The Paranoid Style

I can’t believe it’s taken me this long to get around to reading Richard Hofstadter.

Hofstadter was a historian who wrote a book called The Paranoid Style in American Politics, which takes its title from an essay that began its life as a lecture delivered at Oxford University in 1963.

Sean Wilentz, another historian and writer who has penned the introduction to a recent reissue of Hofstadter’s book, describes the essay, and the book that contains it, as “a study of political cranks and zealots,” which seems to sum it up nicely.

One of the thrills of reading great fiction from ages past is to experience the pleasure of knowing that other human beings have felt the same way you do about life, love, and all the rest of it, even in entirely different times and settings. Though Hofstadter’s book is nonfiction, I’m experiencing something similar as I read his careful, measured observations. They are observations of specific times, specific events, but his reflections and analysis feel timeless.

It’s reassuring and illuminating to learn, for example, that the phenomenon of radicals pretending to be conservatives (i.e., people who want to change much more than they want to preserve about the nature of this country) has been a fairly constant one throughout American history. (Having typed that sentence, I pause to wonder what it is about that fact that I find reassuring; I suppose it’s the implication that our politics are no weirder today than in the past, and therefore that today’s weirdness is not necessarily a sign of the impending collapse of the American experiment. Well, here’s hoping, anyway.)

The title essay, published in the early 1960s, treats with what Hofstadter saw as the “pseudo-conservative revolt” that manifested in such forms as McCarthyism, the John Birch Society (ascendant again, in case you hadn’t heard), the nullificatory response of so many people to Supreme Court decisions that began in the modern era with certain rulings on civil rights, and so forth. But his more general descriptions of “the paranoid style” (which, to be fair, exists on the right and the left) feel as if they were written this morning; this seems a truly useful book for anyone interested in the current shape of American politics.

I’m not very far in to the book yet, but this is from Hofstadter’s introduction, in the course of an explanation of why-at the time he was writing-so many observers of American politics were starting to move away from “an older conception of politics” as primarily concerned with the rationalistic question “who gets what, when, how?”:

“The findings of public-opinion polls have made us far less confident than we used to be that the public responds to the issues as they are debated, and more aware that it reacts to them chiefly when they become the object of striking symbolic acts or memorable statements, or are taken up by public figures who themselves have a symbolic appeal. …

People respond, in short, to the great drama of the public scene. But this drama, as it is set before them and as they perceive it, is not identical with questions involving material interests and the possession of power. Even those who exercise power are not immune to the content of the drama. In any case, they are forced to deal, as an element in their calculations, with the emotional life of the masses, which is not something that they can altogether create or manipulate, but something that they must cope with. The political contest itself is deeply affected by the way in which it is perceived and felt.”

Sound familiar?

I think I’m going to enjoy this.

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