Next year will mark the 50th anniversary of Richard Hofstadter’s influential, The Paranoid Style in American Politics. Hofstadter, then a historian at Columbia University, first published the essay in Harper’s Magazine in 1966. At the time, the Red Scare, McCarthyism, and the rise of the John Birch Society were already history, but the resurgence of the right-wing of the Republican Party, led by then-presidential candidate Barry Goldwater, was just beginning.
Almost 50 years later, as national politicians like Ron Paul fret over the Federal Reserve, and Utah politicians like Congressman Jason Chaffetz and Representative Brian Greene wring their hands over the Boston Marathon bombing, mainstream Americans would do well to revisit Hofstadter’s extremely important and readable book.
Hofstadter’s main contention is that paranoia is an observable feature of right wing extremism in the United States. From fear of Catholics to fear of Mormons to fear of the Federal Reserve, paranoia has been a mainstay of American politics.
Hofstadter’s words still ring true today. Explaining why he chose the term paranoia to describe a certain segment of the American electorate, Hofstadter said, “no other word adequately evokes the sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy that I have in mind.” He continues, “The paranoid spokesman sees the fate of conspiracy in apocalyptic terms—he traffics in the birth and death of whole worlds, whole political orders, whole systems of human values. He is always manning the barricades of civilization. He constantly lives at a turning point.”
Cue Glen Beck. Rush Limbaugh. The Eagle Forum. For these individuals and groups, everything from gay rights to domestic terrorism is one more clue in the government’s attempt to strip us of our liberties. But it isn’t limited to media elites and conservative organizations. Elected leaders are paranoid, too. Recent statements by State Representative Brian Greene and Congressman Jason Chaffetz are suggestive.
For Greene, the inability of the Boston police to immediately find the Boston bomber in an area with 4.4 million residents–is exaggerated to mean that the government cannot securely protect us. This suspicion of the government’s ability to keep us safe is parlayed into the need for Americans to own more weapons and to be able to carry them freely whether concealed or not. Greene engages in the fantasy of conjuring an extraordinary evil-doer who is incapable of government detection but who is simultaneously capable of being put down by a group of armed patriots.
Congressman Chaffetz’s recent foray into conspiracy is even more alarming. Chaffetz is convinced that the Boston bombers are part of a larger network; that they couldn’t have possibly been “self-radicalized.” For Chaffetz, it is inconceivable that two misguided men could have bombed Boston. Rather, the bombing is indicative of a much larger attempt to attack not only America, but our values.
But the paranoid style is actually limited to a small minority, albeit a very vocal one. That’s why the caucus system can be so detrimental to Utah politics. The paranoid type flock to caucus meetings; whereas, the average Utahn is too busy being happy to worry about alleged conspiracies. The average Utahn will vote in the primary and in the general election, in unfortunately small numbers, but they just aren’t, in Hofstadter’s words, heated or suspicious enough to make a run on the caucus system.
In fact, Utahns by their very nature are trusting and compassionate. Its one reason multi-level marketers and ponzi schemes do so well here. But what might count as naivete in their business dealings, could count as earnestness in their political dealings, a fact that could go a long way to combatting the paranoid style in Utah politics. Let’s call it the possible style.
If paranoid Utahns are prone to heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy, Utahns who embrace the possible style prefer rational discussion, transparency, and reasonable cooperation. The politics of the possible doesn’t take Chaffetz and Greene seriously. Instead, these Utahns will vote for reasonable, pragmatic leaders, regardless of their political affiliation.
As paranoia abounds, let’s hope these sensible Utahns speak up.