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From John Birchers to Birthers

Friday, October 30, 2009

The right's paranoid political style has gone mainstream.

By Thomas Frank
Wall Street Journal

Next month will mark the 45th anniversary of the publication by Harper's Magazine of Richard Hofstadter's famous essay, "The Paranoid Style in American Politics," a work that seems to grow more relevant by the day.

I was not always a fan. When I first read it two decades ago, I thought Hofstadter was being needlessly insulting by equating political views with mental illness—despite his insistence that he wasn't using the word that way. Besides, I thought, who really cared about the strange notions that occurred to members of marginal groups like the John Birch Society? Joe McCarthy's day was long over, and even in the age of high Reaganism, I thought, the type of person Hofstadter described was merely handing out flyers on street corners.

As the historian himself admitted, "in America it has been the preferred style only of minority movements." Why bother with it, then?

How times have changed! Hofstadter's beloved liberal consensus has been in the grave for decades now. Today it would appear that his mistake was underestimating the seductive power of the paranoid style.

The essential element of this mindset, Hofstadter explained, was its predilection for conspiracy theory—for understanding history as a theater in which sinister figures control the flow of events from behind the scenes, nudging us constantly and secretly in the direction of communism....(Remainder.)

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