A Little History That May Help Understand Current Politics

The current politics around the race to be the Republican candidate for President, ISIS, online speech, campus speech, technology, labor, and more have stuck me has angrier and a bit more irrational than I am used to, so an old essay, The Paranoid Style in American Politics by Richard Hofstadter, caught my eye. I offer it as a quick historical perspective on some of our current issues and approaches to them. Hofstadter writes quite well, so it is another example of good style. But he shows that the “paranoid style,” as he calls it, rises across the range of political views and has done so for some time. Here is his opening:

American politics has often been an arena for angry minds. 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-wing. 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. In using the expression “paranoid style” I am not speaking in a clinical sense, but borrowing a clinical term for other purposes. I have neither the competence nor the desire to classify any figures of the past or present as certifiable lunatics. 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. (emphasis added)

That he calls out that the style can show up for any party and is not about being crazy is excellent. He goes on to admit that the term is “perjorative,” because he wants to ensure we know that although it “has a greater affinity for bad causes than good. [] nothing really prevents a sound program or demand from being advocated in the paranoid style. Style has more to do with the way in which ideas are believed than with the truth or falsity of their content.” Wow. He knows someone may say well what about true or false, and he swipes that issue aside, so that he can get to his point, “I am interested here in getting at our political psychology through our political rhetoric. The paranoid style is an old and recurrent phenomenon in our public life which has been frequently linked with movements of suspicious discontent.”

In two paragraphs, Hofstadter explains the idea, the scope, and why one should read more. Damn fine work. Plus he goes on to show show McCarthyism, early populism, fears of Masons and Illuminati (yes Illuminati), and fear of Jesuits fit his idea. To be clear, Hofstadter thinks that something different–including the felling of “dispossession” as Daniel Bell put it–explains what happened with the right in the 1950s. And he offers that mass media allows for greater, easier demonization. Nonetheless, I think that his summation fits for a range of views today:

Norman Cohn believed he found a persistent psychic complex that corresponds broadly with what I have been considering—a style made up of certain preoccupations and fantasies: “the megalomaniac view of oneself as the Elect, wholly good, abominably persecuted, yet assured of ultimate triumph; the attribution of gigantic and demonic powers to the adversary; the refusal to accept the ineluctable limitations and imperfections of human existence, such as transience, dissention, conflict, fallibility whether intellectual or moral; the obsession with inerrable prophecies . . . systematized misinterpretations, always gross and often grotesque.”

As Hofstadter put it, this view allowed him to “conjecture” that “that a mentality disposed to see the world in this way may be a persistent psychic phenomenon, more or less constantly affecting a modest minority of the population.”

The real punch came as he connected the modest minority to more. He said, “But certain religious traditions, certain social structures and national inheritances, certain historical catastrophes or frustrations may be conducive to the release of such psychic energies, and to situations in which they can more readily be built into mass movements or political parties.” That is the idea that worries me. According to Hofstadter, part of the problem may be “a confrontation of opposed interests which are (or are felt to be) totally irreconcilable, and thus by nature not susceptible to the normal political processes of bargain and compromise.” Furthermore, when groups are shut out of “the political process” even if their demands are “unrealistic” or unrealizable,” “they find their original conception that the world of power is sinister and malicious fully confirmed. They see only the consequences of power—and this through distorting lenses—and have no chance to observe its actual machinery.” The idea is to at least be open to other views and seek compromise. Still I am not sure what the response to being shut-out and unable to observe the machinery should be. I can understand that some will argue the process itself is corrupt, and it may be corrupt. I don’t think that submission to the Paranoid Style is the way to go. Nor is simply saying that the system will work correct. To riff on Hofstadter, if the Paranoid Style is on the rise and going mainstream for any issue, we should note it, and be open to the claims and facts. It may be that we missed a sea change that has not only style but substance, often a dangerous substance, as is the case when in “an arena for angry minds.”

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