Harper's Finest — January 20, 2014, 8:00 am

Richard Hofstadter’s “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” (1964)

“American politics has often been an arena for angry minds.”

Harper's Magazine cover, November 1964

In his Easy Chair column this month, Thomas Frank revisits the historian Richard Hofstadter’s famous essay, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” whose fiftieth anniversary of publication will be November of this year. “To read Hofstadter’s 1964 essay,” Frank writes,

is to experience numerous shocks of recognition. To begin with, Hofstadter noted that what distinguishes “the modern right wing” is that it “feels dispossessed: America has been largely taken away from them and their kind.” . . . The notion that the righteous have been dispossessed is by now so utterly ingrained that conservatives have stopped mincing words about the remedy: they must “take our country back” from the elites and socialists who have stolen it away.

Frank highlights other still-evident traits of the paranoid style, but ultimately lands on a problematic legacy of the essay: its popularization of a “pseudopsychological approach” to political analysis, under which Sarah Palin can be swiftly dismissed as a delusional maniac, or Bill O’Reilly as a narcissist. “We should also note,” Frank writes, “that nowadays the source of the psychiatric style is nearly always the liberal camp.”

Hofstadter was writing at a peak moment of liberal self-confidence, leading Frank to conclude by lamenting the waning of the possibilities presented by that historical moment. “Hofstadter’s warm old liberal consensus was itself in pieces only a few years later — shattered first by its own blunders in Vietnam and then by the leaders of the ‘paranoid’ right.”

Read Richard Hofstadter’s “The Paranoid Style in American Politics”

Read Thomas Frank’s Easy Chair column, “Tears for Fears” (subscription required) 

Share
Single Page

More from Harper’s Magazine:

Official Business March 17, 2015, 4:01 am

Radio Hustle

Listen to the broadcast version of “American Hustle,” Alexandra Starr’s story, for the April 2015 issue of Harper’s Magazine, about how elite youth basketball exploits African athletes.

Official Business January 8, 2015, 3:57 pm

The Art of Outrage

We defend Charlie Hebdo’s right to publish its cartoons—and our right to critique them.

Memento Mori September 2, 2014, 5:33 pm

Charles Bowden (1945–2014)

Get access to 165 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

  • DavidJCCooper

    I read Hofstadter’s book and put it down finally because it was unconvincing. The psychologizing was too facile and really didn’t get at the souce of the paranoia. Fear sells. Addiction to fear creates huge followings for televangelists, politicians and the sale of products promising just about anything but reality. The idea that it’s a liberal/conservative issue, in this case won by the liberals, is too shallow an assessment. It took fifty years to figure out that the biblcal inerrancy/higher critical approach to Scripture was little more than two mad dogs fighting over a fake bone. Defeating an adversary has little to do with truth, but it does keep one’s mind off the ticking of the clock.

    • DavidJCCooper

      Too smug.

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

June 2015

Loitering With Intent

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

A Polite Coup

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Findings

What Went Wrong

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Shooting Down Man the Hunter

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

[Browsings]
“Here, a long finger of snow replaced by gray patches of dirt and rock; there, a grayish blob of ice the texture of corduroy, where once a vibrant white patch of snow lay.”
Photograph by the author
Article
Legends of the Lost·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“A bond with reality has gone, and sometimes you wonder whether that fosters our feeling that movies are a fleeting art.”
Photograph by Alexander Perrelli
Article
What Went Wrong·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“In the seventh year of his presidency, Barack Obama was presenting himself as a politician who followed the path of least resistance. This is a disturbing confession.”
Photograph by Pete Souza
Article
Surviving a Failed Pregnancy·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“If this woman — who spent her days studying gray screens for early signs of gestation — could not see my pregnancy, what were the chances that anyone else would?”
Illustration by Leigh Wells
Article
Interesting Facts·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“My husband is forty-six. I am forty-five. He does not think that, in my forties, after cancer, chemotherapy, and chemically induced menopause, I can get pregnant again, but sisters, I know my womb. It’s proven.”
Photograph by McNair Evans

Number of British women killed last fall by lightning conducted through their underwire bras:

2

British women wear heels for fifty-one years on average, from the ages of twelve to sixty-three.

Thousands of employees of McDonald’s protested outside the company’s headquarters near Chicago, demanding their wages be increased to $15 per hour. “I can’t afford any shoes,” said one employee in attendance, “and I want Versace heels.”

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Subways Are for Sleeping

By

“Shelby is waiting for something. He himself does not know what it is. When it comes he will either go back into the world from which he came, or sink out of sight in the morass of alcoholism or despair that has engulfed other vagrants.”

Subscribe Today