The Paranoid Style Is American Politics

Fear and loathing on every campaign trail

On Tuesday the lesbian assassin of Vince Foster won Pennsylvania's presidential primary. In the larger contest for the Democratic nomination, though, she still lags behind a jihadist sleeper agent who is simultaneously a secret Muslim, a secret Communist, and a secret Republican. Whoever wins their race will go on to face a brainwashed puppet of the Viet Cong, and whoever wins that race will then get on with the modern president's central task: serving the interests of Mexico. It must be true, I read it in my email.

There's a persistant political myth that paranoia is only a feature of the fringe, something common among alienated radicals and reactionaries but rare in the great American center. In fact, paranoia has been ubiquitous across the political spectrum. You can find it in nearly every faction and movement at every point in American history, not least among those establishment figures who think they're immune to conspiracy theories. (The most lurid and destructive tales of Waco were not told by militiamen after the raid was over. They were told by the media and the government while the siege was underway.)

In The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, the historian Bernard Bailyn showed that the worldview of the patriots who would soon revolt against England included a strong belief, in the words of one colonist, that "a deep-laid and desperate plan of imperial despotism has been laid, and partly executed, for the extinction of all civil liberty." At the same time, Bailyn notes, British administrators "were as convinced as were the leaders of the Revolutionary movement that they were themselves the victims of conspiratorial designs." Colonial governors such as Thomas Hutchinson—a man John Adams accused of "junto conspiracy"—believed, in Bailyn's words, that "the root of all the trouble in the colonies was the maneuvering of a secret, power-hungry cabal that professed loyalty to England while assiduously working to destroy the bonds of authority."

After independence was won, the victorious patriots quickly found plots in their own ranks. If you didn't think the Jeffersonians were Jacobin pawns of the Illuminati, you probably fretted that the Federalists were conspiring to establish a monarchy. Nor did the hunt for subversive cabals end with the death of the revolutionary generation. The historian David Brion Davis has pointed out that the lead-up to the Civil War can be viewed as a clash between two conspiracy theories, one featuring a fearsome network of abolitionists and the other a hungry Slave Power.

And no, these passions haven't limited themselves to periods as violent as the war for American independence and the war between the states. It's telling that the 1990s, a time of relative peace and prosperity, were also a golden age of both frankly fictional and purportedly true tales of conspiracy. There are many reasons for this, including the not-unsubstantial fact that even at its most peaceful, America is still riven with conflicts. But there is also the possibility that peace breeds nightmares just as surely as strife does. The anthropologist David Graeber has argued that "it's the most peaceful societies which are also the most haunted, in their imaginative constructions of the cosmos, by constant specters of perennial war." The Piaroa Indians of Venezuala, for example, "are famous for their peaceableness," but "they inhabit a cosmos of endless invisible war, in which wizards are engaged in fending off the attacks of insane, predatory gods and all deaths are caused by spiritual murder and have to be avenged by the magical massacre of whole (distant, unknown) communities." Many bloggers with comfortable lives spend their spare time in a similar subterranean world.

Why all the paranoia? In part, of course, it's because there really are conspiracies out there. Power does attract the power-hungry. No, Hillary Clinton did not murder Ron Brown—but her explanations for her good fortune trading cattle futures do not bear close scrutiny. John McCain is not a deep-cover Manchurian Candidate, but he was a charter member of the Keating Five. Barack Obama is not a closet Islamist, but there are legitimate questions about his ties to the corrupt developer Tony Rezko. If politics is the art of compromise, then politicians will inevitably be compromised.

It also is often in a movement's interest to paint the opposition in the darkest possible colors, even when the stakes are small and even when the allegations involved are not completely true or relevant. More importantly, it is natural for the members of a movement to find such suspicions believable and to conjure up such theories themselves. It's always easy to think the worst about people outside your group, especially if they're already consciously working against your goals. This tendency becomes even stronger when a hierarchy is involved. The lower orders are inevitably suspicious of the elite, and the elite are always worried about the proles.

So it shouldn't be a surprise that one poll showed 15 percent of voters believing that Barack Obama is a Muslim. It shouldn't be a surprise that the stories anti-McCain conservatives used to whisper, that perhaps he collaborated with his captors in Vietnam, are now surfacing on the left as well. If Hillary Clinton somehow manages to take the Democratic nomination—an outcome that would probably require a conspiracy itself—you shouldn't be surprised when all the stories you heard about her in the '90s come roaring back, be they plausible or nuts.

Above all, you shouldn't be surprised when you hear these tales not just from that creepy-looking fellow manning the LaRouche booth near the bus stop but from ordinary, middle-class relatives and neighbors with ordinary, middle-class views. Welcome to America. Paranoia is a part of the political process.

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  • Neil||

    Actually Obama is closer to being a Communist than Clinton.

    His mom was a comsymp and quite possibly a party member. His father admired the Soviet Union.

  • Other Matt||

    Actually Obama is closer to being a Communist than Clinton.

    But he's the Black Dude, not the Chick.

  • Neil||

    You know I respect Hillary Clinton now than I did before.

    Despite the fact she probably really is a secret lesbian and her socialist-lite domestic policies, shes willing to stand up to the Islamofascists on the world stage and probably means the best for this country. Thats completely unlike Obama.

  • ||

    Actually, the lesbian communist only had Vince Foster killed after she had an affair with him. God, get your facts straight. :)

  • ||

    So, did the jury ever reach a verdict on whether Neil is a spoof?

  • the innominate one||

    Matt:

    He is a spoof, the question is whether said spoof is intentional or not.

  • ||

    Hank,

    Was the affair before or after she got the Secret Service to procure underaged girls for her?

  • Neil||

    There are questions about Michelle Obama's political leanings, too. Word is she wrote some pretty Socialistic stuff during her leftist academic career.

  • ||

    Joe:

    I'm not sure on that one. I will have to go check Little Green Footballs and get back to you on that one.

  • Joel||

    Hillary keeps sending me orders only I can hear. I pick them up on my fillings. I may not disobey.

    McCain, run! RUN!!

  • ||

    Is Neil a spoof?

    Maybe. Look at this sentence he wrote:

    Because of our invasion, Libya gave up its nuclear weapons, Iran is checkmated, and there was a democratic revolution in Lebanon.

    Yeah, yeah, standard wingnut talking points, but look at how he makes them. Libya didn't have nuclear weapons, but they did give up their programs. Iran's hegemony has grown considerably since this invasion, but we do have troops on two of their borders. Lebanon has been a democracy since the 70s and there was no revolution, but there was a popular uprising that drove out Syria.

    Every one of those statements is written to make it false, even though something very close would have been true, and made his points just as well.

    Yes, wingnuts overstate their case on Iraq, but all three, being just barely untrue? I don't think that happens by accident. I think you have to try.

  • Neil||

    So I forgot to put "program" big deal.

    And that revolution WAS a democratic revolution it wasnt a democracy under Syria.

    Is Iran better or worse off with our troops on their borders now Joe?

  • ||

    You're right, honest mistake, you meant every word of it.

    My bad.

  • ||

    Is Iran better or worse off with our troops on their borders now Joe?

    What? I thought the point was whether the United States is better off.

    Smart people answer: no.

  • ||

    Our troops removed both of the regimes that had engaged in hostile acts against Iran in the past twenty years, brought Iranian allies to power in their places, and created a backlash that allowed the Iranian regime to crush the democratic movement that had so rattled it during the 90s.

    And yet, the troops in those two neighboring countries are so bogged down that they cannot be withdrawn to engage Iran even if we wanted to do so, and we have no strategic reserve with which to open up a third (fourth? fifth?) front in the War on Terror.

  • ||

    This is a fine example of conspiracy lunacy -

    On the mayor's orders, a cop did a drive-by shooting of a stripper because she had performed at a wild party at the mayor's mansion causing her to be physically assaulted by the mayors wife.

    The mayor is completely fucked up, obviously perjured himself and caused the city to pay out millions in a few wrongful termination lawsuits, yet many here in the Motor City talk about the theory I described above. And fervently believe it.

    Top that, Cleveland and Baltimore. When it comes to insanity, Detroit Rules!!!

  • Elemenope||

    British administrators "were as convinced as were the leaders of the Revolutionary movement that they were themselves the victims of conspriatorial designs.

    Um.

    They were right, weren't they? It's not paranoia if people really are conspiring to overthrow your rule.

  • ||

    Was the affair before or after she got the Secret Service to procure underaged girls for her?

    joe, I knew you were an uninformed Dem tool and now you've proven it. Everybody knows the White House Travel Office procured underage girls for Hillary Clinton.

  • ||

    Yeah, well...we had a guy who lost a towing bid win a seat on the City Council.

    That's right.

    The Lowell City Council.



    Drive-by on a stripper, you say? Hrmph.

  • ||

    They were right, weren't they? It's not paranoia if people really are conspiring to overthrow your rule.

    Depends on when they believed it. If they believed it in 1770, it was paranoia and a self-fulfilling prophecy.

  • NP||

    No, Hillary Clinton did not murder Ron Brown-but her explanations for her good fortune trading cattle futures do not bear close scrutiny. John McCain is not a deep-cover Manchurian Candidate, but he was a charter member of the Keating Five. Barack Obama is not a closet Islamist, but there are legitimate questions about his ties to the corrupt developer Tony Rezko.



    The above examples may well be conspiracies technically, but are the first kind (in each case) really as egregious as the second? The former are indeed fancies of paranoia, the latter are not. Similarly, one must have a very loose definition of paranoia to argue that "the most lurid and destructive tales of Waco" are at the same paranoid level with the 9/11 conspiracy theories.

    Paranoia may be inseparable from politics (American or not), but not because the majority of "the great American center" are saturated with it but because they choose to use it as a political tool, as Jesse himself notes in his article. That's a pretty significant difference, so I must say he's not giving Americans their due when he claims that "paranoia has been ubiquitous across the political spectrum." But his article does offer one good reason not only to distrust but also cheer what we call American politics, which, I suppose, is very libertarian.

  • Travis||

    The Keating 5 now that was a great rock band.

  • ||

    The Keating 5 now that was a great rock band.

    Didn't they eventually change their name to the Gang of Fourteen?

  • Dave W.||

    Yeah, yeah, standard wingnut talking points, but look at how he makes them.

    I was really mystified when you brought that up before. Thanks for explaining. It is hard to tell if Neil is sincere.

  • I\'m dissapointed..||

    ..that Gabe Harris, the Great Comotarian Overlord, has not graced this thread with his presence.

  • and w/ my keyboard skilz||

    :(

  • ||

    The Keating 5 now that was a great rock band.

    No, No! This is The Keating Five.

  • BakedPenguin||

    I'm dissapointed that Gabe Harris... has not graced this thread with his presence.



    And what of Lonewacko? the line -

    whoever wins [the Presidential] race will then get on with the modern president's central task: serving the interests of Mexico.



    had to be a bone thrown to him.

  • ||

    There are warm-fuzzy commies like Gorbachev and then there are big-meany commies like Stalin:

    The Clinton's one legal associate, Vince Foster, committed suicide. Though he was the #2 official in the Clinton Justice Department, the Clinton White House ordered the FBI not to investigate, and had the Fort Marcy Park Police conduct the investigation instead.

    The Clinton's number one political associate, Ron Brown, chair of DNC, died when his plane crashed into a mountain. Flight controller committed suicide before he could be questioned.

    The Clinton's number one business associate, James McDougal, was placed in solitary confinement and denied his heart medicine, and promptly died of a heart attack.

    There's a long list of Clinton associates who died under mysterious circumstances. Easy enough to Google.

    Do we really want to go through this stuff again?

  • ||

    The French Revolution was the result of a secret conspiracy of the Illuminati and the Freemasons.

  • BakedPenguin||

    J sub - this was my favorite episode of that show.

  • ||

    Sorry, meant that Vince Foster was their 'number one legal associate' not 'one legal associate.' Though the latter may be true also.

  • ||

    Pro, it wasn't secret if you know about it.

  • Anon||

    When we libertarians debase conspiracy analysis, we're throwing out an invaluable tool for understanding real politic. Political power is often transmitted via the machinations of hidden collusion and miss-direction. Often, conspiracy theorizing is the only way to apprehend political reality.
    I think we need to engage in conspiracy analysis to understand political power. We need to ask the question; who benefits? I like Rothbard's extension of common sense conspiracy analysis from smaller political situations like the collusion of labor and management to enact tariffs, to larger things like entry into war, the creation of the Fed, etc.

  • Jesse Walker||

    The above examples may well be conspiracies technically, but are the first kind (in each case) really as egregious as the second?

    They were not. I did that deliberately, to contrast dubious fancies with concrete real-world misbehavior.

    Similarly, one must have a very loose definition of paranoia to argue that "the most lurid and destructive tales of Waco" are at the same paranoid level with the 9/11 conspiracy theories.

    I was actually intending to contrast the tales told about the Branch Davidians during the raid with some of the more baroque conspiracy theories about Waco that were weaved afterwards. (Not sensible arguments that there was a cover-up, but the odder "testing grounds for the New World Order" sort of story.) But I suppose the contrast works with the Truthers, too, at least as far as "damaging" goes: The consequences of nutty 9/11 theories are dwarfed by the consequences of the lurid tales we were told about a sexually depraved cult plotting armageddon.

  • ||

    sniperfire still again,

    Fool! I am part of the cabal. It no longer matters that you know.

    I'm also privy to the Ἐλευσίνια Μυστήρια.

  • ||

    Do we really want to go through this stuff again?

    With you? No.

  • Syd||

    I'm confused. Is McCain the Manchurian candidate, the Viet Cong candidate or both. And in either case, isn't this be good for our relations with China and Viet Nam?

  • ||

    BakedPenguin - Did you really just try to rickroll this board? Are your days really that empty?

  • BakedPenguin||

    bside - I just wanted to get J sub D for referencing "Family Ties". Frankly, I think mine was the lesser crime.

  • VM||

    sounds as though, bside, that you did get rickrolled!

  • Colin||

    If he gets nominated perhaps he could pick Wesley Snipes as his running mate.

    For if Snipes wasn't a libertarian before, he sure is one now.

  • ||

    Roasted Sphenisciformes,

    I'll get you for this. Truly, I will get you if it is my last act on the living plane. When you least expect it, expect it. There is no place on the intertubes you can hide. I will find you, and I will punish you.

  • ||

    I aborted the rickroll less than a second after, so it doesn't count.

    I dunno, I sort of like the Family Ties joke. Maybe I deserve a rickroll.

  • ||

    I once heard someone claim that JFK slept with Jackie Onassis...

  • NP||

    Jesse,

    I did notice your deliberate dichotomy between actual cases of paranoia and legitimate worries about probable misbehavior. Sorry if I didn't make that clear. (BTW I should have asked if the latter examples are as bad as the former, not the other way around, but I see that you got my overall point.)

    Now as for the Branch Davidians, I still gotta say that not even the most far-fetched "New World Order" tales were as nonsensical as the 9/11 conspiracy theories. At the time of the Waco siege virtually no one had ever heard of the Davidians, so it's not too surprising that many bought the stories spun by the government and media about a clearly eccentric organization. The 9/11 theories, though, can be easily disproved not only by physics (which frankly isn't everyone's forte) but also by common sense. But you're right about the damaging potential of this contrast: The 9/11 Truthers are rightly considered a fringe (though a rather sizable one) and thus have yet to do any serious damage, whereas the Waco tales were more plausible and likelier to induce hysteria, which, of course, led to a tragic end.

  • ||

    I don't think the bitch is really a commie, just an autocrat who couldn't care less about what ideology she spouts.

    -jcr

  • Paul||

    Yeah, and I hear that municipal governments are starting to look at a satellite/gps tracking program for every citizen driving on its roads. Maybe we can finally catch some terrorists.

    Oh wait, never mind, it's for the environment. Never mind! Surveil away! Afterall, they'll never use this technology for evil.

  • ||

    "No, Hillary Clinton did not murder Ron Brown-but her explanations for her good fortune trading cattle futures do not bear close scrutiny."

    The link you supply, to an article written for the National Review, is in itself a nice example of the paranoid style. The authors, Caroline Baum and Victor Niederhoffer, make the following statement: "After examining Mrs. Clinton's trading records, Leo Melamed, the father of financial futures and former chairman of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, and Jack Sandner, the Merc's current chairman, found nothing irregular except, on occasion, insufficient margin in her account. Anyone could have done as well, these gentlemen said, given the doubling of cattle prices during her year of trading. Mr. Melamed called the brouhaha over the First Lady's financial affairs "a tempest in a teapot.""

    So, after the experts say that what Hillary did looks kosher, and after Baum and Niederhoffer say that there's no evidence of fraud, and after they also say that there are no real standards for determining whether a series of commodities trades might have been fraudulent, they proceed to invent, out of thin air, "standards," which they apply to Hillary and which, wonder of wonders, "prove" that she's guilty.

    I am seriously not a Hillary fan, but, dude, don't try to prove anything about her by quoting the National Review.

  • Mad Max||

    You guys are way off - the Illuminati are simply a front for the Loyal Order of Elks. And it's too late to do anything about their plot to take over the world, because the flouride in the water will make us forget . . . forget . . . damn!

  • alan||

    Top that, Cleveland and Baltimore. When it comes to insanity, Detroit Rules!!!

    You want to go up against the city that gave the world Spiro Agnew in the city most likely needing a padded wall fortress?

  • alan||

    sniper fire | April 24, 2008, 6:35pm | #
    There are warm-fuzzy commies like Gorbachev and then there are big-meany commies like Stalin:

    The Clinton's one legal associate, Vince Foster, committed suicide. Though he was the #2 official in the Clinton Justice Department, the Clinton White House ordered the FBI not to investigate, and had the Fort Marcy Park Police conduct the investigation instead.

    The Clinton's number one political associate, Ron Brown, chair of DNC, died when his plane crashed into a mountain. Flight controller committed suicide before he could be questioned.

    The Clinton's number one business associate, James McDougal, was placed in solitary confinement and denied his heart medicine, and promptly died of a heart attack.

    There's a long list of Clinton associates who died under mysterious circumstances. Easy enough to Google.

    Do we really want to go through this stuff again?


    So, you are saying ruthless right wingers are out to destroy anyone who is associated with the Clintons, and if HRC is elected President more associates of the Clintons will fall prey to nefarious, right wing assassins?

    I find that reasoning fetched a little too far, but even so that wont deter HRC from doing what is right for the country and seeking the office of the presidency; even if it as at an enormous sacrifice to herself. She is like Ghandi that way, man.

  • ||

    Politicians conspire and politics in general is a conspiracy. Unless of course, you are the lone gunman.

  • Guy Montag||

    I am seriously not a Hillary fan, but, dude, don't try to prove anything about her by quoting the National Review.

    The National Review is every bit as credible as Reason. Just because they don't slant your way is no reason to trash them. It ios certainly not a fiction-log like The New Republic.

  • mr. tinfoil hat||

    hmm, Mccain was born in Panama and brainwashed by Asians... does that make him the Panamanchurian Candidate?

  • General Ripper||

    Just as long as they don't harm our precious bodily fluids!

  • GILMORE||

    I think this thread was a joke, flypaper to attract Neil... to prove the very point

  • dre||

    Discussing conspiracy theories, at least indirectly, acknowledges their plausibility. Irrational thought at its best. Maybe some logical reasoning should be applied in articles submitted to reason.com.

  • Wazoo||

    So where's the email that says Obama is really a secret Republican? I must have missed that one.

  • ||

    If it weren't for National Review, I never would have known that Ahmed Chalabi is the George Washington of Iraq, and that the CIA and State Department only snubbed him because they're full of America-hating leftists.

  • WingedHussar1683||

    http://husaria.files.wordpress.com/2008/04/pa_obama.jpg?w=400

  • dayat||

    Great post, I found it useful information on this site and relationship with my blog....thanks

  • Nike Dunk SB High||

    is good

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