The Paranoid Style and the Extreme Right

Lecture Announcement, March 13, 1962

Announcement of a lecture, by Hofstadter in Los Angeles, March 13, 1962.

Today, many readers might associate Richard Hofstadter's name with the phrase, "the paranoid style in American politics." So enduring has been the appeal of this phrase, and the 1964 essay from which it derives, that journalists and political commentators continue to use it to decode American politics (for instance, here and here) fifty years after its birth.

But what exactly is the "paranoid style" that Hofstadter discerned, and why did he feel compelled to discuss it at that moment in American history? First of all, the paranoid style is a style of political rhetoric, characterized by a feeling of persecution and a tendency toward "grandiose theories of conspiracy" [107]. For the person who uses the paranoid style, all history is a conspiracy in which the conspirators are sinister and virtually omnipotent. The apocalypse is always at hand -- unless the vanguard of paranoid spokesmen and their followers can mount a successful challenge. The world hangs in the balance, suspended in a moral struggle between absolute good and absolute evil. Evidence for the paranoid worldview is often supported by vast collections of statistics, facts, and tortuous assertions, little of which is coherent or logical; this pedantic obsessiveness produces the appearance of rigor.

While a minority of the population will always be attracted to such rhetoric, the paranoid style as a mass phenomenon is episodic. What causes these waves? Hofstadter attributes them to "social conflicts that involve ultimate schemes of values and that bring fundamental fears and hatreds, rather than negotiable interests, into political action" [108]. At such moments, there is no possibility of compromise, negotiation, and reconciliation. Unable to legislate their absolutist principles, the paranoid spokesmen feel confirmed in their belief that the entire political process is a sham.

"The Paranoid Style in American Politics"

Original edition of Hofstadter's famous essay, "The Paranoid Style in American Politics," which appeared in Harper's magazine, November, 1964.

The paranoid style, as a "style," belongs to no one political ideology or party. It has resurfaced throughout American history - though not only American history - in the discourses of many movements and their spokesmen. And yet, although Hofstadter traces the paranoid style from the Revolution until about 1900, noting how its targets had shifted over the years (from Jacobins to the Illuminati, from the Freemasons to Roman Catholics), his remarks primarily concern the contemporary far right. In 1965, when "The Paranoid Style" appeared in an edited volume of Hofstadter's essays under the same title, it led off the first section of the book, which was called "Studies in the American Right."

Unlike earlier movements that used the paranoid style, the modern right, he notes, "feels dispossessed: America has been largely taken away from them and their kind, though they are determined to try to repossess it and to prevent the final destructive act of subversion" [109]. The anti-Catholic agitator of the nineteenth century sought to defend his homeland from Jesuit spies and foreign intrigue. The modern right-winger, on the other hand, sees within his own country "a conspiracy so vast" as to extend into every facet of society, including the highest circles of government, mass media, and the military.

Letter from Taylor Caldwell, 1956 (page one)

1956 letter from right-wing novelist Taylor Caldwell in response to Hofstadter's article, "The Pseudo-Conservative Revolt." Click here to read the entire letter.

The phenomenon that claimed Hofstadter's attention throughout the essays included in The Paranoid Style was a newly ascendant right-wing extremism that had surfaced with Senator Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s and then persisted in militant anti-communist organizations such as the John Birch Society and the Minutemen. This postwar movement scaled new heights in 1964, the year that Arizona businessman and senator Barry Goldwater routed the Republican establishment to secure that party's presidential nomination. Although Goldwater's extreme rejection of the New Deal consensus ensured that he would go down in resounding defeat against Democrat Lyndon B. Johnson, the mere fact of his nomination appears to have greatly disturbed Hofstadter.

A primary motivation behind The Paranoid Style, which included essays written over the course of a decade, was to situate the new conservatism, or "pseudo-conservatism," in historical perspective. These essays blurred the lines between history and social criticism. Once again, Hofstadter reached into the past to better understand contemporary political discourse. And, once again, as in The Age of Reform, he sought to expose the irrational and antidemocratic underpinnings of present-day social values and their spokesmen. The paranoid style - characterized by a suspicious and hostile regard for one's opponents, and an emotion-driven disregard for facts - tinged the language of many fringe groups throughout the nation's history; now, the spokesman of a major political party relied on it. The paranoid style therefore posed a grave threat to democracy.


Extreme Right Memo

Hofstadter's 1957 report on right-wing extremism, which was commissioned by The Fund for the Republic, a liberal "think tank."

Hofstadter's work on the American right began in the early 1950s, while he was researching what would become The Age of Reform. In 1954, his essay, "The Pseudo-Conservative Revolt," appeared in The American Scholar. That essay, which was reprinted with an afterword in the 1965 Paranoid Style collection, outlines many of the book's main ideas. Hofstadter argues that the only meaningful dissent in American politics since the end of the Second World War has existed on the far right, among what he calls, following the German social theorist Theodor Adorno, "pseudoconservatives." The pseudoconservative, he writes, "feels himself to be in a world in which he is spied upon, plotted against, betrayed, and very likely destined for total ruin" [110]. He is, for the most part, a proponent of very limited government, except where it comes to cracking down on Communism within the nation's borders, and he defines his values in almost total opposition to the main currents of American society.

Ironically, anti-government paranoia could explain a lot about the propagation of Hofstadter's critiques of the right. According to one biographer, the CIA distributed 25,000 offprints of "The Pseudo-Conservative Revolt" and 1,000 copies of his book, The Development of Academic Freedom (co-authored with Walter Metzger), to civic leaders, business executives, and school superintendents [111]. The same biographer also maintains, based on sources other than Hofstadter's own papers, that Hofstadter also worked with the CIA-funded American Committee for Cultural Freedom on a number of initiatives during the 1950s [112]. And, in 1957, a liberal establishment-backed thinktank, The Fund For the Republic, commissioned Hofstadter to produce a classified study on the American right (pictured above, at left).

Box 22 Misc. reviews and articles written for various publications Letter to NYT.jpg

Letter to the editor, by Hofstadter, regarding Senator Barry Goldwater, The New York Times, June 16, 1964.


In The Paranoid Style, Hofstadter again confronted the limits of the Progressive historians' methodology and worldview. Their "rationalistic bias" and their assumption that economic motives underlay all political conflict made their writings less relevant to "the kind of discontents that have developed during prosperty and which to a significant degree cut across class lines" [113]. As in The Age of Reform, he turned to social science for deeper insights, probing the unconscious emotional causes of pseudoconservatism and making use of Max Weber's distinction between "status politics" and interest politics to explain the phenomenon of mass discontent in the context of postwar affluence. Hofstadter was aware of the dangers. In his lecture "Dissent and Nonconformity in American Politics," he declared, "If, in the course of my exposition, I seem to wander into the province of the social psychologist, I do so apologetically and with misgivings; but I do so only because the type of economic and social explanation on which I was reared seems incapable of explaining so many things about pseudoconservatism" [114]. His scathing analysis of the "pseudoconservative" was, nonetheless, pathologizing: "it is the tendency of status politics to be expressed more in vindictiveness, in sour memories, in the search for scapegoats, than in realistic proposals for positive action" [115]. At the same time that Hofstadter accused the extreme right of avoiding compromise by substituting moralism for politics, his method of relying on the spurious "objectivity" of science to unmask his subjects' hidden motives arguably left just as little space for reasoned debate: if your opponents are self-deluded and irrational, of what use is discussion?

Hofstadter admitted, in a postscript entitled "Pseudo-Conservatism Revisited: 1965," that he had relied too much on the concept of status. In the same document, he also noted aspects of the new conservatism emphasized by today's historians: that it was not just a rural phenomenon, but also had its postwar roots in the suburban middle classes; and, furthermore, that religious fundamentalism was an important contributing factor. He did not, however, acknowledge the role that racial prejudice played in forming and guiding the movement, even though he wrote during the high tide of agitation for African-American civil rights. Looking back on the mid-1960s from today's perspective, it is difficult to avoid noticing that while Hofstadter was beginning to see signs of the more fluid and dynamic political landscape that he had long wished for, he only seems to have noticed the rise of a dissenting mood on the right; the radical social movements that were ongoing, and those that were just beginning to stir, and which challenged the boundaries and hypocrisies of postwar liberalism, seem not to have affected his analysis. As a result, he grew concerned about the direction that American politics would take, should the liberal consensus that he had once found so stifling and insipid, in fact, dissolve.

Correspondence with Harvey Swados, 1965

1965 letter from Harvey Swados in which he critiques The Paranoid Style. Click here to read the full letter and Hofstadter's reply.

Whatever its causes in the middle of the twentieth century, Hofstadter speculated that the "pseudoconservative political style" (what he would later call the "paranoid style") would prove to be "one of the long waves of American history rather than a momentary mood" [116]. His contention that "in a populistic culture like ours, is at least conceivable that a highly organized, vocal, active, and well-financed minority could create a political climate in which the rational pursuit of our well-being and safety would become impossible" not only strikes us as deeply relevant today, but to him it implied that, contrary to what he had thought as a younger historian, it was necessary to maintain shared values and to defend a liberal consensus that was weaker than he had once believed [117]. The center was worth defending after all. As the 1960s wore on, and as Americans grew more divided over foreign policy, civil rights, sexuality, and so much else, the center stretched until it could no longer hold.