Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The Paranoid Style in American Politics

Of utmost relevance for coming to grips with the fanaticism on the right is Richard Hofstadter's great essay of 1954, "The Paranoid Style in American Politics." That this short work remains so important a half century later only testifies to a chronic condition lying deep within the American social matrix: the tendency for those of a long standing ideological discomfort to join others who are suddenly facing marginalization and/or dispossession, and then to divide the world into two. They see, on the one hand, that their troubles are caused by an enemy conspiracy (at one time or another, the Catholics, the Masons, the Jews, and now, the Liberals, who, present day believers claim are, in fact, dreaded Marxist Socialists), led by an agent of virtually apocalyptic evil, (in today's version, bent on centralizing and concentrating power in the executive branch of the federal government*). They see themselves, on the other hand, in a mirror image of their foe, this time, an in-gathering of the faithful, led a clarion caller** who will form them into an army of the righteous while announcing the coming if not arrival of a messianic deliverer** ready to lead them into an Armageddon-like struggle that will end in victorious reconquest of what was, and now again will be, "our America."

As Kurt Vonnegut would have said, "And so it goes."

*These very same persons, by the way, see no contradiction in their anger about supposed Obama-led concentration of power with their support for the Bush-Cheney idea of the unified executive. This latter would surely bring about a massive alteration of constitutional values,for it would place the president above the law. Why? Because the attorney general would no longer serve the constitution, only the president, and thus could never seek an indictment for presidential usurpation of power. And there goes John Locke, Jefferson, and the US Constitution.

**Today, an amalgam of Christian and American revolutionary imagry: Glen Beck, who thinks of himself as a modern Tom Paine, as Sarah Palin's John the Baptist; the faithful now organized into updated 1773 Boston Tea Party units, minute men-like patriots (some already armed), ready, in Beck's words, to "take back our America."


Rezman said...
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Rezman said...

Hofstadter’s essay seems to accurately attribute the paranoid style as a projection of the idealized and repressed self onto the other in response to “a confrontation of opposed interests which are (or are felt to be) totally irreconcilable, and thus by nature not susceptible to the normal political processes of bargain and compromise. The situation becomes worse when the representatives of a particular social interest—perhaps because of the very unrealistic and unrealizable nature of its demands—are shut out…”

If our political landscape offered an alternative to corporatism, the dispossessed wouldn’t be as easily distracted by the so-called culture wars. Ultimately, the ground wouldn't be as fertile for fascism. But in fact, there is only hollow posturing, and the dispossessed sense that.

But I want to reflect on the role of the left. In a searingly honest post on Truthdig, Chris Hedges indicts liberalism as not only ineffective against the predations of corporatism, but as a collaborator. Tom Wolfe’s coining of “radical chic” in connection with Bernstein may come from a similar place—although you’ve argued that the label is unfair.

Hedges quotes Ralph Nader:

“The corporate interests pull on the Democratic Party the way they pull on the Republican Party. If you are a ‘least-worst’ voter you don’t want to disturb John Kerry on the war, so you call off the anti-war demonstrations in 2004. You don’t want to disturb Obama because McCain is worse. And every four years both parties get worse. There is no pull. That is the dilemma of The Nation and The Progressive and other similar publications. There is no breaking point. What is the breaking point? The criminal war of aggression in Iraq? The escalation of the war in Afghanistan? Forty-five thousand people dying a year because they can’t afford health insurance? The hollowing out of communities and sending the jobs to fascist and communist regimes overseas that know how to put the workers in their place? There is no breaking point. And when there is no breaking point you do not have a moral compass.”

Martin Sheen, an activist who I’ve grown to admire, has stated (I’m paraphrasing) that the righteous man must be willing to suffer for his convictions.

And that’s the nub of the problem, in my opinion. If progressives aren’t willing to get knocked down, then there is no real alternative, only helplessness that yields to paranoid fantasy.

One of the most potent tools I learned while living in a yoga ashram was “owning” my feelings, thoughts, and emotions. Students of the yamas and niyamas—Patanjali’s ethical precepts from the yoga sutras—are encouraged to make “I” statements, instead of royal “we” statements.

So here goes: I’ve stood out on street corners holding cardboard signs to protest wars, I’ve written on political blogs, but I’ve been fearful for my own welfare. I’m alarmed by the subtle and overt censorship of progressive solutions to social ills, and by the marginalization of proponents of change. I’ve feared losing my job or of being eliminated for future jobs. I'm afraid of being on a “no fly” list and messing up my vacation. In essence, I'm afraid of being uncomfortable.

In a blog post for, Terrance Heath connects heart and mind by pointing out that the Tea baggers and other paranoids are part of a mutually reinforcing, self-destructive cycle to which I am also connected. My chore in helping to heal society is to realize my own role in that cycle:

Thanks for turning me on to Richard Hofstadter’s essay.