Prof. James F. Tracy
In 1964 Harper‘s magazine published the now famous essay, “The Paranoid Style of American Politics,” by historian and public intellectual Richard Hofstadter. Appearing in the wake of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination and Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater’s Republican presidential nomination, the tract remains emblematic of liberal anxiety toward serious and in many cases unresolved questions regarding the forces behind American governance. “The Paranoid Style” overall helped establish the term “conspiracy theory” as perhaps the most powerful epithet in the American political lexicon. “American politics has often been an arena for angry minds,” Hofstadter wrote.
“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.” (emphasis added)
Americans typically comfort themselves in the notion that they live in a democracy, with a government that is rational, responsible, and accommodative of their needs. Yet what if the government Americans look to for protection of personal property, the creation and enforcement of fair and just laws, and defense of the nation’s borders and interests abroad exhibits the paranoia Hofstadter attributed to John Birchers and Goldwater supporters, complete with deep suspicions and conspiratorial fantasies toward those it is supposed to serve and protect?
Read More: The Paranoid Style of American Governance