Book Review: Richard Hofstader’s The Paranoid Style in American Politics and Other Essays

Political analysis and punditry can date awfully quickly.  Nevertheless–and this is especially true in a place like the United States, whose structural continuity is exceptional–some pieces of political prose, especially when written in a historical context, can have relevance for several generations.

One of those analyses–actually a series of essays not originally intended to be a corpus–is Richard Hofstader’s The Paranoid Style in American Politics: And Other Essays.  It’s one of those books, for better or worse, whose influence has not waned in the years since its first publication in the mid-1960’s (some of the essays go back further than that).  It’s one of those works, for the left at least, that leaves you wondering why anyone bothers writing on the subjects again, except that a) the names change and b) they need the money.

The book is made up of six of Hofstader’s essays, divided into two sets of three.  The first are “Studies in the American Right”, which leaves the reader no doubt where Hofstader’s sympathies lie.  The first essay is, of course, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics”, and the other two concern the campaign and defeat of Barry Goldwater in 1964, along with an analysis of the “pseudo-conservative” (to use Hofstader’s distinction of the Goldwater right from the moderates in the Republican party who opposed him) movement.  And this is where the relevance comes in: depending upon how you look at it, Hofstader either nails the right so well that everyone who comes after him cribs him to be correct, or that his view of “flyover country” is so congenial to the left that they no longer have to think of another model to use (which is why, I think, liberals often refer to this piece in their own analyses).

All of the usual actors are in place: the militant anti-communists, the religious right, the small business people, the less educated, the emotionalist–all of them find a place in Hofstader’s knave’s gallery of which he presents a sweeping view.  Hofstader, to be fair, does not believe that the paranoid style is the exclusive franchise of the right.  But he hardly spends enough time on their left-wing counterparts to leave any doubt of where he thinks the home of paranoia in American politics lies.  One thing he consoles himself with is a) Goldwater managed to alienate such a large part of the electorate and b) their commitment to their cause without regard for political consequences indicates that their 1964 performance with Goldwater would be repeated in the future.

Or would it? In the second series of essays, “Some problems in the Modern Era”, he deals with three topics which don’t get a good deal of treatment these days.  The first concerns the Spanish-American War and our entry into imperialism, one which was uncharacteristic (for foreign imperialism at least) up to that time.  The last is devoted to William “Coin” Harvey, his “Financial School” and the subject of bimetallism, where he is able to capture a conspiracy style of thinking that has resurfaced in differing forms.  But his treatment of the intricacies of bimetallism, something that is difficult for those of us who are products of fiat money times may find difficult to grasp, is one of the strong points of the book.

But it was in the middle essay, on the subject of anti-trust, that the possible future (at that point) of the post-Goldwater Republican right surfaced:

In politics, of course, it is the right-wingers who really count–it is they who have the numbers, the money, the political leverage.  They can also invoke the old American pieties and can appeal to the kind of old-fashioned American who believes that federal fiscal policy is just like the family budget.  Much of our conservative writing echoes with concern over the decline of the older kind of economic morale, which it identifies with smaller entrepreneurship.  But conservatives understandably fear to make the large corporation the object of their criticism; this smacks too much of subversion.  They have a safer and more congenial outlet against the organisation of modern life in the form of denunciations of big government…

In this regard Hofstader was prescient, for the conservatives, roundly defeated in 1964, and the Republican Party, trashed by Nixon in Watergate, looked like a lost cause by the mid-1970’s.  But conservatives’ organisation and rootedness in the country’s core ethic–plus finding a more congenial leader in Ronald Reagan who knew “when to hold ’em and when to fold ’em”–put them back in the driver’s seat in the 1980’s and pretty much for the next quarter century.  So how else has Hofstader’s whole model held up?

Hofstader was right in pointing out the paranoid style in American politics, but he was blind to its relevance on the left.  It wouldn’t be long before that came roaring out in the 1960’s campus revolts which were in part a revolt against liberalism’s own quiescent acceptance of large corporations (something Hofstader also identified).  If there’s one thing the unwashed students didn’t think much of, it was working for “the man”.  Such raw emotionalism resulted in the nervous breakdown that the U.S. experienced in the early 1970’s.  (A more balanced view of American emotionalism can be found here).

But that, in turn, leads to a more contemporary question: if Barack Obama manages to crush the Republican Party the way he wants to (and, for those who can still count, that would lead to a one-party system) and at the same time break the right once and for all, would we have a better country for it?  Or, to put it another way that would be a fair question Hofstader doesn’t address, how is it that a nation of insane crackpots has been as successful as we have?  The 60’s and post-60’s left in this country hasn’t shown that it understands how to have a growing economy (let alone really wanting one) or a great nation, let alone one with a more even distribution of income (one that existed, by the way, in Hofstader’s day).  They are good at going through their process.  But will that carry the day when the competition is Asia?

Although Hofstader makes many astute observations about this country, its past and for him its present, one gets the impression that he’s like Biblical scholars who really don’t believe the truth content of the book they’ve devoted their lives to studying but don’t have the grit to find another line of work.  One another level one can only wish that those who pine to make us like Europe would just move there, but that’s another post.  In the meanwhile The Paranoid Style in American Politics: And Other Essays is a “must read” for those who really want to understand where liberals have come from for a long time.

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