Richard Hofstadter was one of the most insightful historians of the 20th century. In two essays, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (1963) and The Paranoid Style in American Politics (1965), Hofstadter identified themes that have been deeply ingrained in American political life. It is safe to say that both essays are even more relevant today than when they were originally written.
The Paranoid Style in American Politics was first printed in Harpers Magazine and recently described by its editor as one of the most important and most influential articles published in the 155 year history of the magazine.
Writing in the wake of the 1964 Presidential election, Hofstadler states that:
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.
He describes the paranoid politician in the following way:
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 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. This demand for total triumph leads to the formulation of hopelessly unrealistic goals, and since these goals are not even remotely attainable, failure constantly heightens the paranoid’s sense of frustration. Even partial success leaves him with the same feeling of powerlessness with which he began, and this in turn only strengthens his awareness of the vast and terrifying quality of the enemy he opposes.
Hmm– remind you of anyone?– or, to be more accurate, any political party?
The comparisons didn’t escape Senator Sheldon Whitehouse. The following clip is a bit lengthy, but it is worth watching. Whitehouse call out the Republicans and remind them that their “day of judgement” is coming.