The Paranoid Style in Republican Politics

07/08/2011 12:47 pm ET | Updated Sep 07, 2011

Richard Hofstadter made a big splash in his day with an essay entitled "The Paranoid Style in American Politics" (written in 1963 and then subsequently revised). The trouble with the title is that it moves us to thinking immediately of "them" -- rather than "us." In truth, we're all a bit paranoid. Or, if you prefer, we all feel seriously picked on at one time or another.

Furthermore, we Americans have long suffered, since the days of the Founding Fathers, from the notion that we are exceptional. We pride ourselves on having morals and values higher than those of other nations and peoples. In the last decade our "exceptionalism" has been much under threat largely due to our own actions (such as at our prison at Guantanamo Bay, which is condemned by people all over the world). One part of us knows this instinctively, but we resent being knocked off our pedestal, and that is one reason we are plagued by the popularity of groups like the Tea Party. More broadly, the fear of terrorism and the attention we give to protecting ourselves has hung patriotism around our necks, instead of proudly holding aloft our ideals of freedom.

Hofstadter zeroes in on much of what is behind this malaise in our society. It is the paranoid style, as he points out, of both the far right wing and the far left wing. I do wish he were around today (he died in 1970) to bring his writing up to date. His essay was written when the sickening smog of McCarthyism still hung in the air (at best, Senator Joseph McCarthy had one third of Americans supporting his crusade) and Senator Barry Goldwater's presidential campaign had just passed. (As Goldwater said about the extremely right-wing John Birch Society, "I am impressed by the people in it. They are the kind of people we need in politics.")

Applied today, Hofstadter's descriptions and analyses are just as relevant to the Tea Party movement, Glenn Beck, and even the Republican Party leadership in the Congress.

We accept that America's two-party system comprises Democrats and Republicans. In Hofstadter's day, each party had wings to the right as well as the left, but this is no longer the case. Concerning the Republicans, the very far right wing (with the exception of a few individuals who are genuine conservatives) has come to dominate and control the party mechanism at both state and national levels. They are no longer an extreme wing of the party--they are the party. If the Republicans have a left wing and a right wing today it is only within the spectrum of the extreme far right.

This confuses us further because the very far right Republican leadership in Congress represent what appear to be "positions" and would have us believe that they are in "negotiations" with the White House on critical matters such as raising the country's debt ceiling. (For more on that, please see my previous post.)

We have to look behind the Republican façade. Their "spokesmen" in the political arena, whose rhetoric Hofstadter would call the paranoid style of the "pseudo-conservatives," claim that their "political passions are unselfish and patriotic," thereby reinforcing their own "righteousness and moral indignation." In other words, they think that they are more patriotic than you and I, far more "American" than those who don't agree with them.

Hofstadter explains how this view has long been established in our history, reaching a climax in the twentieth century with Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal, whose clear objective, the paranoids would have you believe, was to undermine capitalism, to bring the economy under the direction of the federal government, and to pave the way for socialism and communism. (Can't you see it?!)

The paranoid mindset chooses whatever issues suit it best. For example, the United Nations, has long been a lightning rod: "the principal instrument of a gigantic conspiracy to control the foreign and domestic policies of the United States, subvert the Constitution, and establish a totalitarian society" (Chesly Manly, The Twenty Year Revolution: From Roosevelt to Eisenhower, Chicago, 1954). Yes, even Republican President Dwight Eisenhower and his Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, become Communist dupes, if not actual agents, in the eyes of the fundamentalist right wing of fifty years ago. Obviously, we needed to be rescued from alien forces then.

And what about now?

We see a similar paranoia in statements from Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann -- and on a range of so-called issues. The Republican leadership in Congress is usually less strident, but they use "issues" in the same way. Since they are elected to leadership positions by their Republican colleagues in Congress, a political party dominated nationally by its extreme right wing, what else should we expect?

In almost all the democratic systems I have observed in Western countries, there seems to be fifteen or twenty percent of the electorate that is susceptible to political leaders -- demagogues -- who cater to the paranoid style and appear to be instinctively adept at it.

Every now and then, usually due to prolonged economic and social instability, the percentage jumps to a majority of voters, resulting in fascist-like forms of elected government that parade chosen objects of hostility (usually identified racially, religiously, ethnically, or culturally for they are the easiest to identify).

Americans have generally turned their backs on third parties. I recall the fate of the parties supporting George Wallace and Henry Wallace in 1948. In 1936, if Huey Long had not been assassinated the year before, my guess is that FDR would have been pitted against a similar grouping of left and right reactionaries formed into a third party to protest against Roosevelt's leading us down the road to socialism or not handing out $200 a month to every American over the age of sixty (the Townsend Plan). And, because the Great Depression was still affecting "one third of America," as FDR admitted in his 1937 inaugural address, under Sen. Long's leadership, a third party might have performed well at the polls.

These thoughts bring me to 2012 and our next presidential race, which has already begun in earnest. Will a split between the very far right wing and the very, very far right wing explode at the Republican Party's nominating convention, and a third party emerge? Or, will the Republican leadership be clever enough to paper over their party's differences (indeed, the split may not be that wide!) and nominate a "compromise" slate that could save the party from the kind of defeat they suffered in 1912 when Theodore Roosevelt's "progressives" formed a third party and pushed the Democrat Woodrow Wilson into the White House?

I see a real fight coming at the Republican convention, one which may be so deep and hostile that issues such as that of President Obama's racial and religious identity may be thrown down for all to see. Television will, of course, play a large part in covering the "goings on" of the nominating process. And what about the protesters outside the convention hall? It should be fun to watch!

Unfortunately, Hofstadter has not written about such a scene, but if asked today, he might respond with a quirky smile and say: "Well, what did you expect from a crowd in a crowded auditorium suffering from that mindset?"