The Paranoid Style in American Politics

During the January 31 edition of ABC’s This Week, a heated exchange took place between Fox News top dog Roger Ailes and Arianna Huffington, the editor-in-chief of The Huffington Post. On the subject of Fox News’ talk show host Glenn Beck, Huffington invoked the historian Richard Hofstadter’s notion of the “paranoid style in American politics” to describe Beck’s demeanor on TV (and on the radio). According to Huffington, “the paranoid style is dangerous when there is real pain out there.”

Coincidentally, I had gotten Hofstadter’s book The Paranoid Style in American Politics: And other essays as a birthday present a couple of days earlier. After reading the book – first released in 1965 – it dawned on me: Huffington’s observation was spot on, and Hofstadter’s essay is just as relevant today as it was back when it was first released. His analysis of the paranoid style is enlightening, and his analytical framework seems ideally equipped to describe the actions of certain actors within contemporary American politics.

Richard Hofstadter ([1965] 2008: 3) chose the word paranoid, “simply because no other word adequately” evoked “the qualities of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy” that he had in mind. Hofstadter was aware of the fact that “the idea of the paranoid style would have little contemporary relevance or historical value if it were applied only to people with profoundly disturbed minds.” In other words, whether or not various talk show hosts are truly crazy is beside the point. What’s interesting is the way they frame their thoughts (no matter how crazy they might be). As Hofstadter saw it, it was “the use of paranoid modes of expression by more or less normal people” that made the phenomenon significant (Ibid: 4). The paranoid style is interesting when average Americans embrace it.

Elaborating on the difference between the paranoid spokesman in politics and the clinical paranoiac, Hofstadter wrote that

although they both tend to be overheated, oversuspicious, overaggressive, grandiose, and apocalyptic in expression, the clinical paranoid sees the hostile and conspiratorial world in which he feels himself to be living as directed specifically against him.

The spokesman of the paranoid style, on the other hand,

finds it directed against a nation, a culture, a way of life whose fate affects not himself alone but millions of others. … His sense that his political passions are unselfish and patriotic, in fact, goes far behind.

A key part of the paranoid style, then, is the tendency to see alignments and patterns of behavior where there are none. The paranoid style, by and large, is occupied with the rhetorical unraveling of plots. Plots to change the system. Plots to change the constitution. Plots to change the American way of life.

As Hofstadter (2008: 25-26) saw it, the right-wing of the 1960s could be “reduced to three”:

First:

[A] sustained conspiracy, running over more than a generation, and reaching its climax in Roosevelt’s New Deal, to undermine free capitalism, to bring the economy under the direction of the federal government, and to pave the way for socialism or communism.

Second:

[The contention] that top government officialdom has been so infiltrated by Communists that American policy, at least since the days leading up to Pearl Harbor, has been dominated by sinister men who were shrewdly and consistently selling out American national interests.

Third:

[The contention] that the country is infused with a network of Communist agents, just as in the old days it was infiltrated by Jesuit agents, so that the whole apparatus of education, religion, the press, and the mass media are engaged in a common effort to paralyze the resistance of loyal Americans.

While the third group is outdated, remnants of the first group in particular, but also of the second group (as far as the selling out of American interests goes), are still relevant.

As an example of the first group, take a look at this clip of Glenn Beck (at your own discretion), introducing a new segment shortly after the election of Barack Obama. To Beck, Obama’s policies were threatening the American way of life – so much so that he at several occasions took to tears while describing how much he loved his country (and yes, Hillary Clinton did choke up on the campaign trail in New Hampshire describing how she had gotten “so many opportunities from this country” – but that wasn’t the paranoia talking, whatever that was). As Beck saw it, America stood on the top of a slippery slope: capitalism – socialism – communism. Grandiose and apocalyptic? Kind of.

Of course, it’s easy to dismiss this as entertainment, or even comedy. But Beck’s show has gained traction. Like Limbaugh, he’s been on the cover of TIME, and as a sign of his standing among conservatives – he held this year’s keynote address at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). Limbaugh held last year’s keynote address.

The usage of the paranoid style evolves with the political climate. Back in the 1960s, communism was the greatest purveyor of evil. It still looms large, but other issues have surpassed it in importance. Needless to say, then, the paranoid style can be applied to more than just the threat of communism. Every conspiracy draws on the paranoid style. The so-called “birthers” and “truthers” are no exception. While the “birthers” – convinced that Obama wasn’t born in the United States – is a phenomenon of the right, the “truthers” – believing the U.S. government played a role in 9/11 – are spread across the political spectrum. Their common denominator is the belief in a conspiracy of huge dimensions. One stretching back to Hawaii in the early 1960s, and the other planned and carried out by the former president and his confidants.

I could list more contemporary examples of the usage of the paranoid style, but I won’t. Media Matters does that every day (though they tend to ignore its usage on the left side of the political spectrum). However, if you’re interested in a thorough analysis from one of the best journalistic minds out there, check out this excellent episode of Bill Moyers Journal; “Rage on the Radio.”

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10 Responses to “The Paranoid Style in American Politics”

  1. Linda Gentry Says:

    Hi, Are: Just read the above and found it intriguing and informative. It immediately brought to my mind – Unions!! I once belonged to the Electrical Union when I worked at the nuclear plant. I remember vividly one union meeting in particular whereby one of the “big dogs” used”paranoid tactics” to encourage union workers to keep the union strong. Unions in America (in my opinion) have priced themselves right out of business!! But at one time unions RULED the United States through the use of “paranoid tactics”. That’s my two cents worth.

  2. Are Tågvold Flaten Says:

    I appreciate your input Linda! But I was just wondering about the “paranoid tactics” that you’re mentioning. Was it a particular way of framing an issue, opponents etc.?

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  5. Evoking ghosts from the past: Buchanan 1992 v. Gingrich 2010 « Who Gets What – a nonpartisan journal devoted to the analysis of American politics Says:

    […] In the long haul, Gingrich’s paranoid style is not bringing any new solutions to Washington. Instead, he is stoking fear by borrowing a page from Buchanan. Obviously, Buchanan was by no means an originator, and both  his and Gingrich’s tactics are part of the paranoid style in American politics so eloquently described by Richard Hofstadter. […]

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