trying to cast themselves in the part of Capt. Ahab.”

Assassination? Attacks? Whale hunting? All we’re talking about are very powerful figures who are being asked to account for having done things which were wrong: perhaps exercising poor judgment, but perhaps something far more serious. But you’ll not hear a single word of regret or remorse. No apologies. No “I’m sorry.” Instead what we hear is a standardized refrain: “I’m being persecuted.”

Harper’s subscribers (subscription details here) should read “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” one of the most important and most influential articles published in the 155 year history of the magazine.

In the October 1964, America was moving towards an historic election contest: Lyndon Johnson was seeking election in his own right, and the Republican Party had nominated Barry Goldwater. One of the major issues in the election was the rightward drift of the G.O.P. Against this backdrop, Richard J. Hofstadter published “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” (PDF).

Those who don’t like and want to dismiss Hofstadter frequently see his work as a tirade against Barry Goldwater. That’s incorrect. Barry Goldwater withstood the test of time as an important figure in American conservatism, and neither to Hofstadter nor to any serious analyst or historian today does he appear to be a player in what Hofstadter termed the “paranoid style in American politics.” On the other hand, he did attract and play to that camp—a point that reverberated in his acceptance speech at the G.O.P. convention (“Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.”) As Goldwater himself later recognized, this formulation reinforced the public’s impression of him as an extremist and ultimately damaged his already thin electoral prospects. By contemporary American political standards, Goldwater is a moderate libertarian, and a patron saint to those (like your humble writer) who detest big government. But traveling in the Goldwater entourage of 1964 were some very interesting characters, and Hofstadter dug in.

Still, Hofstadter is very clear that the “paranoid style” is something with deep roots in American culture. Something almost universal, in fact. In Hofstadter’s view this “paranoid style” was not necessarily right-wing, or the province of the G.O.P. Moreover the G.O.P. had arisen and been nurtured as a counter-movement to one of the earliest manifestations of the paranoid style, a political movement derided by Abraham Lincoln and called the Know-Nothings.

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.

Hofstadter gives a long historical survey, and details the phenomenon from the early days of the Republic. Suspicions directed at newly arrived waves of immigrants, at nationalities and religions. The hysteria over Jesuits, for instance. Hofstadter writes, “Anti-Catholicism has always been the pornography of the Puritan.” And then waves of anxiety about conspiratorial secret societies, such as the Free Masons. He ends with a fascinating short history of the John Birch Society, one of the most compelling clips from the entire work.

The article has three key elements: a definition of the “paranoid style,” a discussion of the process of construction of the powerful and mysterious enemy, and finally a process of psychological projection in which the enemy’s own horrendous conduct is emulated as a supposed way of surmounting it.

Defining the Paranoid Style
The politician seeking to mobilize the “paranoid style” knows that he has to hit a series of hot buttons. He may or may not believe the points he is making; it may well be that he uses these hot buttons because of the emotive effect he knows they will have on a specific segment of the electoral base. Here are the elements:

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.

Constructing the Enemy
The next essential element is the identification of “the enemy.” He will not be entirely fictional, and he may indeed be an enemy—a force hostile to the nation—but the trick in the paranoid style is the magnification of his threat and the dramatic distortion of his characteristics, to produce something truly hideous, evil and menacing:

john-welch

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).

The threat from the highly focused notion of “the enemy” is complex. Of course, “the enemy” as targeted may in fact be an enemy and may really present a threat to the nation. However, the selection and narrow definition of “the enemy” inevitably presents a simplification and coarsening of analysis of the risk environment. Few nations have a single enemy. More often they have an array of adversaries marked by differing degrees of adversariness that rises and falls over time. However, an analysis that is complex, subtle and accurate is difficult to grasp and to wield as a political meme.

Copying the Enemy
And finally we come to what was certainly the most stunning, indeed, shocking aspect of Hofstadter’s study, namely, the process of psychological projection. The paranoid political advocate crafts a villainous enemy and imbues the enemy with horrendous traits. And to counter this, he crafts an organization which mimics the enemy and copies its traits.

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-Communist “crusades” openly express their admiration for the dedication and discipline the Communist cause calls forth.

A Universal Phenomenon
“The paranoid style is not confined to our own country and time,” Hofstadter writes. “It is an international phenomenon . . . more or less constantly affecting a modest minority of the population.”

I first read Hofstadter in my college years in the seventies. Traveling and working abroad I had occasion to think about his theories. In Russia in the early nineties, for instance, I found that the rise of Vladimir Zhirinovsky and his efforts to craft a political movement followed a pattern close to the one that Hofstadter described. It was successful, but only within bounds.

And then we have the one really commanding example–the country in which the “paranoid style” perhaps went the furthest and had the greatest impact. That would be Germany in the period from roughly 1880 to the end of World War II. Hofstadter’s Columbia colleague, and my friend, Fritz Stern, wrote what may be a definitive application of the Hofstadter thesis in The Politics of Cultural Despair: A Study in the Rise of the Germanic Ideology, which was actually published three years before the Hofstadter article.

Echoes of the Past
If we look at the radical fringe of Republican politics today, we find that the paranoid style is alive and well. It’s undergone a transformation. Obviously, the end of the Cold War and the global collapse of communism created a dilemma. Paranoid politics had been carefully constructed for decades around the threat presented by a global communist conspiracy. Moreover the perception of this threat was hardly paranoid–the threat was quite real and the enemy’s rhetoric in pursuit of global dominance was clear.

By the mid-nineties, however, this model was increasingly difficult to sell. In the late nineties a search was on for a replacement. Would it be China? About the time of the hotly contested 2000 presidential election, that seemed the emerging pick.

However, as has often been said, 9/11 changed everything. With the traumatic experience that accompanied an attack, there was a quick refocusing. Islamic terrorists were quickly substituted as “the enemy,” and it seems that fringe groups are quickly replicating the patterns that Hofstadter identified in 1964.

But the substitution of “Islamo-Fascism” for “Communism” as the new “enemy” of the paranoid right raises some very severe problems. Communist nations had clear designs including infiltration, subversion and conquest–and acknowledging that was never “paranoid” in the normal sense. With respect to Islamic terrorist groups the threat assessment is far more problematic. They present a clear, objective threat, even though this enemy is particularly weak in unifying themes and leadership. But is it an existential threat as was that posed by Soviet Communism? The proliferation of weapons of mass destruction permits the case to be made, but it’s still very problematic. However, the biggest problem with the unifying focus on Islamic terrorist groups is that doing so detracts attention from other immediate threats. Obviously other nations with large nuclear arsenals and delivery systems figure right at the top of that list of threats, and while American relations with other members of the nuclear club have been relatively friendly for more than a decade, it would be foolish to assume that that situation will continue indefinitely. The threat environment is complex, difficult and ever changing. Calling the threat “Islamo-Fascism” and being done with it is a dangerously primitive misperception.

So what is the role played by Stevens, Gibson, and Rove in the contemporary politics of paranoia? I am not saying that any of them is paranoid. They are all shrewd political players, and they understand how to trigger a reaction from the right-wing paranoid base. Portraying themselves as “under attack” is an effective defense tactic, and not one limited to the Republican Right. Ask Hillary Clinton. She coined the term “vast right-wing conspiracy” in fending off her Whitewater critics, and it worked pretty well.


P.S. On second thought, I am convinced that Karl Rove is Moby Dick. He’s mastered that fishbelly white color, he’s clearly been harpooned a few times, and he is driven by a vendetta-like rage against those who are stalking him. I’d avoid boating in his vicinity at all costs.

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