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Opinion: Let's Keep Our Paranoid Politics From Destabilizing America

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A demonstrator carries a sign calling people to 'resist' US President Barack Obama perceived socialist policies during a march of supporters of the conservative Tea Party movement in Washington.

The 2012 presidential election is turning out to be one of those tense and paranoid contests, much like the atmosphere surrounding the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was so hated and feared that his adversaries referred to him as “that man” and never by name.

In 1964 historian Richard J. Hofstadter published an essay in Harper’s Magazine titled “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.” That year was a cauldron of heated politics in America. The Vietnam War was pitting supporters and opponents against each other. Leftist groups were on the warpath soon describing the war as a capitalist imperialist bid to oppress third world people. There was a sharp shift to the right by the Republican party as it nominated Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater for the GOP Presidential bid for the white House, defeating the bi-partisan and moderate Nelson A. Rockefeller of New York

The essay was required reading my first semester in the Public Law and Government PhD program at Columbia University because it addressed a large and overarching issues of the day namely the fact 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.”

The paranoid style differs from garden variety politics in that the paranoid leaders or spokesmen and their followers see the events of the day as a conspiracy. Politics then is not a matter of meeting the other side half way and “working out the differences” but is a vast and cataclysmic process in which the fate of all humanity hangs in the balance.

The political adversaries are seen as not a choice but an evil to be feared and confronted. The leaders of “the other side” are sinister, large, powerful and bent on reshaping the entire character of American society in their image. And, they must be resisted, confronted, and defeated. It is clear that in the past two years American politics and commentators in the American news media have veered into this territory and done so more decisively than in the '60s.

Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Keith Olbermann, Michelle Bachmann, the Christian Right represented by many preachers (Pat Robertson being the best, though fading example) and a host of other personalities mostly on the right but also on the left as in the Occupy Wall Street - the 99 percent Movement are, I believe clear examples of a renewed surge of fear and paranoia in American politics.

One only has to look at sites such as to learn that there is, “Proof Obama is a Communist, Marxist, Socialist, Maoist, Progressive, Islamic, Terrorist, Ineligible Imposter, Usurper.” 

The blog features posts such as

“We must win this race! ... We Texans love y'all, but we'll probably have to take action if Barack Obama wins the election. We'll miss ..... We Must Defeat Obama/ Nelson .... A second term for Obama would mark the end of America as we know it.”

To give equal time I refer you to a Huffington Post piece “Top 10 Occupy Wall Street Conspiracy Theories (from which alleges that, “Conspiracy theories have surrounded the Occupy Wall Street movement since the moment protesters hit the ground. From ties to George Soros to cries of censorship and anti-Semitism, the Occupy Wall Street movement seems to have done more to fuel rumors than it has to end corporate greed.”


I believe we are in the midst of a politics close to what Hofstadter described in his writings. Congressional gridlock is in part the result of this and excessive suspicion of each side. It has, in the past, burned itself out when a majority of Americans realized that down that road lay a great threat to the stability of the American system. Both right and left extreme politics have always at some point been rejected by a vast majority of Americans who see the problems and solutions of the day as more nuanced and who do not ascribe evil intent to those with whom they politically disagree.

Nothing gets done when paranoia is the dominant environment unless there is a decisive winner and an indisputable majority in control. I’m afraid 2012 may not be the year for that so we will likely see gridlock and suspicion for at least another four years.