The Paranoid Style in American Politics

The Paranoid Style in American Politics



The Pequod Review:

Richard Hofstadter's The Paranoid Style in American Politics is a collection of several essays written over the course of the 1950s and 1960s on a wide range of topics related to political history and social psychology. The highlight of course is the title essay, which explores the nature and causes of the conspiratorial mindset, and the influence of this mindset on public policy:

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. Like religious millennialists he expresses the anxiety of those who are living through the last days and he is sometimes disposed to set a date for the apocalypse… The 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.


One of the impressive things about paranoid literature is the contrast between its fantasied conclusions and the almost touching concern with factuality it invariably shows. It produces heroic strivings for evidence to prove that the unbelievable is the only thing that can be believed.

However, one of the significant flaws of the essay (and a window into Hofstadter’s own pathologies) is his focus almost exclusively on only right-wing examples of paranoid thinking.