Economist's View: Paul Krugman: The Paranoid Style

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Paul Krugman: The Paranoid Style

Paul Krugman explains why the right is so paranoid:

The Paranoid Style, by Paul Krugman, Commentary, NY Times: Last week Dennis Hastert, the speaker of the House, explained the real cause of the Foley scandal. “The people who want to see this thing blow up,” he said, “are ABC News and a lot of Democratic operatives, people funded by George Soros.” ...

[I]t wasn’t his first outburst along these lines. Back in 2004, Mr. Hastert said: “You know, I don’t know where George Soros gets his money. I don’t know where — if it comes overseas or from drug groups or where it comes from.”

Does Mr. Hastert really believe that George Soros and his operatives, conspiring with the evil news media, are responsible for the Foley scandal? Yes, he probably does. For one thing, demonization of Mr. Soros is widespread in right-wing circles. ...

More generally, Mr. Hastert is a leading figure in a political movement ... historian Richard Hofstadter famously called “the paranoid style in American politics.” Hofstadter’s essay introducing the term was inspired by his observations of the radical right-wingers who seized control of the Republican Party in 1964. Today, the movement that nominated Barry Goldwater controls both Congress and the White House.

As a result, political paranoia — the “sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy” Hofstadter described — has gone mainstream. To read Hofstadter’s essay today is to be struck by the extent to which he seems to be describing the state of mind not of a lunatic fringe, but of key figures in our political and media establishment.

The “paranoid spokesman,” wrote Hofstadter, sees things “in apocalyptic terms. ... He is always manning the barricades of civilization.” Sure enough, Dick Cheney says that “the war on terror is a battle for the future of civilization.”

According to Hofstadter, for the paranoids, “what is at stake is always a conflict between absolute good and absolute evil,” and because “the enemy is thought of as being totally evil and totally unappeasable, he must be totally eliminated.” Three days after 9/11, President Bush promised to “rid the world of evil.”

The paranoid “demand for total triumph leads to the formulation of hopelessly unrealistic goals” — instead of focusing on Al Qaeda, we’ll try to remake the Middle East and eliminate a vast “axis of evil” — “and since these goals are not even remotely attainable, failure constantly heightens the paranoid’s sense of frustration.” Iraq, anyone?

The current right-wing explanation for what went wrong in Iraq closely echoes Joseph McCarthy’s explanation for the Communist victory in China, which he said was “the product of a great conspiracy” at home. According to the right, things didn’t go wrong because the invasion was a mistake, or because Donald Rumsfeld didn’t send enough troops, or because the occupation was riddled with cronyism and corruption. No, it’s all because the good guys were stabbed in the back. Democrats, who undermined morale with their negative talk, and the liberal media, which refused to report the good news from Iraq, are responsible for the quagmire. ...

Which brings us back to the Foley affair. The immediate response by nearly everyone in the Republican establishment — wild claims, without a shred of evidence behind them, that the whole thing is a Democratic conspiracy — may sound crazy. But that response is completely in character for a movement that from the beginning has been dominated by the paranoid style. And here’s the scary part: that movement runs our government.

Previous (10/6) column: Paul Krugman: The War Against Wages

Here's the essay by Richard Hofstadter:

The Paranoid Style in American Politics, by Richard Hofstadter†, Harper’s Magazine, November 1964, pp. 77-86:

It had been around a long time before the Radical Right discovered it—and its targets have ranged from “the international bankers” to Masons, Jesuits, and munitions makers.

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. But behind this I believe there is a style of mind that is far from new and that is not necessarily right-wind. I call it the paranoid style simply because no other word adequately evokes the sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy that I have in mind. In using the expression “paranoid style” I am not speaking in a clinical sense, but borrowing a clinical term for other purposes. I have neither the competence nor the desire to classify any figures of the past or present as certifiable lunatics. In fact, the idea of the paranoid style as a force in politics would have little contemporary relevance or historical value if it were applied only to men with profoundly disturbed minds. It is the use of paranoid modes of expression by more or less normal people that makes the phenomenon significant. [...continue reading...]

Posted by Mark Thoma on October 9, 2006 at 12:15 AM in Economics, Politics | Permalink


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I think paranoia originates in guilt over something done. In reference to the U.S. , perhaps it is its history of slavery, theft and oppression againt those weaker than itself, ( the U.S. here being WASPs, ( not ethnically or religiously defined, of course, but comprising those who are or wish to be)).

Posted by: evagrius | Oct 8, 2006 8:17:36 PM

It must be that vast 'left wing conspiracy'...

Posted by: dryfly | Oct 8, 2006 8:53:13 PM

Thank you again.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Oct 8, 2006 9:03:29 PM

evagrius: Plausible, and perhaps true in part. I would generalize that as "active sins haunting". There may be an element of "passive sins", and this is where this may relate to the "meritocracy" thread. In the past the US has attained a superior position in the world, and a superior aggregate standard of living for its populace, by being there at the right time, but undoubtedly contributing a great number of positive things, even though being a kind of "rogue genius" with episodes of "bad temper" and violence all along. This may be fizzling out, as the aging genius has been living from the substance and neglecting upkeep and exercise. The side effects have been visible for some time, but have been more amply demonstrated since the late 2000 transition to the current administration. The sense of entitlement to a superior living standard and exceptionalism keeps lingering on though ("the American way of life is not negotiable"), and may even be evoked more vigorously. The discrepancy between that and a non-accomodating reality can be a powerful source of paranoia.

Posted by: cm | Oct 8, 2006 11:38:20 PM

"More generally, Mr. Hastert is a leading figure in a political movement ... historian Richard Hofstadter famously called “the paranoid style in American politics.”"

The connection between a silly politician blaming his problems on shady "operatives" hired by the opposition (there's something you don't see every day), and a grand vision of history controlled by a secret cabal, is, what exactly? Krugman is attributing to Hastert - and Cheney and Bush - the "paranoid style" without the paranoia.

Krugman suggests that Bush and Cheney are paranoid toward Al Qaeda and their ilk (the point, e.g., of the Bush "rid the world of evil" quote), then in the following suggests their paranoia is directed at the Democrats and the liberal media:

"According to the right, things didn’t go wrong because the invasion was a mistake, or because Donald Rumsfeld didn’t send enough troops, or because the occupation was riddled with cronyism and corruption. No, it’s all because the good guys were stabbed in the back. Democrats, who undermined morale with their negative talk, and the liberal media, which refused to report the good news from Iraq, are responsible for the quagmire...."

In Hofstadter's conception, the paranoic has a specific object for their paranoia - Illuminati, Masons, Jesuits, Communists. A specific object that exerts influence unopenly - hence, an opportunity for paranoia. Krugman seems to be suggesting that today's Republicans are paranoid - if making excuses, trying to find scapegoats and that sort of thing are really "paranoia" - in several directions at once, toward objects that simply exert influence.

That said, I can see why Krugman wrote this column; Hofstadter's essay is full of evocative quotes. This one makes me think of Clinton-haters:

"The enemy is clearly delineated: he is a perfect model of malice, a kind of amoral superman—sinister, ubiquitous, powerful, cruel, sensual, luxury-loving."

This one is evocative too:

"Very often the enemy is held to possess some especially effective source of power: he controls the press; he has unlimited funds; he has a new secret for influencing the mind (brainwashing); he has a special technique for seduction (the Catholic confessional)."

It reminds me of comments you might read on this (or any other politically oriented) blog....

"Republican Plan A is to hold onto power in any way they can. Demogogue on torture and the Iraq War. Wag the Dog with endless terror scares. Quietly jawbone the price of gasoline into the basement. Use voting machine shortages and voter ID requirements and the like to minimize the Democratic vote. Use Republican control of all Media to dampen or distort any news favorable to the Democrats and to stifle Democratic messages."

(Sorry, author-of-this-quote....) But I'll even admit to being susceptible to the following:

"Having no access to political bargaining or the making of decisions, they find their original conception that the world of power is sinister and malicious fully confirmed."

A bonus Monetary Economics note: in their Illuminatus trilogy, IIRC, Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson put a lot of emphasis on the one dollar bill. (Volume I is called _The Eye in the Pyramid_). An idea I always liked very much, which I always assumed the authors wholly invented, but maybe they got it from somewhere, is that the picture of GW on the one dollar bill is not GW at all, but Adam Weishaupt.

Hofstadter doesn't mention it, but I wonder if you could ascribe a bit of "paranoid style" to those monetary "theorists" who believed that there was something sinister about fiat money ... maybe they came after the communist-obsessed folks Hofstadter describes.

Posted by: anon/portly | Oct 9, 2006 1:30:34 AM

I don't think this essay is particularly helpful. Americans come to their beliefs. Calling a segment of beliefs "paranoid" would seem to me only to re-inforce those beliefs for those people. Nothing like an attack on beliefs to raise hackles.

The stark silence of the opposition allows these beliefs to establish. When supply-side tax cuts are met with as much derision by unions and the middle class as NAFTA, then support for tax cuts for the wealthy will crumble. The decision to invade Iraq could have been opposed on the grounds that it would detract from the effort against bin Laden in Afghanistan.

Dualism, dividing the world into good and evil, is self limiting. Most people recognize the existence of other categories of behavior. "Stupid" is a good example. Almost everyone recognizes that people sometimes do stupid things. So a gun control debate should not be limited to good guys with guns versus bad guys with guns. There are other categories like, "People doing stupid things with guns" that should enter a debate. Incompetence is another category. So is uninformed. Dualistic arguments should always be attacked as too simplistic and simple-minded.

People are conditioned to make sense of their environment. People tend to choose explanations that are well articulated and readily available. If those who hold informed, well reasoned positions are silent, it allows a larger opening to uninformed, unreasonable positions.

Posted by: bakho | Oct 9, 2006 5:55:00 AM

Dear Mr. Hastert,

There are new and very promising medications available to help combat "Sorosophobia" It is feared that the disease may be viral and infects BFWM (Big Fat White Men)late 50's and early 60's.

Anyone who has been in contact with Mr. Jack Abramoff, Ralph Reed or Mike Scanlon is urged to seek treatment as soon as possible

In early stages of the disease Victims report seeing George Soros in shadowy corners or have an unfounded belief that he is omnipotent. In later stages of infection, victims believe that staring into the eyes of George Soros will make them homosexual.

Posted by: Ken | Oct 9, 2006 5:58:41 AM

You think this is bad, you should read Jeff Jabocy in yesterdays Boston Globe -- I'm sending you a copy.

He talks about the Amish forgiving the man who shot their kids and says they are wrong to forgive.

He goes on to explain that christians should "HATE".

His view that christianity should be a religion of hate,
and that the christian right should use the power of the state to impose that view on the rest of us is really, really, scary.

Posted by: spencer | Oct 9, 2006 6:17:38 AM


be advised. your HMO may not cover the cost the treatment

Posted by: Ken | Oct 9, 2006 6:17:47 AM