Richard Hofstadter, in his well-known essay on the paranoid style in American politics--first delivered as a lecture at Oxford in November, 1963-- presented numerous examples which clearly demonstrated that the conservative right wing of the political spectrum were the dominant users of the paranoid style. From the John Birch Society; to Joseph McCarthy; to the conspiracy theories related to fluoridation of water and other irrationally held beliefs of the time; the conservative right engaged in frankly paranoid thinking.
But Hofstadter noted even then, that conservatives and the right could not claim exclusive title to the paranoid style. In fact, American history was littered with examples of both sides utilizing the paranoid style in order to cope with painful truths about errors in ideology; and the consequent loss of political power and influence.
I submit that at this point in history it is now the liberal left that has willingly passed through the world of reality and entered the twilight realm of paranoia. They made this transition in order to hold onto some cherished beliefs that they were convinced had become unchangeable historical "facts"; "facts" that had been and still are essential to their very identity as a political party; but which hide essential flaws in their thinking.
In the 60's the liberal left and the Democratic Party became the champions of civil rights --a cause with which they were NOT historically associated, actually; but events of the time conspired to make them the standard-bearers of racial equality--an unaddressed social issue in this country that plagued and highlighted some of the hypocrisy in its high-minded and lofty values from the very beginning. It was definitely time to make the American promise that so clearly burned in the minds of the Founding Fathers real for all Americans.
Championing this cause was so successful for the Democrats as a political party, that they quite naturally took up the causes of other identified "victim" groups (women, the disabled; homosexuals, etc.); successfully leveraging their heroic stand on civil rights as proof of their concern for the oppressed and "the little guy".
Along the way, the Democrats picked up a few holy mantras ("Roe v Wade" and the whole abortion rights movement ; "Make Love Not War" and the entire antiwar crowd; etc.) and, about this time, they became very seriously infected with the Marxist virus that had already spread throughout Europe, despite being the cause of human misery as well as millions of deaths around the world.
Hence, the liberal left failed to notice that the American people rose to the challenge of equal rights and that society changed under the irrefutable logic of human freedom and equal opportunity for all. The promise of liberty was, after all, the founding principle of our nation.
But Democrats and the liberal left could only be threatened by the succes of their attempt to change American society. Blacks; women; and even Gays were making incredible progress in assimilation into society -- and could now move on to say and think what they pleased. They might even choose to become Republican; or disagree with some entitlement program; or challenge directly the ideology beneath the Democratic Party and the left ! Horrors!
Thus it is not so hard to understand that those who once championed the oppressed and encouraged them to be free and partake of all aspects of American society; now have become the most potent enablers of the victimhood cults that sprang up in each of these groups.
As I have pointed out elsewhere, those whose identity is tied-up inextricably with being the champions the oppressed, must be sure to maintain an oppressed class--constantly seeking new victims to heroically stand for; otherwise what or who will they champion?
Most Americans who are not indoctrinated into the Marxist worldview and obsessed with victimhood can clearly see the real progress of Blacks and women--indeed all minority groups-- in all aspects of society. They can appreciate individuals from those groups who forged into previously restricted areas and broke barrier after barrier, even if they are not Democrats or subscribers to leftist theories.
Not only did the liberal left exhibit almost complete blindness and fail to celebrate its greatest success , but they became more and more strident in their demands and denunciations of American society as a whole. This entire process coincided with their increasing irrelevance and loss of political power. In response, the left is trying to change the playing field to insure that they remain relevant by switching from demands for "equal opportunity" to an insistance on "equal outcome". Since it is impossible to achieve the latter--except in a totalitarian society, where everyone is made equally miserable; or in death itself--the left hopes to achieve new power and influence over a neverending victim class that they will have created through their policies. The paranoid style conveniently defends those policies and effortlessly maintains their defective worldview.
Of course, calling someone "paranoid", or insinuating that they have a "paranoid style" is definitely pejorative. Being paranoid has, as Hofstadter notes, "a greater affinity for bad causes than good ones." This is primaril because the paranoid--even when their cause has some merit--is actually trying to delude himself about some inner reality at the expense of, or detriment to, the cause. Their motivation is no longer about the cause anymore; it is about protecting themselves from an unpleasant reality that is making them question their foundations.
Any who oppose the "equality of outcome" logic are descibed as "racist". Those who disagree with them are "trying to shut down free speech" (watch and see whose behavior actually physically attempts to silence others). Those who point out the errors in their thinking are "evil". American society--arguably the freest and most tolerant in the world--becomes the source of all oppression and evil. This growing attitude condensed itself into an insane and irrational hatred for one man who came to symbolize their worst fear -- that their image of themselves was no longer true, but had become a well-loved and cultivated delusion. I mean, if GW Bush could be elected President (not once, but TWICE); and be considered the liberator of literally millions of people--what were they? Chopped liver?
Let me use an example that Hofstadter uses in his essay:
Again it is common knowledge that the movement against the fluoridation of municipal water supplies has been catnip for cranks of all kinds, especially for those who have obsessive fear of poisoning. It is conceivable that at some time scientists may turn up conclusive evidence that this practice is, on balance, harmful; and such a discovery would prove the antifluoridationists quite right on the substance of their position. But it could hardly, at the same time, validate the contentions of those among them who, in characteristic paranoid fashion have charged that fluoridation was an attempt to advance socialism under the guise of public health or to rot out the brains of the community by introducing chemicals in the water supply in order to make people more vulnerable to socialist or communist schemes.
A distorted style is, then, a possible signal that may alert us to a distorted judgment, just as in art an ugly style is a cue to fundamental defects of taste. What interests me here is the possibility of using political rhetoric to get a political pathology. One of the most impressive facts about the paranoid style, in this connection, is that it represents an old and recurrent mode of expression in our public life which has frequently been linked with movements of suspicious discontent and whose content remains much the same even when it is adopted by men of distinctly different purposes.
In the example of fluoridation, which was a major focus of paranoia in the 50's and 60's; science never confirmed that it was harmful and it is still used today all over the country. Nevertheless, it was not unreasonable to bring up concerns about the long-term safety of a public program that would impact almost every citizen in the country.
What was inappropriate and irrational, as well as an extreme example of "connecting the dots" to regain political power, was the use of the relevant scientific question as a basis for developing a rather bizarre conspiracy theory that connected it with another realistic concern at the time--the rise of communism and its easy acceptance and penetration into American culture.
In this case, "connecting the dots" was not the product of a rational thought process, but of a paranoia on the right; who in their political impotence came to emotionally conflate two important concerns with some degree of merit into one conspiracy theory that was totally off the wall. In the end, it completely discredited them in the minds of reasonable people.
The bizarre conspiracy theories that condensed around fluoridation are not dissimilar to the ones we hear over and over again concerning President Bush and his rationale for the war in Iraq and the war on terror in general.
Even if, hypothetically, every single justification for the war would be eventually proven not to have any basis ( and this is already demonstrably impossible); it would still not validate the absurd claims on the part of the left who, in characteristic paranoid fashion, have come up with all sorts of conspiracy theories and paranoid fantasies that connect dots in a much more irrational and delusional manner than what they accuse the President of doing.
The President simply acted on facts that were accepted at the time (even by the people now accusing him of lying); and responded appropriately to a real threat that had materialized on his watch and resulted in the murder of 3000 American citizens. The paranoia of the left can be seen in their attempts to undermine his actions by resorting to ridiculous connections that simply don't compute-- just as fluoridation being a plot of the communists didn't resonate with reality; neither does Michael Moore's fictional documentary, Fahrenheit 9/11, make the paranoid case for some underlying conspiracy.
While there is merit in debating how best to go about achieving our objectives in the war in Iraq and the GWOT; believing that terrorism is a conspiracy cooked up by Bush and Co. to consolidate power and institute (take your pick) a fascist state; a theocracy; or both; is simply a paranoid fantasy that consoles those of the liberal left who cannot cope with their loss of power and influence.
The hallmark of the paranoid individual and the paranoid style is constant anticipation or expectation of either attack or personal betrayal. Paranoia finds causal connections everywhere and in everything; for them, nothing is coincidental. They can develop complicated conspiracies about innocuous behaviors and seemingly irrelevant events. Their paranoia makes them constantly on guard, searching for hidden motives and meanings in everyone else's behavior. (Just go check out the Democratic Underground, where these fantasies on every action or inaction on the part of the Bush administration are immediately converted into conspiracies and plots). The tragic death of a reporter -- Bush et al had him killed because he knew too much. Osama's most recent tape -- a Rovian plot to show how frightened we should be. And so on.
Paranoia can be conceptualized as "rationality in the service of the irrational." Once fixed on a particular idea or explanation -- no matter how bizarre or irrational; the paranoid person looks for evidence to validate their prejudices. It is almost impossible to change their minds. Their entire concept of themselves is tied up with the paranoid idea or conspiracy. If it did not exist, or was proven to be untrue or false-- then they would need to question their underlying assumptions and ideas--and those are what usually form the foundation of who they believe themselves to be.
For example, a belief that one is important enough to be the subject of a determined (and often vague) FBI or CIA plot may be frightening, but is likely to be vastly superior to accepting that you have a severe and lifelong psychiatric disorder.
It is far easier to disregard reality; and/or to simply incorporate the person who tries to disabuse you of your idea or conspiracy into the complex paranoid fantasy itself, rather than deal with the trauma of a disintegrating self.
When setbacks occur, or when something goes wrong in the life of the paranoid, they will prefer to believe that another person or group is to blame, rather than accept any personal responsibility.
In Part II, I will discuss how paranoia can originate from both biological and psychological causes; and how the current political paranoia and rhetoric of the left have profound implications for our society. It has led to severe breaks in the social fabric that bind us together as a nation. I hope that these can, with time, be mended. But the worse effect of this paranoid style is that it seriously impedes those who express it from being able to appropriately face and respond to reality.
Thus, those who adopt the paranoid style in their rhetoric and their behavior not only are unable to help the rest of us deal with the very real threats we face in the 21st century; they actively undermine our efforts and enable our enemies.