The Paranoid Style In American Politics

All Seeing EyeFrom Richard Hofstadter’s classic 1964 essay in Harper’s:

The paranoid spokesman sees the fate of conspiracy in apocalyptic terms–he traffics in the birth and death of whole worlds, whole political orders, whole systems of human values. He is always manning the barricades of civilization. He constantly lives at a turning point. Like religious millennialists he expresses the anxiety of those who are living through the last days and he is sometimes disposed to set a date fort the apocalypse. (”Time is running out,” said Welch in 1951. “Evidence is piling up on many sides and from many sources that October 1952 is the fatal month when Stalin will attack.”)

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.

The enemy is clearly delineated: he is a perfect model of malice, a kind of amoral superman–sinister, ubiquitous, powerful, cruel, sensual, luxury-loving. Unlike the rest of us, the enemy is not caught in the toils of the vast mechanism of history, himself a victim of his past, his desires, his limitations. He wills, indeed he manufactures, the mechanism of history, or tries to deflect the normal course of history in an evil way. He makes crises, starts runs on banks, causes depressions, manufactures disasters, and then enjoys and profits from the misery he has produced. The paranoid’s interpretation of history is distinctly personal: decisive events are not taken as part of the stream of history, but as the consequences of someone’s will. Very often the enemy is held to possess some especially effective source of power: he controls the press; he has unlimited funds; he has a new secret for influencing the mind (brainwashing); he has a special technique for seduction (the Catholic confessional).

It is hard to resist the conclusion that this enemy is on many counts the projection of the self; both the ideal and the unacceptable aspects of the self are attributed to him. The enemy may be the cosmopolitan intellectual, but the paranoid will outdo him in the apparatus of scholarship, even of pedantry. Secret organizations set up to combat secret organizations give the same flattery. The Ku Klux Klan imitated Catholicism to the point of donning priestly vestments, developing an elaborate ritual and an equally elaborate hierarchy. The John Birch Society emulates Communist cells and quasi-secret operation through “front” groups, and preaches a ruthless prosecution of the ideological war along lines very similar to those it finds in the Communist enemy. Spokesmen of the various fundamentalist anti-Communist “crusades” openly express their admiration for the dedication and discipline the Communist cause calls forth.

On the other hand, the sexual freedom often attributed to the enemy, his lack of moral inhibition, his possession of especially effective techniques for fulfilling his desires, give exponents of the paranoid style an opportunity to project and express unacknowledgeable aspects of their own psychological concerns. Catholics and Mormons–later, Negroes and Jews–have lent themselves to a preoccupation with illicit sex. Very often the fantasies of true believers reveal strong sadomasochistic outlets, vividly expressed, for example, in the delight of anti-Masons with the cruelty of Masonic punishments.

Read more here.

Back in 2008, Reason Magazine published a response titled The Paranoid Style Is American Politics.  In it Jesse Walker wrote:

There’s a persistant political myth that paranoia is only a feature of the fringe, something common among alienated radicals and reactionaries but rare in the great American center. In fact, paranoia has been ubiquitous across the political spectrum. You can find it in nearly every faction and movement at every point in American history, not least among those establishment figures who think they’re immune to conspiracy theories. (The most lurid and destructive tales of Waco were not told by militiamen after the raid was over. They were told by the media and the government while the siege was underway.)

In The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, the historian Bernard Bailyn showed that the worldview of the patriots who would soon revolt against England included a strong belief, in the words of one colonist, that “a deep-laid and desperate plan of imperial despotism has been laid, and partly executed, for the extinction of all civil liberty.” At the same time, Bailyn notes, British administrators “were as convinced as were the leaders of the Revolutionary movement that they were themselves the victims of conspiratorial designs.” Colonial governors such as Thomas Hutchinson—a man John Adams accused of “junto conspiracy”—believed, in Bailyn’s words, that “the root of all the trouble in the colonies was the maneuvering of a secret, power-hungry cabal that professed loyalty to England while assiduously working to destroy the bonds of authority.”

After independence was won, the victorious patriots quickly found plots in their own ranks. If you didn’t think the Jeffersonians were Jacobin pawns of the Illuminati, you probably fretted that the Federalists were conspiring to establish a monarchy. Nor did the hunt for subversive cabals end with the death of the revolutionary generation. The historian David Brion Davis has pointed out that the lead-up to the Civil War can be viewed as a clash between two conspiracy theories, one featuring a fearsome network of abolitionists and the other a hungry Slave Power.

And no, these passions haven’t limited themselves to periods as violent as the war for American independence and the war between the states. It’s telling that the 1990s, a time of relative peace and prosperity, were also a golden age of both frankly fictional and purportedly true tales of conspiracy. There are many reasons for this, including the not-unsubstantial fact that even at its most peaceful, America is still riven with conflicts. But there is also the possibility that peace breeds nightmares just as surely as strife does. The anthropologist David Graeber has argued that “it’s the most peaceful societies which are also the most haunted, in their imaginative constructions of the cosmos, by constant specters of perennial war.” The Piaroa Indians of Venezuala, for example, “are famous for their peaceableness,” but “they inhabit a cosmos of endless invisible war, in which wizards are engaged in fending off the attacks of insane, predatory gods and all deaths are caused by spiritual murder and have to be avenged by the magical massacre of whole (distant, unknown) communities.” Many bloggers with comfortable lives spend their spare time in a similar subterranean world.

Why all the paranoia? In part, of course, it’s because there really are conspiracies out there. Power does attract the power-hungry. No, Hillary Clinton did not murder Ron Brown—but her explanations for her good fortune trading cattle futures do not bear close scrutiny. John McCain is not a deep-cover Manchurian Candidate, but he was a charter member of the Keating Five. Barack Obama is not a closet Islamist, but there are legitimate questions about his ties to the corrupt developer Tony Rezko. If politics is the art of compromise, then politicians will inevitably be compromised.

Read more here.

So does this all mean that not only do the left and right project onto each other, but the center projects upon the extremes?  And does that mean that all three are not so much wrong about the others’ corruption, but wrong about their own righteousness?

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  • http://unhub.com/drewt333 drewt333

    “So does this all mean that not only do the left and right project onto each other, but the center projects upon the extremes? And does that mean that all three are not so much wrong about the others’ corruption, but wrong about their own righteousness?” Exactly. Self-righteous neurotics quailing and railing in denial at their own inner demons. Grab some popcorn, sit back, and enjoy the Schadenfreude.

  • http://drewt333.tumblr.com/ drewt333

    “So does this all mean that not only do the left and right project onto each other, but the center projects upon the extremes? And does that mean that all three are not so much wrong about the others’ corruption, but wrong about their own righteousness?” Exactly. Self-righteous neurotics quailing and railing in denial at their own inner demons. Grab some popcorn, sit back, and enjoy the Schadenfreude.

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