The Paranoid Nature of American Politics


American Civil War Photo

Analysis by Reporting San Diego

June 15, 2017 (San Diego) In 1964 Richard Hofstadder wrote a piece for Harper’s Magazine called “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.” In that essay, Hoffstader described something that he noticed in his age, that applies today. He wrote, “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.”

The essay is worth reading in full, for many of the things Hoffstader wrote, apply today.

Back then, like today, it resided mostly in the right wing of the political aisle. But elements of it are very recognizable in whatever passes for the left wing. What we have, is not new. The fear of the stranger, the fear of the outsider. Whether it is Senator Joseph McCarthy who saw communists in every office of the government. Or for that matter the populist party who feared the Catholics fifty years before, or for that matter our modern day brush with Islamophobia and xenophobia. None of this is new.

Nor is this limited to just the right.

What this environment has created, however, is fear. Not just fear of the other, but also fear of other Americans. So how did we get to the point that a man who is very politically active, for a change on the liberal side, shot at a member of Congress or two? Quite simple, this paranoia has existed for a long time and it is in some ways, baked into the cake of the United States.

So how did we get to this point?

In the prehistory of this, we had political assassination used as a tool. In the 1960s, John F Kennedy, his brother Robert, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King were assassinated by people who were alone but were not fully alone. They were driven by fear and far right wing paranoid ideology. It was fear of change and the left. The American conservative was not a majority or even a strong minority. It also had some fringe movements, like the John Birch society, which is not that different from the modern day tea party.

The murder of John Kennedy did lead to the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act. There is an argument to be made, that if John had lived, the political capital to pass these two acts would have never existed. Lyndon Baines Johnson knew he was losing the South for a generation, indeed for much longer than that.

The Powell memo was written for the United States Chamber of Commerce in 1971. This memo fills neatly into this paranoid tradition. In this memo, Lewis F. Powell wrote that “the American economic system is under broad attack.” Any criticism of the system, whether it came from academia, or the media, was seen as a direct attack from the left, the communists, the new left.

This was seen by Powell and many in the chamber as a form of statism, whether it was fascism or communism, they did not see a difference. He admitted there were always critics, but he did not like any criticism that was not meant to advance American capitalism. He also saw television as a way to promote these ideologies. What truly alarmed Powell is that students were in favor of socializing basic services.

I am sure Powell would be alarmed if he read that in 2016 a majority of Americans favor a national health service.

This is not going to come as a surprise to many, but Ralph Nader was identified by Powell as one of the enemies. He was at the time in favor of safety standards and consumer protections. The memo was also a call to action and political involvement by businesses. It was also a call to take control of media, and use it to counter the forces that were attacking the American enterprise system. There was also a call for open participation in campuses.

The memo is not just deeply in the paranoid tradition, but the solution to the problem is the kind of action we have seen develop in the last 50 years. Taken together with the end of the Fairness Doctrine which mandates equal time to different opposing views, set the stage for the degradation of language.

Newt Gingrich and the Rise of the Right

Newt Gingrich was not just the speaker of the House, but also one person uniquely responsible for the dysfunction in DC. He also fits in that paranoid tradition. In his view, the worst thing that any Republican member of Congress could do after work was go out for drinks with his Democratic counterpart. Less he sees his fellow legislator as a human being.

This is also the era of talk radio and the rise of Rush Limbaugh and others. The tone of those shows was well within the paranoid tradition. If one is to be fair, there were some shows directed at the left of the spectrum, that also used a similar formula. While Rush Limbaugh spoke of Femi-Nazis and DemocRats, who wanted to destroy all moral standards of the nation, a few of the shows on the left tried to attack this with ideas.

They were also directed at a different demographic and their penetration was not that good, Even when it was, it was not good for the market forces controlling a lot of this using the guidelines of the Powell Memo. Radio was weaponized.

Legislators stopped going to each other’s weddings, bar mitzvahs, first communions, or just an afternoon barbecue. Slowly both sides started to see each other as enemies who wanted the worst for the country and were traitors.

This was the Clinton years, and during that administration, we also saw the burning of Hillary Clinton in effigy, something that is not new to American politics but was new to the era. This was in Kentucky, in 1992.

 The W Bush Administration

Like the Trump administration, George W Bush did not win the 2000 election with a popular vote. It was an electoral college decision, with the active participation of the United States Supreme Court. This led to the further coarsening of language and the growing distrust of this time, what these days we call progressives. Bushco was thought off as a criminal enterprise, and seen as something dangerous. It was also illegitimate for many Americans.

People spoke of resistance and increasingly on how Republicans were not friends of the United States, and only cared for their bodies who donated to their campaigns. None of this language is new. In fact, one little song started to spread called “I Hate Republicans.”

In the meantime, the right wing continued to portray the left as cowards, enemies of the people, and effeminate. Words such as DemocRats continued to gain purchase, as well as the old attacks that they were just reds.

It is no surprise that both sides continued to distance themselves, and many a family did not sit down for Thanksgiving anymore. It started to feel like a cold civil war. The center, whatever passes for it, started to go away. The Democrats as a party felt that they needed to continue to go right, while the Republicans went further right.

Then we saw more talk about how the federal government was over reaching into everybody’s lives. This was part of the populist campaign run by Donald Trump in 2016 as well. We started to see the other side as fully the enemy to be excised from the body politic. The left stated talking of Republicans as cancer, while Republicans did the same thing about liberals.

911 and the rise of the Left Paranoid Mind

For the most of American history, it has been the populist right that has engaged in conspiracy thinking. 911 changed that. For the first time, many on the left also embraced this thinking as a simple way to explain evil. This fertilized the ground.

911 truthers spanned the political spectrum, and are convinced that this was a Reichstag fire, caused by a government that wants to take away rights. They have gone so far as to claim the collapse was controlled demolition, and that the Government killed over three thousand Americans for the sake of getting us into a war with Iraq. Some even went into the daddy issues that the president had, who wanted to prove to his dad why you should invade Iraq.

The damage was done. There are people across the spectrum who have embraced a paranoid world view, where the government is an evil force, that has to be resisted. This is a place where G-Men hide in the shadows and spying on them. This is a place where the government is brining the end of the days, and the United Nations is preparing to invade the country with Chinese troops and black helicopters. This used to be the reality of a small corner of American politics. That corner tended to go to gun shows, preparing for the invasion. These days, it is not just limited to the right wing.

These days this view includes Chem-Trails, as well as Pedo-rngs run by people in the government. Add to this weather modification and predictive programming. The list is extensive and these days it spans the political spectrum.

 The Fourth Great Revival

Religion, for good or bad, can also color our politics. It has been not just at the forefront of social progress, but also at the heart of the conflict. In particular evangelical revivals have preceded the loss of the political center and the rise of radical paranoid politics.

When you believe your neighbor is a sinner, there is little ground for grace. Over the last 30 years or so, we have seen the rise of an evangelical movement, seeking to not just take over the course of faith and politics, but also to drive all sinners away from politics.

At the same time, we have had the progressive religious tradition take a back seat, and not participate in the public square. That is starting to change. The progressive left tradition is involved in the streets, with workers, and the poor. Their tradition is looking at improving lives, grace will come from that work.

 Where we Are…

This is an age of conflict. For many on both extremes, the language of hate has become standard. Dehumanizing the other has become common and did not start after the election of Donald Trump. Some progressives will refer to Republicans as enemies of the state, (and Democrats as a corrupt party.) Republicans are using slurs such as “snowflake, and Libtard, a neologism meaning liberal retard. Then there is the sexualization of the left, and even those on the right that do not agree with the far right. This is the use of the word cuck, short for cuckold, meaning wife infidelity.

What happened when Steve Scalise was shot by a Bernie Sanders supporter was predictable. Both sides went to their corners. Both sides tried to make this about the other, and how evil is the other. There was also a deep sense of dread, as well as hate.

Those on the right, especially the far right, immediately blamed the whole of the left for a language of hate towards the president and the right. Among them Congressman Steve King who blamed the left.

The left blamed the gun culture online. And then there were those who attacked Gabby Giffords, who posted a message of unity online. She was shot in 2011. One of the answers was this one.


Replying to @CentralFLTed @furfeet @GabbyGiffords
Well considering muslibs do 99% of all shooting in this country it’s easier to just ban libs and gabby gifford was shot by one of her own

So this is part of that culture. One where both sides blame the other, and finger point, and hate. This is a pattern that is not just dangerous but could easily devolve into more violence.


The media did not help. When Giffords was shot in 2011, none asked about the political believes of Jared Lee Loughner. The court later ordered a psychiatric fitness test, and he was found to have mental issues. That was treated as a lone wolf. However, CNN did push the idea that this was the language of the left. Never mind that when Giffords was shot, imagery using a cross hair was over her district. This image was created by the SaraPAC.

The man who shot Scalise was a Bernie supporter. He was likely one of the tens of thousands of unpaid volunteers that every campaign used to run rallies and other events. He was politically active. However, he was not representative of a movement.

However, the language used by the media could ignite even more passions, at this point against progressives, and it is part of a long tradition in the United States. It is part of the same paranoid politics that led to the Red Scare of the McCarthy era. It is the same exact paranoid tradition first identified by Hoffstader in the essay we opened with.

What happened yesterday should alarm Americans. Not because a member of Congress was shot. That is alarming enough, but the reaction was that of a paranoid divided country, ready to fight each other.


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