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The Paranoid Style in Liberal Politics

As a shrewd cultural critic, Alan Wolfe is always worth reading. Recently though, he made an unfortunate diversion into the realm of necromancy, raising the shades of  unwanted and unneeded dead theories. In a recent issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education, Wolfe discussed how far Richard Hofstadter’s theory of the Paranoid Style could be […]
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As a shrewd cultural critic, Alan Wolfe is always worth reading. Recently though, he made an unfortunate diversion into the realm of necromancy, raising the shades of  unwanted and unneeded dead theories. In a recent issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education, Wolfe discussed how far Richard Hofstadter’s theory of the Paranoid Style could be applied to contemporary US politics. It would be sad if Wolfe’s imprimatur inspired any revival of a fatally flawed, but long influential, theory.

Richard Hofstadter was a Columbia University historian, whose best-known books were Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (1963) and The Paranoid Style in American Politics (1965). The title essay in this latter book originally appeared in Harper’s at the time of the 1964 election. A classic JFK liberal, he used his historical skills to analyze what he saw as the political menaces of his day. He described the beliefs and rhetoric of Barry Goldwater and what he termed the radical Right with about as much balance and intuitive sympathy as an al-Qaeda spokesman expounding US policy in the Middle East. Hofstadter located contemporary Right-wing views in a deep-rooted and ugly tradition of hatred, xenophobia, Nativism, and racism, traceable to colonial times. (He always spoke of the Right: conservatism might in theory be acceptable, but America, in his view, had no “true” conservatives).

Hofstadter saw no point in trying to comprehend Rightism as a system of rational political beliefs. Rather, it was based on paranoid fantasies—delusions of persecution, visions of conspiracy, and messianic dreams of absolute victory in a future that would vindicate all present excesses. Only the word “paranoia” “adequately evokes the sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy.” All these views, ultimately, were grounded in irrational fears, of projections of the troubled self. Drawing on the faddish therapeutic creeds of the time, Hofstadter presented Rightism as a pathological disorder. “Paranoia,” in his usage, was not just a rhetorical label, but a certifiable personality disorder.

For Hofstadter, America’s political choice in 1964 could be summarized readily: we are liberal; you are mentally ill.

The Paranoid Style idea was so attractive because it masqueraded as sober history. The phrase has resurfaced frequently in subsequent years, always in the context of denunciations of conservatism. So clichéd has the theory become that David Greenberg pleaded with fellow-liberals to accept “a moratorium on drive-by references” to Hofstadter’s idea.

And now comes Alan Wolfe, who naturally enough adds plenty of nuance to Hofstadter’s  basic structure. No, he says, America’s Right is not irrational, but rather hyper-rational, in forcing serious discussion of critical issues. Even so, he follows Hofstadter in labeling conservative politicians as “extreme-Right-wing,” and indulges freely in off-couch psychological analysis. Wolfe feels that “Hofstadter’s term ‘paranoid’ fails to convey the extent to which psychology, rather than politics, helps explain the actions of today’s politicians who adhere to the radical right.” Instead, he blames current conservative politics chiefly on authoritarian personal mindsets. “Paranoids need enemies, real or imagined. Authoritarians simply dispense with them.” As in 1964, “psychology is now playing such a prominent role in the fervid imagination of the radical Right.” Because Hofstadter died in 1970, he “never got to witness just how correct he was.”

In fact, the “Paranoid Style” is multiply tainted, not least by its sub-Freudian psychobabble. In retrospect too, we can scarcely grant the self-evident irrationality of so many of the views that Hofstadter was denouncing. Yes, the Communist systems of the time were quite as lethally evil as Goldwater and Robert Welch argued, and China in Hofstadter’s own time was passing through probably the greatest age of organized mass murder in human history. The VENONA disclosures, moreover, have validated many of the claims made at the time about the extent of Soviet espionage on US soil. So who’s paranoid now?

But the theory’s single biggest flaw is its naked partisanship. It is incomprehensible that a supposedly competent historian should present America’s long fascination with conspiracy theory and populist paranoia themes as the exclusive property of the Right, while ignoring their massive and enduring influence among liberals and the Left. (Wolfe likewise uses the language of “radical” and “extreme” only for the Right: all liberals and Leftists must by definition be mainstream moderates).

Without going back too far into history, just think of the paranoid garbage that has circulated on the liberal-Left since the time of the first George Bush. We find the persistent claims about administration and CIA control of cocaine trafficking, designed to undermine urban Black political power; and then the 9/11 Truther movement. Under George W. Bush, recurrent shrieks warned that the nation stood on the verge of a theocratic takeover by ruthless fundamentalists and presumably funded by the Koch brothers and Halliburton corporation, and armed by Blackwater. As for the Rightist targets of Hofstadter’s original essay, “international bankers” stand front and center in contemporary liberal demonology.

It is in the realm of race that a Paranoid Style is most starkly evident. As the vast majority of Americans see racism and discrimination as ultimate evils, it is exceedingly tempting to transform any political conflict into “really” a racial struggle, through which conservatives would reimpose both formal segregation and badges of racial inferiority. When the Tea Party movement emerged, even though none of its leaders at any level were making remarks that could reasonably be taken as racially motivated, the immediate liberal assumption was that this was the Klan reborn.

Whether we are considering taxation, benefits, electoral fraud, or medical care, it seems impossible to debate social issues without a comparable liberal assumption of deep-laid racist plots. In such controversies, conservatives are not just adversaries, they are enemies with far-reaching subversive agendas, whose view deserve no consideration. They are obstacles on the road to a shining future of state-guaranteed justice and equality. Or, to adapt one of Hofstadter’s much-quoted phrases, liberals, “who are willing to gamble with the future, enjoy the wide-ranging freedom of the agitational mind, with its paranoid suspicions, its impossible demands, and its millennial dreams of total victory.” And never let the real world stand in your way.

So by all means, read Hofstadter’s 1964 essay, with its dissection of political lunacy. Note especially his conclusion that “We are all sufferers from history, but the paranoid is a double sufferer, since he is afflicted not only by the real world, with the rest of us, but by his fantasies as well.” Was there ever a better anatomy of contemporary liberalism?