Let me make a blanket statement: If you have never read Richard Hofstadter’s classic The Paranoid Style in American Politics, you are probably hopelessly, and needlessly, confused by much of what passes as political thought on the right. We have been here before, in the land of the Know-Nothing Party and the John Birch Society, but in those days the paranoiacs lacked their own think tanks and cable news channels. [The warblogs are, in this view, little more than digital editions of the kinds of pamphlets that used to be found only at gun shows and camp meetings.]
More importantly, this lack of understanding contributes to an abiding strategic error on the left. Our liberal habit of rational argumentation based on the day’s freshest facts and biggest words pales in the face of appeals–overt or coded– to the evergreen catalog of paranoid tropes that are the ghost in the machine of American democracy. Lakoff, whom I respect in many ways, ought to visit Hofstadter… the right’s frames are merely old American nightmares dressed in the fashions of the day [or at least the Wal-Mart fashions of the day and yes, I know that was elitist].
I relied on TPSIAP to decode and debunk Chrichton’s Jap-baiting schlockterpiece Rising Sun for a college seminar named for Hofstadter’s essay. But however closely one studied it in college, each new exposure feels like a needed slap upside the head:
American politics has often been an arena for angry minds. In recent years we have seen angry minds at work mainly among extreme right-wingers, who have now demonstrated in the Goldwater movement how much political leverage can be got out of the animosities and passions of a small minority. But behind this 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 that I have in mind. . . . [T]he idea of the paranoid style as a force in politics would have little contemporary relevance or historical value if it were applied only to men with profoundly disturbed minds. It is the use of paranoid modes of expression by more or less normal people that makes the phenomenon significant. Of course this term is pejorative, and it is meant to be; the paranoid style has a greater affinity for bad causes than good. But nothing really prevents a sound program or demand from being advocated in the paranoid style. Style has more to do with the way in which ideas are believed than with the truth or falsity of their content. I am interested here in getting at our political psychology through our political rhetoric. The paranoid style is an old and recurrent phenomenon in our public life which has been frequently linked with movements of suspicious discontent.
Well, duh. Style, people– fight the style and the substance can pretty well speak for itself. The great gas-filled blimps of liberal policy are no match for the glittering daggers of the paranoid style–in fact they attract suspicion, their complexity looking like conspiracy. What’s more, harnessing the Paranoid Style has been such a winner for the GOP because their policies have led to deep economic desperation among so many–a situation that provides the perfect soil for… more paranoia. It’s not a noise machine we fight on the right, but a paranoia farm. And we have to think about the candidates in this light too… John Kerry, bless his heart, was a near-perfect embodiment of the American Paranoiac’s nightmare.
Anyway, this walk down political theory lane is brought to you by the wonderful Armando at DailyKos, who has a great post that serves as an excellent primer on the Paranoid Style as defined by Hofstadter, with a brilliant but unexpected assist via his reading of Umberto Eco. A fascinating read. As someone who dabbles in conspiracy theory, I will remind everyone that “just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not all out to get you.” The danger, though, is not so much in personal paranoia as in the relentless stoking of a range of the most florid of those paranoias as practiced by the GOP over two generations.
Since Nixon adopted the Southern Strategy, the GOP has run–and won–on fear and paranoia. W isn’t a war president–he’s a fear president. It is literally all he has to offer because “the base” isn’t of any use to them unless it is mortally afraid of The Terrorists, The Gays, The Mexicans, The Sex, The Women, etc. etc. ad nauseum. Rove is no genius– he just knows the melody that the Paranoid Chorus is trained to sing to. It is a horrible and ancient music, but effective and infinite in its variations.
[It should be interesting, to soi-disant Christians at least, that the first recorded words of the Risen Christ, and the shortest affirmative commandment in the Scripture, were “Be not afraid.” There should not be room in a Christian politics for so much fear, but the garden has long been cleared to make room for the weeds.]
So how do you fight paranoia? If the answer were easy we would not be fighting it now. But I suspect that the first step is listening carefully to the people from whom a vote for the GOP is a vote against their economic interests. Whatever they are saying holds the key, if we can only decode it. That does not, as Armando points out, mean rushing to the right–just as we can’t out-gun or out-God them, we can’t out-scare them.
It is interesting to reflect on the meme that got Clinton elected– he was “the Man from Hope.” Clinton could speak of hope–and of prayer and uplifting faith–honestly and sincerely, in a way that neither excluded nor divided. It is American Hope that has always overcome American Paranoia–for example, hope in American progress and innovation that helped derail the Know-Nothings and the Birchers. As 2006 and 2008 roll toward us, I’m listening for the voice of hope that can reach those locked in the paranoid cycle of fear and rage. Because if we can’t free them, we will all be consigned to live out their darkest dreams.