POLICE STATE USA: The Paranoid Style of American Governance
by Prof. James F. Tracy
June 3, 2012
In 1964 Harper’s magazine published the now famous essay, “The Paranoid Style of American Politics,” by historian and public intellectual Richard Hofstadter. Appearing in the wake of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination and Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater’s Republican presidential nomination, the tract remains emblematic of liberal anxiety toward serious and in many cases unresolved questions regarding the forces behind American governance. “The Paranoid Style” overall helped establish the term “conspiracy theory” as perhaps the most powerful epithet in the American political lexicon. “American politics has often been an arena for angry minds,” Hofstadter wrote.
“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-wing. 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.” (emphasis added)
Americans typically comfort themselves in the notion that they live in a democracy, with a government that is rational, responsible, and accommodative of their needs. Yet what if the government Americans look to for protection of personal property, the creation and enforcement of fair and just laws, and defense of the nation’s borders and interests abroad exhibits the paranoia Hofstadter attributed to John Birchers and Goldwater supporters, complete with deep suspicions and conspiratorial fantasies toward those it is supposed to serve and protect?
The New York Times Health Guide explains a prevailing symptom of Paranoid Personality Disorder as being “highly suspicious of other people.” Those afflicted “often feel that they are in danger, and look for evidence to support their suspicions. People with this disorder have trouble seeing that their distrustfulness is out of proportion to their environment.” Other symptoms include “concern that other people have hidden motives, expectation that they will be exploited by others, inability to work together with others,” “detachment” and “hostility.”
US legislation exhibiting undue suspiciousness toward allegedly strange “others” suggests how the paranoid style has thoroughly imbued American governance, particularly over the past 10 years. An especially strong onset of symptoms is evidenced in the blizzard of new laws, programs, and executive orders dating from September 11, 2001.