Initial thoughts on reading Hofstadter’s “Paranoid Style” — March 6, 2014

Initial thoughts on reading Hofstadter’s “Paranoid Style”

Richard Hofstadter wrote a very famous essay entitled “The Paranoid Style in American Politics”, which mapped the contours of a certain habit in American political life — a tendency to turn mere political debates into contests between good and evil. It’s not just that your side is right and their side is wrong; it’s that their side is practically the embodiment of the Devil himself, and their side’s victory would mean the end of the United States as we know it. Hofstadter goes into a lot of rich and lovely detail about the conspiratorial style that accompanies this, including its often scholarly pretensions; an abundance of footnotes will, one supposes, bulletproof the arguments.

All of this feels like a very accurate description of American political life; anyone who lived through the “death panels” era will see some truth in it. And indeed, Hofstadter’s habit of getting to the core of American phenomena has often come into my life like a breath of fresh air, relieving some of the strain of the Bush administration. We were fucked, sure, but then we’d always been fucked; as Hofstadter put it elsewhere,

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When one considers American history as a whole, it is hard to think of any very long period in which it could be said that the country has been consistently well governed. And yet its political system is, on the whole, a resilient and well-seasoned one, and on the strength of its history one must assume that it can summon enough talent and good will to cope with its afflictions. To cope with them but not, I think, to master them in any thoroughly decisive or admirable fashion. The nation seems to slouch onward into its uncertain future like some huge inarticulate beast, too much attainted by wounds and ailments to be robust, but too strong and resourceful to succumb.

So the man says true and important and in some perverse sense relaxing things about America. Yet two aspects of “The Paranoid Style” make me wonder how useful it is.

The first problem is deciding how to identify paranoid strains in everyday life. Suppose a rational, intelligent friend tells you that ObamaCare is the coming of sharia socialism. Suppose that, using one criterion or another, you identify this argument as a species of paranoia. Does that mean it’s *wrong*? One wants a criterion that will reliably distinguish cranks from the sane. Just because you’re paranoid, goes the line, doesn’t mean they’re not after you. Hofstadter gives us no way to determine whether *this* paranoid fellow over here is crazy, whereas this one over here is telling the truth.

It’s probably too much to expect that Hofstadter will give us a fully fleshed out theory of psychoceramics. Maybe it’s useful just to know that the U.S. has created an indigenous form of paranoid political culture. Hofstadter is at pains to note, though, that paranoid political culture is in no way indigenous to the United States. (In fact I would have liked him to have chased down its religious roots. It hardly seems coincidental that a country founded by hardcore Christian zealots would channel the book of Revelation into its politics.)

So “The Paranoid Style” seems like little more than what it says on the tin: a style guide. Here are some fun observations about some durable aspects of our culture. Should I be happy with that? Or should I expect more from Hofstadter?