Things Everyone Should Read – Richard Hofstadter, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics”

Richard Hofstadter, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics”

The essay is a bit dated; Hofstadter says there’s “something to be said… for the nativist desire to develop in North America a homogeneous civilization” in reference to anti-Catholic conspiracy theory (don’t ask, I don’t want to know what he means). He also seems to imply that Alger Hiss wasn’t guilty (Alger Hiss, of course, really was a Communist agent at a fairly high level of government; Hofstadter says, to his credit, that “actual laxity in security allowed some Communists to find a place in governmental circles”). I bring up the Hiss affair not to say that Hofstadter is soft on Communism or even that he thinks Alger Hiss innocent, but rather to raise the important question of whether extremists are justified in saying they’re needed to find other extremists. Is “extremism in defense of liberty no vice,” as many would tell us without any second thought?

On the whole, the essay is an exercise in sobriety that is entertaining, informative and thoughtful: in all seriousness, that people want to jump to conspiracy theories instead of reading things like this is the greatest indictment of extremism there is. For Xenophon’s Socrates, wisdom is moderation, and wisdom may involve having insight that sees the present and past so well it actually can see the future:

If, after our historically discontinuous examples of the paranoid style, we now take the long jump to 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 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.

Important changes may also be traced to the effects of the mass media. The villains of the modern right are much more vivid than those of their paranoid predecessors, much better known to the public; the literature of the paranoid style is by the same token richer and more circumstantial in personal description and personal invective. For the vaguely delineated villains of the anti-Masons, for the obscure and disguised Jesuit agents, the little-known papal delegates of the anti-Catholics, for the shadowy international bankers of the monetary conspiracies, we may now substitute eminent public figures like Presidents Roosevelt, Truman, and Eisenhower, secretaries of State like Marshall, Acheson, and Dulles, Justices of the Supreme Court like Frankfurter and Warren, and the whole battery of lesser but still famous and vivid alleged conspirators headed by Alger Hiss.

Some of you probably don’t know what Hofstadter is talking about in that last part, which is a shame, because I know some readers of this blog are Glenn Beck devotees, and Beck parrots John Birch Society talking points – i.e. “the Rockefellers were Communists” junk. The John Birch Society held that no less than Dwight Eisenhower, a President of the United States, was a Communist:

Today, the mantle of McCarthy has fallen on a retired candy manufacturer, Robert H. Welch, Jr., who is less strategically placed and has a much smaller but better organized following than the Senator. A few years ago Welch proclaimed that “Communist influences are now in almost complete control of our government”–note the care and scrupulousness of that “almost.” He has offered a full scale interpretation of our recent history in which Communists figure at every turn: They started a run on American banks in 1933 that forced their closure; they contrived the recognition of the Soviet Union by the United States in the same year, just in time to save the Soviets from economic collapse; they have stirred up the fuss over segregation in the South; they have taken over the Supreme Court and made it “one of the most important agencies of Communism.”

Close attention to history wins for Mr. Welch an insight into affairs that is given to few of us. “For many reasons and after a lot of study,” he wrote some years ago, “I personally believe [John Foster] Dulles to be a Communist agent.” The job of Professor Arthur F. Burns as head of Eisenhower’s Council of Economic Advisors was “merely a cover-up for Burns’s liaison work between Eisenhower and some of his Communist bosses.” Eisenhower’s brother Milton was “actually [his] superior and boss within the Communist party.” As for Eisenhower himself, Welch characterized him, in words that have made the candy manufacturer famous, as “a dedicated, conscious agent of the Communist conspiracy”–a conclusion, he added, “based on an accumulation of detailed evidence so extensive and so palpable that it seems to put this conviction beyond any reasonable doubt.”

Please do read the essay; I realize a few of you are of the mindset that there is no such thing as right-wing extremism today, that the mainstream media has concocted this concept in order to continue their permanent campaign on behalf of the President and his party. The quick and dirty response to the fact that the media does lean Left – missing that story about ACORN which was to be had for years for example – is as follows. Right now, if you just pay attention to mainstream media, it is true you get a Left-leaning narrative that parrots White House talking points, and it is absolutely true that the White House is not centrist at the moment (for me, it looks like it is being dragged kicking and screaming into the center, forced to take Afghanistan seriously and back away somewhat from cap-and-trade). However, when the White House is (rightfully) attacked, notice how the Right adds little things to the attack that slowly distort what’s at stake, little things that only exist to further the most idiotic theories. The “little things” regarding President Obama’s past associations are meant to make you think that he’s a Communist who wants to throw us all in camps – Michele Bachmann and a few others seem to be leading to this conclusion with the denunciation of the census. I shouldn’t have to say this is nuts: it obviously is, and shame on a number of right-wing bloggers and pundits for fear-mongering when effective opposition requires the insane to be kept away from political discourse.

Moreover, if you need examples of things the right are doing that are absolutely unacceptable, take note. I’m pro-life, and therefore it logically follows that raising money for unrepentant killers is a disgrace, and notice what’s for sale at this proposed auction. I don’t think I need to bring up the right-wing blogosphere’s spirited defense of white supremacy, but what’s amazing to me about the nuts who brought guns to town halls were their militia ties that no one major purporting to speak for the Right thought should have been more of an issue than MSNBC’s coverage. There’s plenty the Left has done that bugs me: the disgraceful treatment of President Bush (I’m aware I can get better sources than that link, I’m just lazy right now), the continual sniping at those who are religious or who have more conservative values, the activist organizations that bully and lie and slander, etc. My own thought is that the most problematic action of the media and the Left right now is that they’re still partisan, and not helping those of us on the Right get rid of the kooks who are taking over (a lot of Ron Paul fans ran those Tea Parties). That’s really the saddest thing to occur in a country, when we can’t see each other as equals or fellow citizens anymore, when we are only committed to faction and not “liberty and justice for all.”


  1. Well I think Both extremes Subscribe to the “Liberty and Justice For All” philosophy, but only for the folks that agree with them.

  2. @ David – that’s a good question: conspiracy theories/extremists do make grand, universal claims. Are they more universal than they seem?

    My own experience is that conspiracy theory can be a cover for something a lot more narrow. A few of the more extreme religious fundamentalists I know – ones who are super pious, and also birthers, truthers, believe that the swine flu was made by the gov’t, hate Lincoln, etc. – are pretty much attaching themselves to conspiracy theories because their more narrow interests (i.e. supporting Serbian genocidal maniacs) aren’t even remotely appealing to others.

  3. I am a Canadian just Googling Hofstadter in order to better understand someting I’m reading.
    I called up this article as it was more current.
    I think the last sentence is totally relevant not just in the USA but throughout the so called democratic world.
    Respect despite ideologic differences is vital to eliminating the worst effects of partisanship

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