It would seem that this blog cannot get enough of St. Hostadter. Copy/paste "Hostadter" (without the quotes) in the search window to the left and get links to 9 posts (beginning in 2003) that point to the work of one of the greatest historians of the 20th century. Today's essay revolves around one of St. Hofstadter's most prescient themes: the paranoid style of our politics. If this is (fair & balanced) psychohistory, so be it.
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Somebody's Watching Us
By Roger Lowenstein
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About fifty years ago [November 1964], the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Richard Hofstadter exposed a dark recess of the American psyche with an essay in Harper’s magazine, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.” Hofstadter was writing about the peculiar tendency of the political right to indulge in paranoid theories, but he was careful to stipulate that the left could just as easily be infected. “American politics has often been an arena for angry minds,” he wrote.
What paranoid movements had in common, he believed, was a sense of dispossession; they were composed of people who felt excluded from the mainstream. “I call it the paranoid style,” Hofstadter explained, “simply because no other word adequately evokes the sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness and conspiratorial fantasy that I have in mind.”
In today’s fractious, high-decibel discourse, these qualities seem to have become political reflexes. Consider that journalists devoted millions of words to critiquing the government response to a virus that, to date, has resulted in the death of a single American. Or that among the alarms of Governor Rick Perry of Texas, a plausible candidate for president, is that ISIS militants may have crept into the country across the southern border.
Xenophobia has been a staple of paranoids since the birth of the Republic. In his essay, Hofstadter cited Jedidiah Morse, a Massachusetts preacher who in 1798 warned of a plot by French Jacobins, as well as 19th-century populists who blamed America’s recurring financial crises on "international bankers.”
Hofstadter was himself a child of an immigrant furrier, born in Buffalo in 1916. Scarred by the Depression, he joined the Communist Party in 1938; four months later, disgusted by the Moscow show trials, he quit. Although his family pressured him to attend law school, he became a historian. In the words of David S. Brown, his biographer, “for nearly 30 years, the legend goes, he wrote the best books for the best publisher, won the best prizes and taught in the best city.”
It was The Age of Reform (1960) that signaled Hofstadter’s growing unease with mass movements. Historians like Frederick Jackson Turner were sympathetic to the populist uprisings of the 1880s and ’90s as democratic in spirit. Hofstadter saw something darker, an anti-intellectual crusade. He wrote “The Paranoid Style” in 1964, when the memory of McCarthyism — which he saw as a modern populism — was painfully fresh.
Hofstadter did not propose a theory for why Americans are prone to conspiracy theories. Arguably, democracy imbued us with an expectation of fairness; when disappointed, we look for villains. What he does explore is the paranoid style as a mode of expression. His subjects, he said with irony, were steeped in “factuality.” Their method was to doggedly gather “evidence.” Causality was where they went off the rails.
According to Hofstadter, a typical believer was torn between righteousness and persecution. The “paranoid spokesman” is unable to compromise because he always sees fate hanging in the balance. He is “always manning the barricades of civilization,” as though doomsday lurks around the corner. Such phrases today evoke the Tea Party, 9/11 conspiracy theorists or moon-landing debunkers.
Hofstadter’s essay made an immediate splash. He was a stickler for precision; he celebrated nuance and aimed his words like guided darts.
Critics said Hofstadter, who taught at Columbia University, had an urban, elitist bias. They had a point. With his rumpled hair, glasses and bow tie, Hofstadter was, as Brown observed in his excellent 2006 biography, the very picture of the East Coast intellectual. He dwelled in a scholarly cocoon on the Upper West Side. He mistrusted popular heroes such as Barry Goldwater because they appealed to people on an emotional level. Decades after Hofstadter died in 1970, at age 54, George F. Will described him as a liberal intellectual who “dismissed conservatives as victims of character flaws and psychological disorders.” This overlooked Hofstadter’s migration toward the political center and his belief that class conflicts could also engender paranoid energies — strong words for a one-time Communist. Today, Hofstadter might target not just right-wing radio hosts but also the aggrieved left. If he disavowed “rural egalitarianism,” so would he shudder at Occupy Wall Street.
According to Brown, Hofstadter never abandoned his liberal views. But his fear of the mob qualified him as a conservative by temperament. In 1967, he visited the University of California at Berkeley, epicenter of the student protests, and reminded faculty members and students that instruction, not social reform, was the primary purpose of education. The next year, protesters seized his beloved Columbia. Hofstadter calmly conducted a graduate oral exam while shouts of rage could be heard outside.
Nearly a half-century after his death, “paranoid style” is an established part of the political lexicon, employed often by those who want to suggest that the other side is fringe or paranoid or just plain daft. One wonders if Hofstadter would approve. Americans are warier of government than ever, and filled to the brim with conspiracy theories. And they are still shouting. Ω
[Roger Lowenstein is a financial journalist and writer who reported for the Wall Street Journal for more than a decade, including two years writing its Heard on the Street column (1989 to 1991). Lowenstein received a BA from Cornell University. Among is five books, the most prominent are Buffett (1995) and When Genius Failed (2000).]
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