Forty-five years ago this November, political historian Richard Hofstadter published a provocative essay in Harper’s Magazine entitled “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” in which he argued that our nation “has served again and again as an arena for uncommonly angry minds.”
Hofstadter, a widely celebrated professor at Columbia University who had just won a Pulitzer Prize for his book “Anti-Intellectualism in American Life,” was then confronting both the ghosts of McCarthyism and the more immediate significance of Barry Goldwater’s candidacy for president of the United States. Hofstadter was particularly concerned about assessing “how much political leverage can be got out of the animosities and passions of a small minority.”
“I call it the paranoid style,” Hofstadter wrote, “simply because no other word adequately evokes the qualities of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness and conspiratorial fantasy that I have in mind.”
In many ways, Hofstadter’s prescient essay anticipated the entree of Sarah Palin into contemporary American politics, that last month marked the one-year anniversary of her failed candidacy as the Republican vice presidential nominee. During the past year, the former governor of Alaska has tapped into a narrow, albeit tenacious, strain in the national polity that stretches back to the Salem witchcraft trials of 1692.
Indeed, the paranoid style often rears its ugly head during transformative moments in American history – from the advent of Jeffersonian democracy and the onset of the Civil War, on through to the New Deal presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt and, a generation later, the election of John F. Kennedy. Come now the transformative election of Barack Obama, and the paranoid style has once more found fertile soil in America’s political landscape.
Several writers, most notably those on the conservative right, have claimed that Palin is the new Ronald Reagan. As much as I detested the policies of our 40th president, that comparison is decidedly unfair to the Gipper. It’s also politically misleading.
Reagan understood the “big tent” concept of the Republican Party and reached out to moderates and disaffected Democrats. For better or worse, he forged a majority coalition that defined American politics for a quarter century. Even Obama paid homage to it in “The Audacity of Hope,” in which he acknowledged Reagan’s appeal to “the traditional virtues of hard work, patriotism, personal responsibility, optimism and faith.”
Palin is all about small ball. While she has big personal ambitions, her political vision is both narrow and attenuated. She knows nothing about reaching out, and everything about cutting off. Expand the GOP as Reagan did? Hell no. She’s all about shrinking it. During her campaign for vice president, she actually refused to appear with Republican leaders who were either pro-choice or differed with her position on oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The paranoid style is constrictive.
“Catastrophe or the fear of catastrophe,” Hofstadter declared, “is most likely to elicit the syndrome of paranoid rhetoric.” Recall Palin’s recent Facebook delusions of “death panels” and her characterization of Obama’s proposed health care reforms as “downright evil.”
While right-wing radio hosts and cable news commentators like Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh give voice to the new millennium’s paranoid impulse, Palin not only personifies the style, she has franchised it. She is the only political figure in the conservative movement with electoral gravitas. The likes of Newt Gingrich and Mike Huckabee are mere wannabes. They have neither Palin’s mojo nor her charisma.
Since her emergence on the national political stage, Palin has forged a formidable presence in the American political arena fueled by fear and anger, as when she accused Obama of “pallin’ around with terrorists” and not being “a man who sees America like you and I see America.” That there is a racist undertone to the paranoid style quite nearly goes without saying.
In his essay, Hofstadter was careful to distinguish clinical paranoia in an individual from “paranoid modes of expression by more or less normal people.” In the case of Palin, this distinction becomes blurred. Ever since her political debut 17 years ago in Wasilla, Alaska, she has embraced the paranoid style as not only a form of communication but, even more importantly, as a means to power. The style has both shaped and defined her entire political career.
The paranoid tendency, Hofstadter contended, is “aroused by a confrontation of opposed interests which are (or are felt to be) totally irreconcilable, and thus by nature not susceptible to the normal political processes of bargain and compromise.” Palin is an absolutist. Hers is a win-lose world of political Manichaeism. Everything is black and white, good and evil.
Palin’s inability to negotiate political compromise was definitively confirmed last month in Anchorage when the Alaska Legislature – a body largely composed of Republicans – overrode Palin’s veto of an energy component included in the federal stimulus package. It provided a perfect coda to Palin’s failed and abandoned governorship. In true paranoid style, she blamed the outcome on everyone else but herself.
Santa Cruz writer and filmmaker Geoffrey Dunn is currently at work on a book about Sarah Palin and American politics, to be published next year by Macmillan/St. Martin’s.
San Francisco Chronicle