2021-02-25

‘The Paranoid Style in American Politics’

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Richard Hofstadter, in his seminal 1964 essay:

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. […]

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.

Written 56 years ago, or written yesterday? You make the call.

I, for one, take solace in knowing we’re not seeing something new.