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Herbert London: Paranoid Style Revisited

Alan Wolfe, the professor of political science at Boston College, has written a reprise of Richard Hofstadter’s 1965 book Paranoid Style In American Politics for the October 25th edition of The Chronicle of Higher Education. Hofstadter in the 1950’s attempted to explain the inner workings of the political mind, i.e., the conservative mind. For Hofstadter, conservative positions that are based on repealing laws instead of passing them are signs of paranoia.

While Wolfe does not embrace this stance whole hog, he does note “Because psychology is now playing such a prominent role in the fervid imagination of the radical right, any deadlock is just one more step toward another.” He goes on to conclude that “Hofstadter died in 1970, at the age of 54. He never got to witness just how correct he was.”

This treatise is extremely useful as an exercise in psychological projection. The so-called radical right has an Affordable Healthcare Act rammed down its throat as it was told by Speaker Pelosi “pass it, then you can read it.” When Republicans gained a majority in the House, they read and agreed it was neither affordable, nor healthy for the country. Is it paranoia to want to repeal an unworkable law?

Most significantly, Professor Wolfe overlooks the actions of those in the Democratic Party he favors. When Alan Grayson, Democratic congressman, equates the Tea Party to the KKK, one might say this is a stance more than “perfervid imagination.” Grayson even argues that those who disagree with him must be racist.

Erstwhile Secretary of State Hillary Clinton dismissed interrogators asking about those Americans killed in Benghazi by contending, “What difference does it make?” Talk about off-hand rejection.

Recently, Kathleen Sebelius, Secretary of Health and Human Services, responded to her critics by noting, “The majority of people calling for me to resign I would say are people who I don’t work for.” Doesn’t she work for the American people?

Reverend Al Sharpton, once a Democratic candidate for president, recites the word “racism” for any detractor who disapproves of his extortionate behavior. Isn’t that paranoia or simply an easy way to quiet critics?

Democrats claim Republicans are at war with women. Yet there appears to be myopia over the sexually perverse behavior of fellow Democrats Anthony Weiner, Vito Lopez, Eliot Spitzer, and even former president Bill Clinton. Is this merely selective judgment or is there some psychological mechanism at work that encourages denial? After all, paranoia is predicated on the firm belief there are enemies whether or not they actually exist.

It is instructive that psychology is employed as an historical instrument to chastise rivals. Hofstadter disapproved of Barry Goldwater and used, perhaps abused, his book Conscience of A Conservative as a template for paranoid style. Senator Harry Reid employs the same tactic, often referring to Republicans as “enemies,” not rivals, adversaries or the loyal opposition. This is certainly the language of fervid imagination.

The danger in the Hofstadter-Wolfe thesis is that pop psychology is being employed as an opening into the political mind. History becomes a form of historicism with judgments based on speculation rather than hard evidence. Clearly subjectivity can never be completely removed from historical judgment, but scholars might hope historians will rely on an empirical investigation. Clearly there is hyperinflated language employed by politicians – of both parties. Whether or not this is paranoia is a judgment historians should not be making. Hofstadter was a masterful historian, but he was not a master psychologist. Professor Wolfe is a political scientist and a liberal, but to suggest Hofstadter was correct is to debase historical judgment. Inter-disciplinary analysis can be useful as a heuristic tool, but when one leaves the area of his own discipline, great care should be exercised.

Herbert London is President of the London Center for Policy Research, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and author of the book The Transformational Decade (University Press of America). You can read all of Herb London’s commentaries at www.londoncenter.org

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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