The widely-known essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” by Richard J. Hofstadter was a very important piece of writing in American journalism. It was first published in 1964. The essay focused upon the style of politics that the US had had historically and contemporarily to the author.
Hofstadter introduced the notion of “paranoid” with respect to politics since the corresponding notion in psychiatry was the ideal description of it, from his point of view. He stated that the politics and the mental disorder had a common point: they both were expecting armies of organized aggressors secretly producing a vicious plot. The difference, as the author stated, was that actual paranoiacs expected the plot to be developed against themselves while politicians suspected the plot to undermine the foundations of the whole nation (Hofstadter 4). The result of one’s paranoia was anger and hysteria focused on persons who did not share one’s interests and on the world in general.
Supporting his viewpoint, the author refers to historical events and writings that depicted the political figures’ utmost suspiciousness intertwined with nonsensical ravings of a manic mind. The same goes for contemporary politics, the author states. He describes what he refers to as the fundamental components of the paranoid style of the political situation that was contemporary to him that practically consist of anti-communist inclinations of the right-wing (Hofstadter 26). However, upon the analysis of some literature on various civil and political movements in the post-WWII America, one can see that the right-wing was not the only one infected with paranoia and rage tantrums. Such unhealthy attitudes were developed by the right-wing anti-communist movement as well as the movements for civil and human rights as well.
Right-wing anti-communism paranoia
During the post-war period, the right-wing, also known as the Conservatives, regarded the processes similar to the Bolshevik revolution as an ultimate danger for the state. Communists were also seen as oppositionists to capitalism; they were believed to depict Wall Street and such as the society’s slave-driver. Thus, the right activists tried to prevent any communist tendencies in the US. During the presidency of Harry S. Truman, paranoid anti-communism was an indispensable segment of reality.
Immediately after the War, Truman was blamed for heedless toleration of Communists empowering China and informing the USSR of the restricted atomic development data (Ceplair 6). Organizations were to be cleansed of any employees suspected to be communist sympathizers and lefties; the cleansing went as far as the Federal level, singling out the members loyal to Communism (Lawson 37-42). However, it is stated that anti-communism was not, in fact, based on anything feasible. No logically cultivated evidence grounded the idea of the “communist threat”, which is why the principle of destroying all things communist was propagated in a vibrant, convincing manner that appealed to the citizens’ best feelings.
The facts were twisted: for example, it was known that some of the Communists hired by the American Government spilled the data to the USSR. The fact was deployed by the right-wing activists into a steady belief that the government was communist-ridden (Ceplair 3). Thus, the paranoia that took over the right-wing was almost tangible since they were perfectly sure that a plot was taking place. Infuriated, they did their best to prevent what they supposed to be a disaster and the crash of the American nation. It is worth saying that the idea of “the world conspiracy against freedom and religion” had a special paranoid style about it (Ceplair 98).
Civil rights movement reaction
The concept of Americanity that is deeply rooted in the American collective subconscious mainly consists of coloniality, ethnicity, and racism (Quijano and Wallerstein 24). The cornerstone of the concept is the idea of the white supremacy that is, by its nature, ethnocentric. Ethnocentrism and racism were the key reasons the black slavery started, in the first place. After the slavery was gone, however, the ethnocentric approach remained: it took the form of institutionalized social hierarchy (Quijano and Wallerstein 27-28).
This hierarchy concerned the division of labor and rights and subsumed segregation by race; it is notoriously known as the Jim Crow Laws. The segregation continued up to 1965. It meant that people of color were in a subordinate position to the privileged white. They were not allowed to vote, to marry white people, to sit in public transport in the same area as the white people, to live in the same neighborhood as the white people (Dailey, Gilmore, and Simon 162-182). Rosa Parks and other activists challenged the segregation, but the white predomination persisted (Dailey, Gilmore, and Simon 5). The primary reasons for such segregation probably lie in the collective prejudice that comes from the idea that one race is somehow better than another (Yang 67).
The fact is that, for a long time before and shortly after the War, there were attempts to explain and justify such judgments from the scientific point of view. Scientists made a point of their bogus assumptions to prove the colored peoples’ inferiority by conducting experiments of various sorts (Kurtz 19). These far-fetched arguments were to serve the white people’s ethnohysteria and empower them in the struggle for domination. Besides, people of color were accused of the whole range of deadly sins and treated as a subhuman mass because the white people were afraid of what might happen in case the colored unleashed their power, which certainly has a bit of paranoia in it. Such attitudes were quite contradictory to what we now know as the American Dream, which was why the fulfillment of the Dream was postponed for an indefinite period.
Human rights movements hysteria
The movements for human (especially female and LGBTQ) rights and the society’s response to them also proved a mass hysteria in the XX century. Initially, such movements were aimed at the common good, although it can be argued that sometimes the struggle went too far. The late half of the XX century, for example, was the period of feminists attempting to eradicate FGM (that is, female genital mutilation) in the cultures that practiced it. Having failed to demonstrate the importance of the issue through the prism of women’s rights, feminist activists turned to the medical argument as well and succeeded in substantiating their position (Boyle 41-47).
From the point of cultural relativism, this issue is very debatable, though, and the feminist activists’ anti-holistic approach in their arguments can be regarded as rather hysterical. However, the arguments that feminists had to face at the beginning of the movement were significantly more paranoiac. Suffragettes, for example, were regarded as a menace for the home, men’s employment and manhood in general. There were numerous kinds of adverts and pamphlets mocking women’s fight for voting rights and pointing out that a woman’s place is supposed to be in the kitchen (“Vintage Sexist Ads”). As for the LGBTQ rights, the atmosphere of the time is brilliantly depicted in the novel “Stone Butch Blues” by Leslie Feinberg.
The sensation of “otherness” that surrounded queer and transgender people created a huge gap between them and the rest of the society. They were considered a wicked perversion of nature. De jure, women were supposed to have three pieces of women’s clothing on to be regarded as women, not as “he-she’s” (Feinberg 6). The police raided bars where queer and transgender people gathered and “taught them lessons” by humiliating them (Feinberg 87-111). Thus, we can see that the discrimination and violence were justified by law. The anger that queer people evoked subsided slowly and the remainders of the gender hysteria still linger on up to the present day, throwing a shadow at the concept of equality and the common good.
To sum it up, the provocative essay concerning the paranoid style in politics certainly had a point. The society and the politicians were plagued with unflagging hatred to all things different from their views and interests. Concerning communism, the politicians raged over some misinterpreted facts, puffing them up to a global catastrophe. What prevented the state from abolishing racial segregation was common prejudice and fear that they might eventually lose power after the people of color are announced equal to the whites. Prejudice and hatred toward LGBTQ persons were backed up by the law that presumed such people deserved punishment simply because they had a different sexuality. Thus, the law was on the paranoiac side, and so was the society, which was a serious stumbling block on America’s path to equality and justice.
Boyle, Elizabeth Heger. Female Genital Cutting: Cultural Conflict in the Global Community. Baltimore, Maryland: JHU Press, 2005. Print.
Ceplair, Larry. Anti-communism in Twentieth-century America: A Critical History. Santa-Barbara, California: ABC-CLIO, 2011. Print.
Dailey, Jane Elizabeth, Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore, and Bryant Simon. Jumpin’ Jim Crow: Southern Politics from Civil War to Civil Rights. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2000. Print.
Feinberg, Leslie. Stone Butch Blues. Ann Arbor, Michigan: Firebrand Books, 1993. Print.
Hofstadter, Richard S. The Paranoid Style in American Politics and Other Essays. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1996. Print.
Kurtz, Paul. “Can the Sciences Help Us to Make Wise Ethical Judgments?” Skeptical Inquirer Magazine 28.5 (2004): 18-24. Print.
Lawson, Steven F. Running for Freedom: Civil Rights and Black Politics in America since 1941. Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, 2014. Print.
Quijano, Aníbal, and Immanuel Wallerstein. “Americanity as a concept, or The Americas in the modern world.” International Social Science Journal 1.134 (1992): 23-40. Print.
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Yang, Philip Q. Ethnic Studies: Issues and Approaches. Albany, New York: SUNY Press, 2000. Print.