Richard Hofstadter’s insights into the "paranoid style in American politics” lauded in the NYT

Historians in the News
tags: Richard Hofstadter

About fifty years ago, the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Richard Hofstadter exposed a dark recess of the American psyche with an essay in Harper’s Magazine, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.” Hofstadter was writing about the peculiar tendency of the political right to indulge in paranoid theories, but he was careful to stipulate that the left could just as easily be infected. “American politics has often been an arena for angry minds,” he wrote.

What paranoid movements had in common, he believed, was a sense of dispossession; they were composed of people who felt excluded from the mainstream. “I call it the paranoid style,” Hofstadter explained, “simply because no other word adequately evokes the sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness and conspiratorial fantasy that I have in mind.”

In today’s fractious, high-decibel discourse, these qualities seem to have become political reflexes. Consider that journalists devoted millions of words to critiquing the government response to a virus that, to date, has resulted in the death of a single American. Or that among the alarms of Gov. Rick Perry of Texas, a plausible candidate for president, is that ISIS militants may have crept into the country across the southern border.

Xenophobia has been a staple of paranoids since the birth of the Republic. In his essay, Hofstadter cited Jedidiah Morse, a Massachusetts preacher who in 1798 warned of a plot by French Jacobins, as well as 19th-century populists who blamed America’s recurring financial crises on ­"international bankers.”

Hofstadter was himself a child of an immigrant furrier, born in Buffalo in 1916. Scarred by the Depression, he joined the Communist Party in 1938; four months later, disgusted by the Moscow show trials, he quit. Although his family pressured him to attend law school, he became a historian. In the words of David S. Brown, his biographer, “for nearly 30 years, the legend goes, he wrote the best books for the best publisher, won the best prizes and taught in the best city.” ...

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