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The Paranoid Style in American Politics | Harper’s Magazine – 1964

Richard Hofstadter was DeWitt Clinton Professor of American History at Columbia University. His book “Anti-intellectualism in American Life” was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction in 1964. This essay was adapted from the Herbert Spencer Lecture, delivered at Oxford University in November 1963.

“… Fear of a Masonic plot had hardly been quieted when the rumors arose of a Catholic plot against American values. One meets here again the same frame of mind, but a different villain. The anti-Catholic movement converged with a growing nativism, and while they were not identical, together they cut such a wide swath in American life that they were bound to embrace many moderates to whom the paranoid style, in its full glory, did not appeal. Moreover, we need not dismiss out of hand as totally parochial or mean-spirited the desire of Yankee Americans to maintain an ethnically and religiously homogeneous society nor the particular Protestant commitments to individualism and freedom that were brought into play. But the movement had a large paranoid infusion, and the most influential anti-Catholic militants certainly had a strong affinity for the paranoid style…

… There Protestantism was engaged in a life-or-death struggle with Catholicism. “Whatever we do, it must be done quickly. . . . ” A great tide of immigration, hostile to free institutions, was sweeping in upon the country, subsidized and sent by “the potentates of Europe,” multiplying tumult and violence, filling jails, crowding poorhouses, quadrupling taxation, and sending increasing thousands of voters to “lay their inexperienced hand upon the helm of our power.”

Source: The Paranoid Style in American Politics | Harper’s Magazine

If you prefer the pdf version it’s here: Hofstadter-Paranoid-Style-American-Politics

This makes for outstanding reading – Prof. Hofstadter explores the mechanics of the paranoid style, including “the sense that all our ills can be traced to a single center and hence can be eliminated by some kind of final act of victory over the evil source.” Incredibly religious, but even more pronounced in Protestant cultures. This does of course also happen outside America. For much of the 20th century the Judeo-Masonic conspiracy was part of the Spanish political discourse and now the Muslims are the new Catholics.

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51 comments on “The Paranoid Style in American Politics | Harper’s Magazine – 1964

  1. Steve Ruis
    February 15, 2018

    Sounds like us … I will give it a read.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. jim-
    February 15, 2018

    Interesting insight. I might add that opposition also, is frequently adapted for the sole purpose of disagreement. Breaking away often includes denying premises that are even noteworthy. In the Mormon faith, they don’t use the cross just because everyone else does. No other reason than to separate from the others, which even causes further division than is needed. Now the rest of christiandom doesn’t even consider them Christian. And this excerpt from the article is so true in so many aspects “For nearly thirty years these conspirators have kept the people quarreling over less important matters while they have pursued with unrelenting zeal their one central purpose.”

    Liked by 2 people

    • The Pink Agendist
      February 15, 2018

      Your chosen quote explains the majority of “culture war” debates.

      Liked by 1 person

      • jim-
        February 15, 2018

        And religious debate. While those that write the rules never adhere to them while you’re debating two false premises.

        Liked by 1 person

      • The Pink Agendist
        February 15, 2018

        Are you for the meta-atheism theory? I lean more that way every day.

        Like

      • jim-
        February 15, 2018

        I’ll look it up unless you have a good link to share.

        Liked by 1 person

      • jim-
        February 15, 2018

        Thanks

        Like

      • jim-
        February 16, 2018

        I like it pink, and so much of it is exactly what went through my mind for so long as a believer. Thank you for this. Superbly insightful!

        Liked by 1 person

      • The Pink Agendist
        February 16, 2018

        And you’ll see the more you think about it, the more it makes sense. In many ways a religious practice like a Christian funeral is an implicit acceptance that there’s no afterlife, otherwise it would be a celebration, right?

        Liked by 1 person

      • jim-
        February 16, 2018

        Yes. I don’t believe contemplating dying is very natural. Only given the options does it start to weigh on you.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Bizzy
    February 15, 2018

    Excellent article, but as you point out, it’s not just America. The world over, going back in time, folks are easily scared and politicians are more than ready to stoke fear and use it to gain and maintain control. There are places even now where things are done in a different way. I’m thinking of California, where I am from, and cities here in Europe, like Marseilles and Palermo. More needs to be made of the alternatives to paranoia, though frankly I despair of it doing much good.

    Liked by 2 people

    • The Pink Agendist
      February 15, 2018

      There seems to be a toxic cycle where the media focuses on the paranoid style narratives because it attracts the most viewers – and it’s all downhill from there.

      Like

  4. Tish Farrell
    February 15, 2018

    When one learns from ex British ambassador to Syria, Peter Ford, that the US has 800 military bases around the globe, compared to Russia’s 11, such paranoia is truly terrifying. Excellent article.

    Liked by 5 people

    • The Pink Agendist
      February 15, 2018

      That’s extraordinary. Utterly shocking number difference! Controlling the narrative goes a very long way, doesn’t it?

      Liked by 2 people

      • Tish Farrell
        February 15, 2018

        It is quite an eye-opener, along with the current narrative that is talking us back into the Cold War. Good way to keep the arms sales well boosted.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. dpmonahan
    February 15, 2018

    I doubt Protestant cultures are inherently more paranoid than Catholic. In England Catholics served the role in popular imagination that Jews did in the rest of Europe and it spread to America in a less virulent form.
    Note the date of the talk. The American left was always telling the American right to not be paranoid about communists, and after November 22 1963 the left would spin all kinds of conspiracy theories to avoid admitting that the right was correct.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The Pink Agendist
      February 15, 2018

      Don’t think there was no antisemitism in England… And don’t think Europe was all Catholic. Germany was half/half. The paranoid style discourse is much more popular in more (outwardly) rigid cultures. Take having a mistress, for example. Scandalous in Protestant cultures, and accepted as long as it was discreet in Catholic countries.

      Liked by 1 person

      • dpmonahan
        February 15, 2018

        Hypocrisy is a wonderful thing, I agree society needs more of it.
        But I suspect conspiracy theory has more to do with that cognitive dissonance thing. Communists were very paranoid because they had to go to great mental lengths to avoid acknowledging the effects of communism. It isn’t rigidity as much a refusal to examine your intellectual commitments, which anyone can do, even a self-proclaimed liberal. The Kennedy Democrats could never admit JFK was shot by a crackpot commie so they made up all sorts of theories.

        Liked by 1 person

      • The Pink Agendist
        February 15, 2018

        Yes – the thing is, where does the mainstream embrace conspiracy theories more and how. What triggers that mechanism? Is it a pre-existing model that’s being emulated?
        Why does anti-European propaganda, for example, thrive in some countries but not in others?

        Like

      • The Pink Agendist
        February 15, 2018

        P.S. Have you considered how the communist model in Russia or North Korea resemble the religious models? A supreme leader, obedience, indoctrination of children, barring competition, using the law to enforce doctrinal tenets etc.

        Liked by 1 person

      • dpmonahan
        February 16, 2018

        Only if you cherry pick which elements you deem “religious” and which you deem “communist”. Though I suppose you could argue that N. Korea has built on a large scale what before was only built in small religious cults.

        Liked by 1 person

      • The Pink Agendist
        February 16, 2018

        Cherry pick? Not really. Power structures and systems have very much borrowed and copied from each other. One finds the same techniques and methods used over and over again. Authoritarian regimes are a perfect example precisely because they so closely emulate the religious (hierarchy-power) model.

        Liked by 1 person

      • dpmonahan
        February 16, 2018

        Well for example not all religions are hierarchical, so that would be cherry-picking: you can’t compare the rabbinical structure of Judaism (for example) with the Great Leader Nork approach, which itself is considered weird among commies.
        You can probably find parallels between high-pressure religious groups and totalitarian societies because you are dealing with similar social pathologies. But beyond that I’d be at a loss to explain how an authoritarian regime copies any religious model…

        Like

      • dpmonahan
        February 16, 2018

        Example of what? There is no common thread to any of these assertions.

        Like

      • The Pink Agendist
        February 16, 2018

        Did you miss the history lesson where people learnt monarchs are representatives of god – as is the Pope?

        Like

      • dpmonahan
        February 18, 2018

        All pre-modern European authority, even of parents over children or the local lord over tenants, was seen as being derived from God because authority was seen as being essentially moral.

        Like

      • The Pink Agendist
        February 18, 2018

        I’m not just talking about pre-modern. The Queen of England, the King of Spain, the Scandinavian Royals – all representatives of god.

        Like

      • The Pink Agendist
        February 16, 2018

        And you need to rethink your classification system. All dogs are animals. Not all animals are dogs. That’s not cherry picking, that’s understanding that information can’t be viewed in a simplistic binary where everything is either 100% one thing or 100% the other. There are substantial similarities between how various religious groups organised themselves and authoritarian regimes. Everything from uniforms to architectural exploits to the way propaganda is transmitted. The existence of Quakers doesn’t make that any less true, it simply means Quakers don’t fall into the category I’m referring to.

        Like

      • dpmonahan
        February 16, 2018

        So… the French Republic has military parades, and the Catholic Church has village processions, therefore….
        No, sorry, still don’t get it.
        Religious bodies as we understand them tend to not have governance systems that can translate into secular use. You can’t run a nation on synodal, congregational or rabbinical model. Catholicism in some ways looks monarchical but the underlying model of governance is collegial, also useless from a secular perspective.

        Like

      • The Pink Agendist
        February 16, 2018

        To see the pattern you have to not only take a step back, but have a better understanding of systematization. A power structure can be monarchical and have collegial aspects.
        If we look into your military parade example, we can glean a whole lot of things. What is the psycho-social function of the military parade? How does it work and what does it achieve?
        French governments have used parades indeed much like the Spanish Catholic church has used the Romería de El Rocío (and other large events of that type). They feed and confirm the power structure. They maintain fidelity, they root out dissent. In fact we’re talking about systems that complemented each other to the point where they formed partnerships. General Franco’s right hand man was no other than Josemaría Escrivá de Balaguer y Albás, founder of the Opus Dei.

        Like

      • dpmonahan
        February 18, 2018

        But you are stepping so far back that your point is utterly banal and sheds no light on your conspiracy theory problem: all human groups have formal or informal rituals whose primary or secondary intention is to reinforce group cohesion. BFD.

        Like

      • The Pink Agendist
        February 18, 2018

        Conspiracy theory? You really need to study a bit more history before saying things like that. National Catholicism was LAW, until just before you were born. Parallel power structures between church and state feeding off of each other. Both sides promoting the same authoritarian hierarchical model.
        As a side note you cannot deny the existence of something and then come back and try to explain it away when it’s existence is demonstrated. That’s *not* having a serious discussion, it’s playing word games to bolster a political narrative. And it’s done in bad faith because the objective is to deceive.

        Like

      • dpmonahan
        February 18, 2018

        ? I guess I haven’t been at all clear, we seem to be talking about different things.

        Like

  6. Osyth
    February 15, 2018

    I will read this. I know I will enjoy it having read the taster. The fact is that religion has always bred paranoia and that modern politics plays into that fear. I am British by birth and it was very clear in the run up to the Brexit vote that those advocating leaving the Union were peddling fear and that the paranoid mindset of many made them super-susceptible to soaking up the propaganda like so many sponges. I was in the US for the whole of 2016 and it was equally clear that both parties traded in fear. The net results of both fiascos is plain to see ….

    Liked by 2 people

  7. inspiredbythedivine1
    February 15, 2018

    I was raised Catholic and I’m not paranoid. Aliens really ARE trying to eat my brain and this metal hat REALLY does keep them from doing it.

    Liked by 4 people

    • acflory
      February 15, 2018

      I was raised Catholic too and this is simply another twist on the old ‘Us vs Them’ or ‘The Other’. Catholics distrust Protestants, Liberals distrust Labor, Republicans distrust Democrats and all groups love finding scapegoats. Only the names change. It’s depressing. 😦

      Liked by 1 person

      • inspiredbythedivine1
        February 15, 2018

        I distrust the aliens trying to eat my brain. I think they mean me harm.

        Liked by 1 person

      • acflory
        February 15, 2018

        -giggles- you could be right. Try bathing in Eau de Garlic in case they’re allergic to it. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

      • inspiredbythedivine1
        February 16, 2018

        That does work for vampires and werewolves, so I’ll give it a try.

        Like

      • acflory
        February 16, 2018

        Ahem, eating the garlic might be effective too. Kind of like a concealed weapon. 🙂

        Liked by 2 people

  8. Bela Johnson
    February 15, 2018

    Interesting take. History repeating itself, ad infinitum.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The Pink Agendist
      February 15, 2018

      That’s the interesting part. When a pattern repeats itself in a specific location again and again – we’ve got to ask what the contributing factors might be…

      Liked by 1 person

  9. agrudzinsky
    February 17, 2018

    Enemies are used to justify the existence of the authoritarian regimes. Enemies unite nations around their leaders and justify crack downs on civil liberties. Many evils can be blamed on the enemies. Every nation needs enemies. If a nation doesn’t have enemies, they must be invented. Enemies provide a sense of purpose to society.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The Pink Agendist
      February 17, 2018

      And it seems also to the individual. They can help frame a personal narrative in terms of virtuous innocence vs. evil victimizer (I’m not sure that’s a word in English).

      Like

      • agrudzinsky
        February 17, 2018

        It’s called “victim mentality”. Yes, it is often used to justify all kinds of crap.

        Liked by 1 person

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