Hofstadter on the American right

Richard Hofstadter opened his 1963 Herbert Spencer Lecture at Oxford with these prescient words:

Although American political life has rarely been touched by the most acute varieties of class conflict, it has served again and again as an arena for uncommonly angry minds. Today this fact is most evident on the extreme right wing, which has shown, particularly in the Goldwater movement how much political leverage can be got out of the animosities and passions of a small minority. Behind such movements there is a style of mind, not always right-wing in its affiliations, that has a long and varied history. I call it the paranoid style simply because no other word adequately evokes the qualities of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy that I have in mind. (3)

This lecture became the title essay of The Paranoid Style in American Politics. Its emphasis on “uncommonly angry minds” is of obvious relevance to the politics of the right in the United States today. There is more that has a great resonance today:

But there is a vital difference between the para noid spokesman in politics and the clinical paranoiac: although they both tend to be overheated, oversuspicious, overaggres sive, grandiose, and apocalyptic in expression, the clinical paranoid sees the hostile and conspiratorial world in which he feels himself to be living as directed specifically against him; whereas the spokesman of the paranoid style finds it directed against a nation, a culture, a way of life whose fate affects not himself alone but millions of others…. His sense that his political passions are unselfish and patriotic, in fact, goes far to intensify his feeling of righteousness and his moral indignation. (4)

Hofstadter mentions the particular objects of paranoid wrath in the 1950s and 1960s: gun control, fluoridation of municipal water, and international Communist conspiracy. Most especially, the paranoid philosophy is nativist; it directs fear and hostility against “others” (in the first half of the twentieth century in the United States, Masons, Catholics, and Mormons, for example; 9). We can hear these same strands of thought to be expressed in current political bigotry against immigrants, Muslims, and transgendered people.

Hofstadter offers perspective on this strand of American political thought from an historian’s point of view. He takes up the American campaign against Illuminism and Masonry in the early part of the nineteenth century as an example.

The anti-Masonic movement of the late 1820’s and 1830’s took up and extended the obsession with conspiracy. At first blush, this movement may seem to be no more than an exten sion or repetition of the anti-Masonic theme sounded in the earlier outcry against the Bavarian Illuminati–and, indeed, the works of writers like Robison and Barruel were often cited again as evidence of the sinister character of Masonry.  But whereas the panic of the 1790’s was confined mainly to New England and linked to an ultra-conservative argument, the later anti-Masonic movement affected many parts of the northern United States and was altogether congenial to popu lar democracy and rural egalitarianism. (14)

So what about the content of paranoid politics in the twentieth century?

If we now take the long jump to the contemporary right wing. we find some rather important differences from the nineteenth-century movements. The spokesmen of those earlier movements felt that they stood for causes and personal types that were still in possession of their country–that they were fending off threats to a still well-established way of life in which they played an important part. But the mod ern right wing. as Daniel Bell has put it, feels dispossessed: America has been largely taken away from them and their kind, though they are determined to try to repossess it and to prevent the final destructive act of subversion. The old Amer ican virtues have already been eaten away by cosmopolitans and intellectuals; the old competitive capitalism has been gradually undermined by socialist and communist schemers; the old national security and independence have been de stroyed by treasonous plots, having as their most powerful agents not merely outsiders and foreigners but major states men seated at the very centers of American power. Their predecessors discovered foreign conspiracies; the modem radical right finds that conspiracy also embraces betrayal at home. (23-24)

Hofstadter believed that mass media had a lot to do with the deepening influence of paranoid politics in the 1960s; it isn’t difficult to argue that social media takes that influence to an even greater pitch in the current environment.

He closes the essay with yet another astute observation very relevant to contemporary right-wing rhetoric:

In American experience, ethnic and religious conflicts, with their threat of the submergence of whole systems of values, have plainly been the major focus for militant and suspicious minds of this sort, but elsewhere class conflicts have also mobilized such energies. The paranoid tendency is aroused by a confrontation of opposed interests which are (or are felt to be) totally irreconcilable, and thus by nature not susceptible to the normal political processes of bargain and compromise. The situation becomes worse when the representatives of a particular political interest–perhaps because of the very un realistic and unrealizable nature of their demands–cannot make themselves felt in the political process. Feeling that they have no access to political bargaining or the making of deci sions, they find their original conception of the world of power as omnipotent, sinister, and malicious fully confirmed. They see only the consequences of power–and this through distorting lenses–and have little chance to observe its actual machinery. L. B. Namier once said that “the crowning attain ment of historical study” is to achieve “an intuitive sense of how things do not happen.” It is precisely this kind of awareness that the paranoid fails to develop. He has a special resist ance of his own, of course, to such awareness, but circumstances often deprive him of exposure to events that might enlighten him. We are all sufferers from history, but the paranoid is a double sufferer, since he is afflicted not only by the real world, with the rest of us, but by his fantasies as well. (39-40)

This is brilliant diagnosis of the political psychology of reaction, very much in line with Fritz Stern’s analysis of the politics of cultural despair in the context of Weimar Germany (link). What Hofstadter does not clearly distinguish here is the political psychology of followers and leaders.  But much about mass political mobilization turns on this point. Much of what seems to have transpired in the current political season is the artful orchestration of messages of fear, resentment, and antagonism along the lines of paranoid politics that Hofstadter describes. Antagonism and suspicion appear to be powerful motivators in a mass movement, and scapegoating of minority groups is a familiar and repugnant strategy. These messages have succeeded in motivating followers and voters in support of candidates espousing these messages. What is unclear is what political values actually motivate the candidates; and it is fair enough to speculate that there is a substantial degree of cynical manipulation at work in the message mills of the right in creating a movement around these hateful and suspicious themes.

These are important historical observations by Hofstadter, and they seem to shed a great deal of light on the political rhetoric and successes of the right in the United States over the past fifty years. They capture important insights into the mentality and rhetoric of the political passions that have animated a lot of political activity, both electoral and social, throughout the past half century. They point to the underpinnings of suspicion, hatred, and alienation which seem to drive the bus on the extreme right. And what was on the “extreme” right a decade ago has become mainstream conservatism today. It seems crucial for the future of our democracy to reawaken the political values of trust, mutual acceptance, and equality which are so fundamental to stable and sustainable civic peace within a mass democracy. Significantly, this was the core political message of Barack Obama in 2008.

(There is a thread here that I haven’t mentioned but may also be illuminating — Hofstadter’s analysis of American political consciousness seems to shed some indirect light on the Bernie Sanders phenomenon as well. Hofstadter notes several times above that class conflict has not been a prominent theme in American politics. But perhaps part of the appeal of the Sanders candidacy is exactly his ability to speak about the one percent in ways that resonate with younger voters; and this is a class-based message. Wouldn’t it be interesting if large numbers of young and poor voters in the United States became active in support of their longterm economic interests.)

%d bloggers like this: