The Paranoid Style in American Politics

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See also: Richard Hofstadter

"The Paranoid Style in American Politics" is an essay on American political behavior by Richard Hofstadter, published in 1964 in Harper's Magazine, adapted from a lecture at Oxford University in November 1963. [1] The work is frequently mentioned in terms of current right-wing activity such as the Tea Party movement or current Republican Party (United States),[2]. or historically in terms of McCarthyism, but it decidedly is not limited to one part of the political spectrum. To take a recent example of the style, well after Hofstadter's work, Hillary Clinton said, in 1998, that president Bill Clinton was the victim of a "politically motivated" prosecutor allied with a "vast right-wing conspiracy."[3]

Hofstadter said that he was borrowing a clinical term, and neither was competent or desirous of diagnosing people with the style he described. "In fact, the idea of the paranoid style as a force in politics would have little contemporary relevance or historical value if it were applied only to men with profoundly disturbed minds. It is the use of paranoid modes of expression by more or less normal people that makes the phenomenon significant."

Remember that Hofstadler wrote this in 1964, when there was no 24-hour news cycle on cable television, no Internet, and no talk radio. Even with much more primitive communications, however, demagoguery based on suspicion has supported many political figures.

The phenomenon is not unique to the United States. The idea of a moral panic easily fits into political appeals, and creating an Other or Enemy is classic for totalitarian states with active propaganda machines.

Hofstadter's introduction

He introduces the concept in terms of the contemporary right wing, "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-wind. 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."

Still more or less on the right, he moves to Joe McCarthy in 1951,

How can we account for our present situation unless we believe that men high in this government are concerting to deliver us to disaster? This must be the product of a great conspiracy on a scale so immense as to dwarf any previous such venture in the history of man. A conspiracy of infamy so black that, which it is finally exposed, its principals shall be forever deserving of the maledictions of all honest men.…What can be made of this unbroken series of decisions and acts contributing to the strategy of defeat? They cannot be attributed to incompetence.…The laws of probability would dictate that part of…[the] decisions would serve the country’s interest.

This, however, he contrasts with the Populist Party fifty years earlier,

As early as 1865-66 a conspiracy was entered into between the gold gamblers of Europe and America.…For nearly thirty years these conspirators have kept the people quarreling over less important matters while they have pursued with unrelenting zeal their one central purpose.…Every device of treachery, every resource of statecraft, and every artifice known to the secret cabals of the international gold ring are being used to deal a blow to the prosperity of the people and the financial and commercial independence of the country.

And then a Texas newspaper article of 1855:

…It is a notorious fact that the Monarchs of Europe and the Pope of Rome are at this very moment plotting our destruction and threatening the extinction of our political, civil, and religious institutions. We have the best reasons for believing that corruption has found its way into our Executive Chamber, and that our Executive head is tainted with the infectious venom of Catholicism.…The Pope has recently sent his ambassador of state to this country on a secret commission, the effect of which is an extraordinary boldness of the Catholic church throughout the United States.…These minions of the Pope are boldly insulting our Senators; reprimanding our Statesmen; propagating the adulterous union of Church and State; abusing with foul calumny all governments but Catholic, and spewing out the bitterest execrations on all Protestantism. The Catholics in the United States receive from abroad more than $200,000 annually for the propagation of their creed. Add to this the vast revenues collected here.…

19th Century

Masons and Illuminati

While the Illuminati movement today tends to be a joking reference to a conspiracy theory, it indeed was an organization formed in Bavaria in 1776. Hofstadter said

It was a somewhat naïve and utopian movement which aspired ultimately to bring the human race under the rules of reason. Its humanitarian rationalism appears to have acquired a fairly wide influence in Masonic lodges. In May 1798, a minister of the Massachusetts Congregational establishment in Boston, Jedidiah Morse, ... [who[ was convinced of a Jacobinical plot touched off by Illuminism, and that the country should be rallied to defend itself. His warnings were heeded throughout New England wherever Federalists brooded about the rising tide of religious infidelity or Jeffersonian democracy. Timothy Dwight, the president of Yale, followed Morse’s sermon with a Fourth-of-July discourse on The Duty of Americans in the Present Crisis, in which he held forth against the Antichrist in his own glowing rhetoric. Soon the pulpits of New England were ringing with denunciations of the Illuminati, as though the country were swarming with them.


20th Century

"Why They Feel Dispossessed"

Returning to the then-contemporary right wing, he observed

the contemporary right wing, we find some rather important differences from the nineteenth-century movements. The spokesmen of those earlier movements felt that they stood for causes and personal types that were still in possession of their country—that they were fending off threats to a still established way of life. But the modern right wing, as Daniel Bell has put it, feels dispossessed: America has been largely taken away from them and their kind, though they are determined to try to repossess it and to prevent the final destructive act of subversion.

The principal motivations of that right-wing group, he wrote, are:

  1. there has been the now-familiar sustained conspiracy, running over more than a generation, and reaching its climax in [Franklin D.] 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. A great many right-wingers would agree with Frank Chodorov, the author of The Income Tax: The Root of All Evil, that this campaign began with the passage of the income-tax amendment to the Constitution in 1913.
  2. 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 men who were shrewdly and consistently selling out American national interests.
  3. ...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 is engaged in a common effort to paralyze the resistance of loyal Americans.

This resonates with current discussions of culture wars. While Communists may not be credible enemies, television is full of Vast Left and Right Wing Conspiracies. Commentators with a conspiratorial theme may ask if there is a conspiracy even as they say they have no evidence, as did Rush Limbaugh, referring to the Birther Movement suspicious of Barack Obama:

This birth certificate business, I'm just wondering if something's up. I have no clue, and folks, I'm telling you, this has not reached the threshold until now, and it's popping up all over the place. There are a lot of people now that are starting to speculate and be curious about this. [4]

Emulating the enemy

Paranoid political actors see conspiracies as impending apocalyptic events: "he traffics in the birth and death of whole worlds, whole political orders, whole systems of human values... Like religious millenialists he expresses the anxiety of those who are living through the last days and he is sometimes disposed to set a date for the apocalypse..." Hofstadter's paranoid could be said to suffer the Curse of Cassandra: always to be correct, but never to be believed.

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.

William F. May, then Cary M. Maguire Professor of Ethics at Southern Methodist University, suggests Hofstadter could have been just as well named his essay "Manichaeism in American Politics". [5] May points out the Manichaeans were dualists. "They reduced all distinctions to the cosmic struggle between two rival powers: Good and Evil, Spirit and Matter, the Kingdom of Light and the Kingdom of Darkness. Hofstadter is not the first to note the element of dualism in American politics. Christian moralists have long bemoaned the tendency to reduce the complications of politics to the simple terms of a TV western, in which the forces of righteousness are pitted against satanic power."

Current consequences

Invoking Hofstadter's ideas, the editors of Mother Jones magazine, in commentary accompanying an article about the group Oath Keepers are concerned "It's not just that it might push some from the paranoid fringe to the terrorist fringe. It's that the political debate becomes corroded to the point where we as a nation no longer have enough common ground to agree to disagree."[6] They did not limit this take-no-prisoners attitude toward the right, mentioning arguments from progressives that no compromise should be possible on health care legislation, with Jane Hamsher of using the same "kill the bill" phrase as Tea Party Movement protesters. [7]


  1. Richard Hofstadter (November 1964), "The Paranoid Style in American Politics", Harper’s Magazine: 77-86
  2. Robert Shrum, The Republicans' Paranoid Style, The Week, April 21, 2009
  3. David Maraniss (28 January 1998), "First Lady Launches Counterattack", Washington Post
  4. "Obama "Rushes" to Grandmother's Bedside (After Just a Few Days)", Rush Limbaugh show, October 23, 2008
  5. William F. May (2 May 1966), "Manichaeism in American Politics", Christianity and Crisis
  6. Monika Bauerlein and Clara Jeffery, "Why Do Some Conservatives Play Footsie With Treason? Wing nuts no longer: Right-wing celebs are helping anti-Obama militias go mainstream.", Mother Jones (no. March/April 2010)
  7. Jane Hamsher (21 December 2009), "Top 10 Reasons to Kill the Senate Health Care Bill", Huffington Post