Wednesday, September 2, 2009

The Paranoid Style in American Politics

In the course of trying to understand the eruption of rage against the non-existent "death panels" in the emerging health reform bills I went back to historian Richard Hofstadter's 1964 essay in Harper's Magazine - "The Paranoid Style in American Politics." The opening sentence reads "American politics has often been an arena for angry minds." How true!

Here's the essence of Hofstadter's argument:
I believe there is a style of mind that is far from new and that is not necessarily right wing. I call it the paranoid style simply because no other word adequately evokes the sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy I have in mind. I am not speaking in a clinical sense...It is the use of paranoid modes of expression by more or less normal people that makes the phenomenon significant.
Hofstadter cites examples in U.S. history going back to a wave of fear in the late 18th century that the Bavarian Illuminati - a group that espoused Enlightenment rationalism "spiced with the anticlerical atmosphere of eighteenth-century Bavaria" - were plotting to overthrow Christianity. Other examples include the anti-Masonic movement, anti-Catholic and anti-Mormon movements, late 19th century beliefs about a conspiracy of international bankers, and of course the fulminations of Senator McCarthy.

While Hofstadter emphasized that the paranoid style was not exclusively right wing he discerned a continuing belief in a "sustained conspiracy, running over more of a generation, and reaching its climax in Roosevelt's New Deal, to undermine free capitalism, to bring the economy under the direction of the federal government, and to pave the way for socialism or communism." Hofstadter's words in 1964 could be applied unchanged to what was being shouted at town meetings and broadcast on Fox in August.

Hofstadter's analysis offers an explanation for the intractability of public and political debate we are seeing in the health reform process:
As a member of the avant-garde who is capable of perceiving the conspiracy before it is fully obvious to an as yet unaroused public, the paranoid is a militant leader. He does not see social conflict as something to be mediated and compromised, in the manner of the working politician. Since what is at stake is always a conflict between absolute good and absolute evil, what is necessary is not compromise but the will to fight things out to a finish. Since the enemy is thought of as being totally evil and totally unappeasable, he must be totally eliminated—if not from the world, at least from the theatre of operations to which the paranoid directs his attention.
Hofstadter acknowledged that the term he chose to use for the style of mind he was describing was judgmental: "Of course this term is pejorative, and it is meant to be: the paranoid style has a greater affinity for bad causes than good." I'm not sure that he's right on this. Many people (like Hofstadter) on the liberal-left would admire whistleblowers like Ralph Nader, to whom the term "paranoid style" could certainly be applied.

In my clinical practice I thought of paranoid style as an accentuated version of the vigilance regarding external threats that has been hard wired into our nervous systems over millions of years. I sometimes said to patients - "when our ancestors in the forest hundreds of thousands of years ago heard a rustling sound, some probably paid no attention and went about their business, and others thought 'that's a tiger' and climbed a tree...if it was a tiger we know who natural selection favored..."

I don't know whether the likes of Newt Gingrich, Charles Grassley and Sarah Palin believe the nonsense they've spouted about death panels (paranoid style) or are cynically appealing to their political base's hatred of government (duplicitous manipulation). I'd guess that it varies from person to person. In retrospect the administration should have read Hofstadter's essay and conducted a series of political "war games" in which they tried to anticipate and innoculate against the full range of fears that could be triggered by the health reform debate.

Demonizing the paranoid style only makes things worse. Sometimes the rustling in the forest was just the wind, but sometimes it was a tiger. Too much trust is just as dangerous as too much vigilance. I, like many others, was inspired by the President's wish for a "different kind of politics," but that aim should not lead to the delusion that the entire political spectrum can be drawn into deliberative discussion!

(If you want to see Hofstadter's full essay, it's here.)


Ross Neisuler said...

Jim, I congratulate you on this post. I have seen such polar opposites as Obama and George W. Bush each compared to Hitler. As you know, at the peak of anti-semitism in Europe, it was possible to claim that Jews were all Communists and all Capitalists at the same time. Whatever happened to moderation and reasonableness in speech?
Ross Neisuler

Jim Sabin said...

Hi Ross -

Good to hear from you! Thank you for the important comment.

Your observation that both Obama and Bush have been compared to Hitler is valuable evidence that the paranoid style isn't limited to one political group. There's a danger in dismissing opinions we see as off the wall as "paranoid." The opinion (like the death panel belief) may be wrong, but it almost always reflects something about public outlook that is worth understanding.

Re the loss of moderation and reasonableness in speech - one factor is gerrymandering. When legislators represent "safe" districts they do best by appealing to the more radical elements of their base. Another factor is money - moderation and reasonableness don't sell in the world of media.