The paranoid style in American politics

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of Richard Hofstadter’s article The paranoid style in American politics, published in Harper’s magazine in November 1964. To read it is to see how little some things have changed, apart from the names of the people and groups involved.

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.

After an examination of the historical fears of such paranoid people that a takeover of America by (successively) the Illuminati, the Freemasons, and Catholics is imminent, he switches to his contemporary times and what he describes about how such people view things will seem startlingly familiar to us now.

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 old American virtues have already been eaten away by cosmopolitans and intellectuals; the old competitive capitalism has been gradually undermined by socialistic and communistic schemers; the old national security and independence have been destroyed by treasonous plots, having as their most powerful agents not merely outsiders and foreigners as of old but major statesmen who are at the very centers of American power. Their predecessors had discovered conspiracies; the modern radical right finds conspiracy to be betrayal from on high.

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.

I know someone who knows that I am interested in politics and, whenever I meet her, usually in the supermarket, takes the opportunity to open my eyes to the danger posed by the Illuminati. These discussions always remind me of this sketch from That Mitchell and Webb Look.


  1. colnago80 says

    I know someone who knows that I am interested in politics and, whenever I meet her, usually in the supermarket, takes the opportunity to open my eyes to the danger posed by the Illuminati.

    Maybe you should inform her of the insidious dangers posed by the Bilderbergers, the Masons, the Council on Foreign Relations, the Trilateral Commission, and Skull and Bones. End snark.

  2. StevoR : Free West Papua, free Tibet, let the Chagossians return! says

    @ ^ Colnago80 : You forgot the Reptilians and the aliens from Zeta Reticuli (which at least is a real star – see :

    But then, yeah, so many conspiracies out there most so silly its hard to believe anyone can take ’em seriously yet somehow some people do.

    It isn’t only applicable for USA politics either – we have a few (too many) in Aussie politics too.

    Just look up some of now MP Clive Palmer’s claims sometime for starters.. Sadly he’s not our worst politician either.

  3. Lassi Hippeläinen says

    Don’t forget the Communists, the Muslims, the Gays, the UN, or the Old Ones from Hyades.

    I’ve called it the polarizing strategy. Create a polarizing issue, and make sure you can control the loudest section. That gives you control over the rest, too.

    The next step is the crisis strategy. In times of crisis, a good manager gets things done even if it requires bending some rules. Therefore a good crisis manager manufactures a crisis if there isn’t a natural one in sight.

  4. colnago80 says

    Speaking of Skull and Bones, is it a coincidence that 2 of the last 4 presidents (Bush pere and Bush fils) and our current Secretary of State, John Kerry, are members? Highly suspicious if you ask me.

  5. Sandy Small says

    I went to college with a guy who was fixated on the Illuminati. Normally when he’d get going, I’d just roll my eyes and try to ride it out, although I did press him to back up his little fantasy on one occasion–his response was to talk about ancient bloodlines in a scary tone of voice. As I recall, he got a little agitated when I pointed out that all bloodlines are necessarily ancient.

  6. Nightshade says

    Given how far to the left the country has moved in fifty years,perhaps those rightist were not so “paranoid” after all.

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