About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Richard Hofstadter and the paranoid style in politics

Back in 1964, social scientist Richard Hofstadter published an article in Harper's Magazine with the title “The paranoid style in American politics.” In it, Hofstadter was describing what he saw as a clearly distinctive sub-culture characteristic of American political discourse, and one that was in danger of undermining the effectiveness of democracy in the US. He may as well have been talking about the rise (and recent partial fall) of the Republicans from the mid-1990s to the first decade of the 21st century.

According to Hofstadter, the paranoid style “has more to do with the way in which ideas are believed than with the truth or falsity of their content,” and in the essay he quotes examples from a Texas newspaper article of 1855 to a manifesto of the Populist Party in 1895, to a speech delivered by infamous Senator Joseph McCarthy in 1951. Were Hofstadter to write today he could have easily added quotes from George W., Rummy, Dick C. and Karl Rove, to mention a few.

It is astounding to see from Hofstadter's essay how deep the historical roots of American intolerance and bigotry really are. He chronicles the campaign against the “Illuminati” (an offshoot of the Enlightenment movement) during the 18th century, the anti-Masonic rhetoric emanating from pulpits all over the country at about the same time, the “Jesuit threat” popular among paranoids of the first half of the 19th century, and the anti-Catholic sentiments connected to the depression of 1893.

The style of attack is always the same, mixing faux patriotism and religious fervor. Here is a quote from an article in the San Francisco Chronicle of 31 July 1964, where an official of the John Birch Society rails against United Air Lines because the company dared to put a U.N. emblem on their airplanes (they don't anymore): “We hate to see a corporation of this country promote the U.N. when we know that it is an instrument of the Soviet Communist Conspiracy.” (Incidentally, if you find yourself agreeing with this statement, you may be reading the wrong blog.)

S.B.F. Morse, the inventor of the telegraph, is quoted by Hofstadter as saying (back in 1835) that “A conspiracy exists ... we are attacked in a vulnerable quarter which cannot be defended by our ships, our forts, our armies.” He wasn't talking about Islamic terrorists, he was referring to the all-powerful Jesuits and their covert projects to undermine The American Way of Life. During the previous century, the Illuminati had been accused of making tea that caused abortion, while in the 1890s the American Protective Association alleged an international Catholic conspiracy and went so far as circulating a bogus papal encyclical that called on American Catholics to exterminate “all heretics” by a certain date in 1893 (it didn't happen). That sounds a lot like The Protocols of Zion, another bogus tract used to attack yet another minority using the same paranoid “arguments.” History truly does repeat itself.

Hofstadter identified the success of the paranoid style in politics with the exploitation of a feeling of being dispossessed that some people apparently retain even when they are the majority and control the executive, judicial and legislative branches of government. The paranoid rhetoric is often cast in apocalyptic terms, us-vs-them and the-end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it. For example, Hofstadter cites candy manufacturer Robert H. Welch Jr., who took over McCarthy's mantle, as saying in 1951 that “Time is running out ... Evidence is piling up on many sides and from many sources that October 1952 is the fatal month when Stalin will attack.” Needless to say, October 1952 came and went, and the world is still here. Though that hasn't stopped countless other similar predictions by religious and political fanatics, one of the most recent ones focusing on 6 June 2006 (you know, 6-6-6, the mark of the Beast!).

Hofstadter's essay may also contain the explanation for the very recent Republican debacle in this week's elections: “Since the enemy is being thought of as totally evil ... he must be totally eliminated ... This demand for total triumph leads to the formulation of hopelessly unrealistic goals, and since these goals are not even remotely attainable, failure constantly heightens the paranoid's sense of frustration. Even partial success leaves him with the same feeling of powerlessness with which he began.” This is why George W. Bush's base – incredibly – felt alienated recently, because the President-and-Savior-of-the-World has been unable to deliver on his promises of banning abortion, passing a constitutional amendment against gay marriage, and generally rid the world of infidels, atheists, terrorists and anybody else who wishes to undermine the project of America as a Christian nation.

That is why common sense, finally, prevailed the other day, and American voters told their elected representatives that they have had enough of paranoid politics – at least for a while.


  1. Plainly stated, the US has intense interpersonal problems because we are divided in our goals and principles. Maybe some are afraid of "the opposition", whoever the opposition may be to you, but that, by no means, describes everyone.

    I know what I was made for. I was made to go the distance, which includes eternity, of course. And it is clearly far more fun and enjoyable when you love the people (whether one agrees with them or not) that one happens to be running alongside of. :)

    What were you made for?


  2. No one here is use to being cared about in the thick of a fight, are they.

    tough crowd. ;) lol

  3. Many white American males have felt besieged in their own country even during times of peace and prosperity. I suspect the presence of both an aggrieved black minority and the waves of unfamiliar tribes immigrating into the country have something to do with this constant low-level anxiety.

  4. Excellent point, Mark! Oh the ironies when the beneficiaries of centuries of affirmative action for their kind complain when it finally gets extended to others.

  5. Not even the universe will last forever in any useful form, Cal. So you're going to be terribly bored sitting around when the rest of us are all dead and gone.

  6. That's the trouble with being an atheist; there's no vindication. You won't be able to say "See I was right, I don't exist!"

  7. Kimpatsu

    The various states of matter appear to be finite. But a lot of other things revolving around the notion of "information" may still be open for question. Don't you think?

    We also tend to believe that heaven will be anything but a boring place. My dad, who was a believer, loved to learn. He use to take out my kids reference books for science, etc. and read through them even into his 70s and 80s.

    Do you know what I think that he is doing now? ......

    Isa 64:4 For since the beginning of the world [men] have not heard, nor perceived by the ear, neither hath the eye seen, O God, beside thee, [what] he hath prepared for him that waiteth for him.

    1Cr 2:9 But as it is written, Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him.

    http://www.blueletterbible.org/cgi-bin/versions.pl?book=1Cr&chapter=2&verse=9&version=KJV - 9


  8. jk: "That's the trouble with being an atheist; there's no vindication. You won't be able to say "See I was right, I don't exist!" "


    Concepts of what success or vindication is are greatly overrated things. If you don't "win", why would that make me feel vindicated?

    Point being, it wouldn't.


  9. Cal seems to be interpreting the hypotheses concerning preservation of information to give credence to the belief in the preservation of the "soul" or some other ineffable aspect of self after death. Now, if someone wishes to take comfort in a belief in an afterlife--more power to 'em. There's absolutely no evidence to disprove that belief. Of course, there's absolutely no evidence FOR it, either. But that's neither here nor there.

    The real issue is the root source of the paranoia so readily displayed--motivated by fear of the different and/or the unknown. I've always felt that contemporary conservative paranoia and prejudice is not only rooted in that fear, but in an abiding fear of change and the future. Progressive ideals and liberal people reflect uncertainty and change, something apocalyptic conservative are ill-equipped to deal with emotionally.
    gary l. day

  10. gary: "Progressive ideals and liberal people reflect uncertainty and change, something apocalyptic conservative are ill-equipped to deal with emotionally."

    In reality we both want to hold certain things back whether one happens to be conservative or un conservative.

    Progressivism, otoh, is really anti-civilization.

    If one were to take apart every issue that you as a progressivist stand for or against, you will soon find out that the direction these ideals work themselves out towards work against civility and civilization.

    Anti-pre-born life

    Anti-gender specificity


    How do such positions support a more civil society? Flowing with the drift of peoples common emotions does not make a more civil or progressive society.



Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.