Paranoia about Paranoia in American Politics

By Bovard, James | Freeman, August 1999 | Go to article overview

Paranoia about Paranoia in American Politics

Bovard, James, Freeman

Since the 1960s modern "liberals" have often sought to stigmatize those who distrust government as paranoid. This "diagnosis" was first popularized by Columbia University professor Richard Hofstadter (1916- 1970). His widely read book The Paranoid Style in American Politics, first published in 1965, presented a thesis that is routinely invoked to delegitimize any criticism of government that goes beyond whining about the price the Pentagon pays for toilet seats.1 It has been the perfect formula to dismiss and deride those who wish to limit government power and expand the sphere of individual liberty.

One of the twentieth century's most respected American historians, Hofstadter is an unrecognized early advocate of politically correct thought. His writing on political paranoia-inspired in part by the 1964 presidential campaign of conservative Barry Goldwater (who had been "diagnosed" from afar as mentally ill by a group of psychiatrists)--has encouraged people ever since to equate aversion to government intervention with pathology. Hofstadter had no such aversion: he was a former member of the Communist Party. When he joined the party in 1938, he wrote to a friend: "My fundamental reason for joining is that I don't like capitalism and want to get rid of it. I am tired of talking."2 (Hofstadter left the party in 1939, after the Soviet Union signed the Non-Aggression Pact with Nazi Germany.)

Hofstadter's book quickly became sanctified by the academic and political establishment. He acknowledged that "the term `paranoid style' is pejorative, and it is meant to be; the paranoid style has a greater affinity for bad causes than good."3 Hofstadter wrote, "What interests me here is the possibility of using political rhetoric to get at political pathology." And in his view, distrust of government was among the worst political pathologies imaginable.

Hofstadter's opinion of the opponents of big government-whom he called "pseudoconservatives"-was unmistakable: "Pseudoconservativism is among other things a disorder in relation to authority, characterized by an inability to find other modes for human relationship than those of more or less complete domination or submission."4 (Emphasis added.) He seems to be saying that wishing not to be oppressed by government proves that advocates of a limited state actually want to tyrannize their fellow citizens. The logic was Orwellian, but it played well in academia and in the media.

Hofstadter observed, "The pseudo-conservative is a man who, in the name of upholding traditional American values and institutions and defending them against more or less fictitious dangers, consciously or unconsciously aims at their abolition."5 (Emphasis added.) Hofstadter believed that since the threat of government power is "fictitious," everyone who fears government is, by definition, mentally ill. But this diagnosis derived largely from Hofstadter's presumption that people had nothing to fear from government.

Government Spying

The pseudo-conservative, according to Hofstadter, "believes himself to be living in a world in which he is spied upon, plotted against, betrayed, and very likely destined for total ruin. He feels that his liberties have been arbitrarily and outrageously invaded."6At the time of Hofstadter's first article on this thesis, in Harper's magazine, the Federal Communications Commission was striving to torpedo "right-wing" radio.7 A few years earlier, President John Kennedy's assistant secretary of commerce, Bill Ruder, had declared: "Our massive strategy was to use the Fairness Doctrine to challenge and harass right-wing broadcasters and hope that the challenges would be so costly to them that they would be inhibited and decide it was too expensive to continue."8

Also, the Internal Revenue Service had been carrying out the Ideological Organizations Audit Project to harass and destroy conservative organizations-both nonprofit and otherwise. …

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