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) 

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  • 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.

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