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Paranoia and Style

This entry was posted in American Conspiracies, Conspiracy Theories on 7 June 2013 by

Paranoia and Style

This week we revisited Richard Hofstadter’s seminal piece on the “paranoid style” in American politics. The article is in one sense very much a product of its time. He follows a broadly elitist framing of democratic politics in terms of an opposition between the intellectual and technocratic elites required for the administration of complex societies and a populist mass harbouring dangerously anti-democratic attitudes. Hofstadter locates the proper scope of political debate in the realm of “interests” – a range of slightly different calibrations of “who gets what”, in Lasswell’s famous definition of politics. And parts of the contemporary conservative movement, he suggested, stood outside it altogether, practicing a politics of “status”. As Sam Tannenhaus comments in a (relatively) recent review of David Brown’s Richard Hofstadter: An Intellectual Biography, Hofstadter seemed in his later years to think that “all American politics incline toward pathology. They are a continual eruption of “hostility” “grievances,” “resentments,” “anxieties.” His horror of “mass man” borders, in places, on a loathing of democracy itself.”

The Paranoid Style strikes me now as a very good bad essay, flawed and productive. There have been many more careful works of scholarship that have proved not nearly as provocative or useful.

One productive flaw I find in this work is its conceptual slipperiness, captured in that pithy, brilliant title: the paranoid style. It is both elusive and highly suggestive. It pulls in two different directions.

The first direction is defined by “paranoia”. Hofstadter claims to be using political rhetoric to say something about political psychology. He is not, he insists, using paranoia in its clinical sense. Nice try. Both to some of his contemporaries and to me, the term “paranoid” can’t help but conjure an image of an individual psychological pathology. And, indeed, towards the end of the essay he suggests that this style of thought is to some degree ever present, ‘more or less constantly affecting a modest minority of the population’. Not only does the paranoid style indicate an individual pathology, the vulnerability to such an affliction, he speculates, may be an anthropological constant. Considering that this essay is on one level a polemic against a strain of conservatism represented in his day by Barry Goldwater and Joseph McCarthy, Hofstadter seems not to be arguing with his opponents, but diagnosing them. Christopher Lasch, who was himself a student of Hofstadter, later noted: “The Authoritarian Personality had a tremendous influence on Hofstadter and other liberal intellectuals, because it showed them how to conduct political criticism in psychiatric categories, to make those categories bear the weight of political criticism. This procedure excused them from the difficult work of judgment and argumentation. Instead of arguing with opponents, they simply dismissed them on psychiatric grounds” (at p.1318). Lasch suggested that the popularity of Hofstadter’s essay had a lot to do with it playing to the prejudices of liberal intellectuals. And this may explain the article’s remarkable staying power. As the Obama presidency has brought out a line of conservative “carnival barkers” (as Obama called Donald Trump in a 2012 press conference), from Glenn Beck to Sarah Palin to Michelle Bachman to Rick Santorum, like so many clowns stepping out of a tiny car, Hofstadter seemed to give a name to something that many American liberals recognised. A politics that wasn’t about interests in any obvious way, which seemed to have no need for nuanced policy analysis, but rather which was concerned about status. Hofstadter gave a name to an enduring American liberal complaint against conservative politics.

The “paranoid” line of inquiry also seems continuous with contemporary psychological studies of conspiratorial thinking. But it brings the danger, as Andrew nicely put it in an earlier post, of “over-irrationalizing” the phenomenon. Hofstadter explicitly used the term “paranoid style” in a pejorative sense. We may want to seek a more analytically neutral approach.

The second direction is what we might call the conspiratorial “style.” He doesn’t define exactly what “style” is supposed to mean, but he gives a highly suggestive set of family resemblances. He talks of the “quality of pedantry” and the obsessive accumulation of “evidence.” They love their facts and evidence, as Hofstadter notes, but use them not to persuade, but to protect. This foreshadows the oft-remarked resistance to evidence [ref Sunstein, Swami] that is found in today’s conspiracy theorists. Again, Hofstadter frames this in psychological terms, the use of facts and footnotes revealing only a desire to protect “cherished convictions” from a “hostile world”. He also points to the faith in order and agency present in the paranoid imagination. The paranoid style rejects contingency, error and incompetence as explanations of human affairs. Instead, the ‘baffling pattern’ of Secretary of State George C. Marshall’s interventions in the war is explained by his being part of a vast communist conspiracy. ‘Any historian of warfare knows it is in good part a comedy of errors and a museum of incompetence; but if for every error and act of incompetence one can substitute an act of treason, many points of fascinating interpretation are open to the paranoid imagination’. The paranoid sees the enemy as ‘a kind of amoral superman’, who ‘wills, indeed he manufactures, the mechanism of history’. Nothing is an accident. He highlights the insistence on “seemingly coherent” explanations. In this and in many other little observations, the essay foreshadows many of the subsequent lines of inquiry into conspiratorial thinking.

But what is this style? Is it exclusively the product of a single mind? This is what his constant reference to psychological terms seems to suggest. Or could the conspiratorial style be an emergent property of the interaction of many minds? Is the conspiratorial style a tone of voice, a rhetoric? Hofstadter’s mix of characteristic features doesn’t give any clear guidance. It seems you know a conspiracist when you see one. Is that good enough?

It says something for the suggestiveness of the essay that I feel I could go on and on. But just one final comment. The essay seems to speak to a peculiarly American experience. How far does this carry over to other parts of the world? We might find out next week, when we have Houchang Chehabi giving a talk on the paranoid style in Iranian historiography.

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