The Paranoid Style in American Politics

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"The Paranoid Style in American Politics"[1] is an essay by American historian Richard J. Hofstadter, first published in Harper's Magazine in November 1964; it served as the title essay of a book by the author in the same year.

Published soon after Senator Barry Goldwater had won the Republican presidential nomination over the more moderate Nelson A. Rockefeller, Hofstadter's article explores the influence of conspiracy theory and "movements of suspicious discontent" throughout American history.


The essay was adapted from a Herbert Spencer Lecture that Hofstadter delivered at Oxford University on November 21, 1963. An abridged version was first published in the November 1964 issue of Harper's Magazine, and was published as the titular essay in the book The Paranoid Style in American Politics, and Other Essays (1964).[2] The essay was originally presented when the conservatives, led by Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater (1909–1998), were on the verge of taking control of the Republican Party.[1]

Historical themes

Recurring paranoia in American politics

In developing the subject, Hofstadter initially establishes that his use of the phrase "paranoid style" was a borrowing from the clinical psychiatric term "paranoid" to describe a political personality, and acknowledges that the term is pejorative.[1]

The background U.S. history details political paranoia against Illuminism (intellectual subversion), freemasonry (corporate subversion), and the Jesuits (religious subversion), then progresses through U.S. politics to its contemporary (1950s–60s) modern incarnations of McCarthyism and the John Birch Society.

Emulating the enemy

Psychological projection is essential to the paranoid style of U.S. politics.[1]

In the personal realm, the paranoid politician usually ascribes “sexual freedom” as a personal vice of his enemy, yet Hofstadter reports that “very often, the fantasies of true believers reveal strong sadomasochistic outlets, vividly expressed, for example, in the delight of anti-Masons with the cruelty of Masonic punishments”.

Historical applications

Two different approaches to the Radical Right were taken by social scientists in the 1950s and 1960s. Hofstadter sought to identify the characteristics of the groups. Hofstadter defined politically paranoid individuals as feeling persecuted, fearing conspiracy, and acting over-aggressive yet socialized. Hofstadter and other scholars in the 1950s argued that the major left-wing movement of the 1890s, the Populists, showed what Hofstadter said was "paranoid delusions of conspiracy by the Money Power."[3] Historians have also applied the paranoid category to other political movements, such as the conservative Constitutional Union Party of 1860.[4] Hofstadter's approach was later applied to the rise of new right-wing groups, including the Christian Right and the Patriot Movement.[5][6]

Aspects of Hofstadter's thesis have been challenged by Samuel DeCanio's 2013 article "Populism, Paranoia, and the Politics of Free Silver," [7] which argues that instead of being a paranoid delusion, the Populists' conspiracy theory regarding bankers' use of bribes to influence 19th century monetary policy was largely correct. DeCanio offers evidence that the Coinage Act of 1873, legislation that eliminated bimetallism and which the Populists' denounced as the "Crime of 73," was influenced by bribes that William Ralston, president of The Bank of California, paid to Henry Linderman, director of the Philadelphia Mint. DeCanio's article includes a copy of the actual check Ralston used to pay Linderman, indicating the Populists' conspiratorial claims were far more accurate than Hofstadter ever suspected.


In a 2007 article in Harper's, Scott Horton wrote that "The Paranoid Style in American Politics" was "one of the most important and most influential articles published in the 155 year history of the magazine."[8]

Laura Miller writes in that "'The Paranoid Style in American Politics' reads like a playbook for the career of Glenn Beck, right down to the paranoid's 'quality of pedantry' and 'heroic strivings for 'evidence'..."[9]

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 Hofstadter, Richard (November 1964). "The Paranoid Style in American Politics". Harper's Magazine. Retrieved November 27, 2012.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. Hofstadter, Richard (2008). "The Paranoid Style in American Politics". The Paranoid Style in American Politics, and Other Essays. New York: Vintage Books. p. xi. ISBN 9780307388445.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. Tindall, George B. (October 1972). "Populism: A Semantic Identity Crisis". Virginia Quarterly Review. 48 (4): 501–18.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. Mering, John (1978). "The Constitutional Union Campaign of 1860: An Example of the Paranoid Style". Mid America. 60 (2): 95–106.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  5. D. J., Mulloy (2004). "Approaching extremism: theoretical perspectives on the far right in American history". American Extremism: History, Politics and the Militia Movement. pp. 17–34. ISBN 978-0-415-32674-2.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  6. Kamiya, Gary (December 5, 2011). "The infantile style in American politics". Salon.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  8. Horton, Scott (August 16, 2007). "The Paranoid Style in American Politics". Harper's Magazine.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  9. Miller, Laura (September 15, 2010). "The paranoid style in American punditry". Salon. Retrieved February 1, 2011.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>