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Paranoid, Nous?

Moral equivalence is not the way to determine who has embraced "the paranoid style in American politics."

11:00 PM, Feb 27, 2005 • By PAUL MIRENGOFF
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IN 1964, Richard Hofstadter wrote an essay called "The Paranoid Style in American Politics." It traced the history of "angry minds" in our politics. Hofstadter meant "angry" in the strong sense. For him, the "paranoid style" is attained when a political movement posits the existence of a secret conspiracy to undermine our way of life. Hofstadter cited as examples: (1) the view that emerged shortly after the French revolution that America was being subverted by the Bavarian Illuminati; (2) the view in the 1820s and 1830s that Masonry constituted a standing conspiracy against Republican government; (3) the view during much of the nineteenth century that Catholic militants were plotting against American values; and (4) the view after World War II that top U.S. officials were conspiring to pave the way for Communism.

Mere partisanship does not constitute paranoia. It is normal for one side to believe that if the other side gains ascendancy things will go very badly. For example, Hofstadter clearly believed that the "extreme right-wingers" of his day constituted a danger. What distinguishes the political paranoid from the political partisan is the belief in a powerful conspiracy involving the infiltration of the government, often at the highest levels. Here is Hofstadter's description of the political paranoid's mentality:

As a member of the avant-garde who is capable of perceiving the conspiracy before it is fully obvious to an as yet unaroused public, the paranoid is a militant leader. He does not see social conflict as something to be mediated and compromised, in the manner of the working politician. 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. . . .
The enemy is clearly delineated: he is a perfect model of malice, a kind of amoral superman--sinister, ubiquitous, powerful, cruel, sensual, luxury-loving. Unlike the rest of us, the enemy is not caught in the toils of the vast mechanism of history, himself a victim of his past, his desires, his limitations. He wills, indeed he manufactures, the mechanism of history, or tries to deflect the normal course of history in an evil way. He makes crises, starts runs on banks, causes depressions, manufactures disasters, and then enjoys and profits from the misery he has produced.

Both sides in today's ideological clash stand accused by the other of adopting the paranoid style. James Taranto of the Wall Street Journal has argued (in the piece that inspired this one) that the left has become politically paranoid. And a number of leftist bloggers have made the same allegation against conservative blogs. A neutral might be tempted to conclude that both sides are correct. But, as noted, strong partisanship is not the same thing as paranoia. And Hofstadter himself did not adopt a reflexive "moral equivalency" approach--in each of his examples of the paranoid style, it was the mentality of only one side. Thus, we need to explore more carefully the extent to which the two sides of today's debate exhibit paranoia.

IN THE CASE OF THE LEFT, these characteristics are not difficult to find. Taranto pointed to the left's view (mooted by Terry McAuliffe and recently expressed by Congressman Maurice Hinchey) that Karl Rove produced the forged memos used by CBS News in order to end discussion about George W. Bush's National Guard service. More generally, consider how well the left's view of Karl Rove and Dick Cheney fits Hofstadter's description of "the enemy." And for Illuminati, Masons, Catholics, and Communists, substitute neoconservatives. And perhaps Haliburton.

Today's left thinks that America's interests are being sold down the river in the name of a strange ideology and oil interests. It believes that its own political interests are being undermined by massive voter fraud and the willingness of the Democratic party to accommodate the enemy. Thus, rational frustration over the outcome of the 2000 presidential election creates a derangement that, in 2004, views a margin of more than 100,000 votes in Ohio as the product of fraud. And the defeat of the most liberal member of the Senate is viewed as evidence that the party lost because it was ideologically impure. As a result, some portions of the left oppose certification of the election results (talk about "the will to fight things to the finish") and have forced the party's "compromisers" to yield to the installation of Howard Dean as DNC chair. The left's actions and beliefs fit Hofstadter's definition of the paranoid style.