The Paranoid Style in Politics and Us

Shut it down.

I’m trying to do the right things but a brief spat with my producing partner forced me to open my eyes. I shut down. I shut things down. I shut it down. I’m quick to kill a conversation if I think it’s going to lead to pain. The irony is that pain is never a foregone conclusion. And there is simply no contest between pain and truth. The tradeoff is between temporary pain and long term suffering. For a long time, I thought I was tough, strong. Now I realize that I feel things deeply and that I erected  an eggshell thin barrier  to keep me safe. As is so often the case, the thing that once kept me safe now works against me.

I say this to say I understand how irrational fear and dread can highjack our best intentions.

Fast forward to Gary Kamiya’s recent article on Salon, “The Infantile Style in American Politics.”  Kamiya brought up historian Richard Hofstadter’s essays:  “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” “The Pseudo-Conservative Revolt,” “Pseudo-Conservatism Revised,” and “Goldwater and Pseudo-Conservative Politics.” I read these in high school but had forgotten about them.

Among many other things, Hofstadter’s essays point out the connection between our emotions and our decisions, indeed, our very perceptions of the world.

“In ‘The Paranoid Style,’ Hofstadter traces the long tradition of irrational, conspiratorial and paranoid thinking in American history”:

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.

Of course this term is pejorative, and it is meant to be; the paranoid style has a greater affinity for
bad causes than good.

Reading Kamiya and re-reading Hofstadter makes it clear that the roots for paranoia that Hofstadter describes are also present in me. Being cool as a cucumber doesn’t mean that I’m not roiling inside. This revelation gave me a new compassion for paranoid political actors. If, as Kamiya suggests, their rage leads us to “a political climate in which the rational pursuit of our well being and safety would become impossible,” we may have very few political options. As Democrats refuse to acknowledge, rational arguments and appeals to nobility will not suffice. When all is said and done, we may have to wait for these actors to devour themselves or for the moment of crisis to pass.

But a tiny part of me still hopes that just as my eyes were opened in a moment of unjustifiable anger, that their’s will be as well.

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About liftingasweclimb

Mildred Lewis writes and directs for theater, television, film and the web. She's also a full time professor, Christian, activist and troublemaker with a passion to save as much of the world as she can.
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