The Paranoid Style in American Politics

    This title is the same as that of an essay written by the noted historian and political scientist Richard Hofstadter and published in Harper’s Magazine in 1964. That essay, based on a longer piece, is iconic and has been quoted and referenced thousands of times over the past five decades. Hofstadter was writing in response to the Kennedy assassination, the ultra-right wing candidacy of Barry Goldwater and patriot organizations like the John Birch Society that were rampant at that time. I stumbled on this essay a couple months ago and I was struck by how much Hofstadter’s observations are applicable today–48 years later not much has changed in our political landscape.

Paranoia & the Father of Lies   

    Paranoids are people consumed by fear and the delusion that other people, God, or unseen forces in the universe are in some way conspiring against them. Hofstadter made it clear that he was not using the label paranoid in a clinical sense, as he was not a clinician. He was assessing movements and not individuals. I am a clinician, and yes, as far as I’m concerned, our country’s political landscape has been taken over by diagnosable paranoid personality disorders. They are either that or hucksters trying to capitalize (as in make a buck) on other people’s fear. Some are politicians but the worst are “opinionators” passing themselves off as jounalists. Making a buck on people’s fear is in my opinion sheer evil. I’m also a Jesus-follower and I tend to frame big picture issues in terms of spiritual warfare. I had thought about calling this piece: Fear and the Father of Lies.

      “How can we account for our present situation unless we believe that men high in this government are concerting to deliver us to disaster? This must be a product of a great conspiracy, a conspiracy on a scale so immense as to dwarf any such venture in the history of man…What can we make of this unbroken series of decisions and acts contributing to the strategy of defeat? They cannot be attributed to incompetence…The laws of probability would dictate that part of the decisions would serve this country’s interest.”     Glenn Beck

Talk Radio & Toxic Info-tainment    

    One of my lesser addictions is that of talk radio. On most weekdays I’ll listen to 10 or 15 min of Rush, Glenn Beck, Neal Boortz, Hannity or Mark LeVin while I’m driving to or from the office or other appointments. Hey, I’m not proud of this–but I’m doing much better. I used to listen longer and believed more of what I heard.  It doesn’t take that much any more.

   I always knew that these “hosts” painted with a broad brush and that hyperbole was their stock in trade. However, I listened to be entertained, to get my anger fix and to have some of my prejudices confirmed. I was a “responsible” listener. I sorted thru the nonsense and composed answers in my mind to their most erroneous and outrageous rants. 

    Last summer I was out of the country for ten days on a mission trip to Scotland. When I returned from that trip I felt refreshed, and part of the refreshment was for me not having heard talk radio, or watched the world news for over a week. I did see two day-old copies of  The Scottish Mail  but that tabloid had scant U.S. news. I’ve noted the same refreshing feeling when I’ve come back from other trips away from the U.S. and away from the drumbeat of pessimism and fear that passes for “news” these days.  Consequently, I have come to believe that for me almost any exposure to “info-tainment” is toxic . The negativity and rancor of most politically slanted talk radio is poisonous to my spirit. But, at least I don’t need to go to a meeting and say: “Hi, I’m Carl, and I listen to talk radio and my thoughts and opinions have become unmanageable.” No, the more I listen the less I want to listen–and that’s a good thing. So why do I still listen? I guess for me the give and take of dissonant ideas is sort of a intellectually pornographic experience. 


    Oh, BTW, the quote highlighted above is a gotcha. It was not said by Glenn Beck; it was from Sen. Joe McCarthy and it is from 1951. Today, the Communist conspiracy is a distant memory–unless of course you believe that Obama is some kind of “Manchurian Candidate” educated in the madrassas of Pakistan and Indonesia. And we should never forget about the hordes of illegal aliens swarming over our southern border stealing our jobs, our healthcare and creating a crime wave in the process–or that social security is going broke and that our children’s children will inherit a dystopian world of monetary deflation and grinding poverty. Or that the Taliban and Islamo-fascists are chomping at the bit to bring terror to our shores and that we need a multi-billion dollar security bureaucracy to keep us safe. Oh, there are still plenty of politicians who play fear as their trump card.

The Paranoid Style

    In describing the “paranoid style” in our politics Hofstadter used the terms: “heated exaggeration, suspiciousness and conspiratorial fantasy….The paranoid spokesman sees the fate of conspiracy in apocalyptic terms–he traffics in the birth and death of whole worlds, whole political orders, whole systems of human values. He is always manning the barricades of civilization…what is at stake is always a conflict between absolute good and absolute evil…The enemy is a kind of amoral superman–sinister, ambiguous, powerful, cruel, sensual, luxury loving… ” Those descriptives sound as though they could have easily come from a Glenn Beck or Michael Savage rant about Barack Hussein Obama or George Soros.

Fear Based Ads

    One other striking feature of talk radio is the advertisers. The most ubiquitous ads are those for investing in gold. The apparent appeal of gold is that it’s enduring value is seen as a hedge against inflation–and of course when the dollar becomes worthless we can buy bullets and victuals with our gold stash. Then there’s “food insurance”–apparently some sort of MRE dinners with a shelf life of 50 years. Better stock up!  I’ve noted several other ads for products or services rooted in fear such as legal insurance and software that backs up your computer files. The message is fear and its “solution” is found in a product or service. They meld together perfectly.

Fair & Balanced

   However, I try to get a “fair and balanced” view by subscribing to RSN news. This on-line news service publishes pretty much every liberal blog or op-ed piece of note from our nation’s leading newspapers, magazines and on-line forums. Some of their writers are so left-leaning that they are downright radical and some clearly marxist. Some of their views I find as absurb and conspiratorial as the very worst of Glenn Beck. RSN blatantly champions the Occupy-Wall-Street movements world-wide.

    The left ridicules Sarah Palin and fears the sinister Koch brothers–but the right lampoons Nancy Pelosi and invokes George Soros as the puppet-master of progressives. The right’s evil genius is Karl Rove and the left’s is David Axelrod.  The right has “the mouths that roared” in Rush and Ann Coulter and the left counters with Keith Olberman and Rachel Madow. Boortz calls the Occupiers “occutards” and libs refer to the GOP as “repuglians.” And so it goes. The symmetry of the the narrative for both the right and the left is stunning. But those who only expose themself to arguments that confirm their own bias don’t see that–and sadly, that is the majority.

M. Scott Peck’s Insight

    I recall Scott Peck writing something to the effect that “laziness” or sloth was the original sin. What he was really talking about was not physical laziness but rather intellectual–that far too much of humanity settles for easy answers and quick fixes. People do not make the effort to think deeply about complex subjects. They mostly seek opinions that confirm their prejudices. What Peck wrote several decades ago deeply impressed me and over the years I’ve made it a point to expose myself to views contrarian to my own beliefs. Some times it is most uncomfortable to revise ones prejudices in the light of new information, but I feel very strongly that it is a worthwhile process. Also, my pastor for many years, Dr. Joel Hunter, has said on more than one occasion that those who we least want to hear from are those who we often most need to pay attention to. In other words, God works thru all sorts of sources–not just those that confirm what we want to believe.

Perfect Love: The Real Answer

    My basic point is that what underlies paranoia is the emotion of fear–and that the what (or who) that breeds fear is the father of lies–pleased to meet you, hope you guessed his name. We as individuals and our nation are being held hostage by those fear mongers we choose to heed and the paranoia we are willing to embrace. It is a sad spectacle to see so many Christians in thrall to fear, anxiety and worry.  We must always remember that God didn’t give us a spirit of fear and that Perfect Love casts out fear.


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About diospsytrek

I am a licensed mental health counselor in Florida. I am also the author of four books. The books have to do with coping with depression and other mood disorders, and the nexus of psychological problems and spiritual warfare.
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