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An essential feature of a moral panic is the folk devil, an evil agent who serves as a scapegoat for the threat. The folk devil often takes the form of a conspiracy: a Satanic cult, a powerful gang, a backwoods militia. The anti-prostitution panic of the early 20th century featured lurid tales of a vast international white-slavery syndicate conscripting thousands of innocent girls into sexual service each year. An influential book by a former Chicago prosecutor claimed, in the space of three paragraphs, that this syndicate amounted to an “invisible government,” a “hidden hand,” and a “secret power,” and that “behind our city and state governments there is an unseen power which controls them.”
While coerced prostitution really did exist, it was neither as prevalent nor as organized as the era’s wild rhetoric suggested. Yet far from being consigned to a marginal minority movement, the scare led to a major piece of national legislation, the Mann Act of 1910, and gave the first big boost in power to the agency that would later be known as the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Within a decade, the bureau would be extending its purview from alleged conspiracies of pimps to alleged conspiracies of Communists, getting another power boost in the process.
Such stories are missing from Hofstadter’s account, which drew almost all its examples from movements opposed to the “right-thinking people” Cohen described. The result was a distorted picture in which the country’s outsiders are possessed by fear and its establishment usually is not. The essay had room, for example, for “Greenback and Populist writers who constructed a great conspiracy of international bankers,” but it said nothing about the elites of the era who perceived Populism as the product of a conspiracy. Hofstadter did not mention Charles W. Dabney, the assistant secretary of agriculture who denounced William Jennings Bryan’s Populist-endorsed presidential campaign of 1896 as a “cunningly devised and powerfully organized cabal.” Nor did he cite the respectable Republican paper that reacted to the rise of the Union Labor Party, a proto-Populist group, with a series of bizarre exposés claiming that an anarchist secret society controlled the party. “We have in our midst a secret band who are pledged on oath to ‘sacrifice their bodies to the just vengeance of their comrades’ should they fail to obey the commands or keep the secrets of the order,” the Winfield Daily Courier warned in 1888. The paper kept up the drumbeat until Election Day.
When scholars and pundits aren’t claiming that paranoia is limited to the political extremes, they sometimes claim that it’s a product of particularly harsh times—that a conspiracy panic might leave the fringe and seize a large portion of the population, but only when the country is in turmoil. In 2009 the conservative writer David Frum offered that explanation for the popularity of Glenn Beck, a right-wing broadcaster with a fondness for conspiracy stories. “Conspiracy theories,” Frum wrote, “always flourish during economic downturns.”
He’s right: They do flourish during economic downturns. But they also flourish during economic upturns. Frum was specifically attacking Beck for his interest in the idea that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was building secret concentration camps, so it’s worth noting that the very same fear was previously popular on the left during the booming 1980s and on the right during the booming 1990s. For the last few decades, elements of whatever party is out of power have worried that the party in power would turn fascist; the FEMA story was easily adapted to fit the new conditions. (Beck, it should be noted, wound up rejecting the FEMA theory.)
Even if you set aside purely partisan fears, the 1990s, a time of relative peace and prosperity, were also a golden age of both frankly fictional and allegedly true tales of conspiracy. There are many reasons for this, including the fact that even at its most peaceful America is riven by 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 Venezuela, he wrote, “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 middle-class bloggers leading comfortable lives spend their spare time in a similar subterranean universe.
The word paranoia is being used here colloquially, not clinically. That should be obvious, but it’s worth stressing the point, because there is a long history of people using psychiatric terms to stigmatize political positions they oppose. Unfortunately, a better term is not available. (Conspiracism comes close, but it doesn’t quite cut it, since political paranoia can take the form of a dread that is broader than the fear of a cabal.)
To his credit, Hofstadter insisted that he had “neither the competence nor the desire to classify any figures of the past or present as certifiable lunatics,” adding that “the idea of the paranoid style would have little contemporary relevance or historical value if it were applied only to people with profoundly disturbed minds. It is the use of paranoid modes of expression by more or less normal people that makes the phenomenon significant.” But you still can come away from his article with the sense that large swaths of the American past have just been put on the psychoanalyst’s couch.
And not every writer in his tradition has been as careful with his caveats as Hofstadter was. The same fall that Harper’s published “The Paranoid Style,” with its opening declaration that “the Goldwater movement” showed “how much political leverage can be got out of the animosities and passions of a small minority,” Fact magazine announced that “1,189 Psychiatrists Say Goldwater Is Psychologically Unfit to Be President!” Naturally, those irresponsible diagnoses from afar included the claim that the candidate had “a paranoid personality.”
Well, colloquially speaking, virtually everyone is capable of paranoid thinking, including you, me, and the Founding Fathers. In the 1960s there was a scare about the radical right, demonstrating that it is even possible to be paranoid about paranoids.
And as one more illustration of that last possibility, here is a final story.
On October 30, 1938, at 8 p.m., the CBS radio network transmitted The War of the Worlds, a special Halloween edition of The Mercury Theatre on the Air. The broadcast, directed and narrated by Orson Welles, was based on H.G. Wells’ famous novel about a Martian invasion of Earth, but the action was moved from Victorian England to contemporary New Jersey. The first half of the story jettisoned the usual format of a radio play and adopted a more adventurous form: a live concert interrupted by ever more frightening bulletins. It was and is a brilliant and effective drama, but the broadcast is famous today for reasons that go well beyond its artistic quality.
You might think you know this story. In popular memory, hordes of listeners mistook a science fiction play for an actual alien invasion, setting off a mass panic. That’s the tale told in one of the most frequently cited accounts of the evening, a 1940 study by the social psychologist Hadley Cantril. “For a few horrible hours,” Cantril wrote, “people from Maine to California thought that hideous monsters armed with death rays were destroying all armed resistance sent against them; that there was simply no escape from danger; that the end of the world was near.…Long before the broadcast had ended, people all over the United States were praying, crying, fleeing frantically to escape death from the Martians. Some ran to rescue loved ones. Others telephoned farewells or warnings, hurried to inform neighbors, sought information from newspapers or radio stations, summoned ambulances and police cars.” At least 6 million people heard the broadcast, Cantril claimed, and “at least a million of them were frightened or disturbed.”
The truth was more mundane but also more interesting. There were indeed listeners who, apparently missing the initial announcement that the story was fiction, took the show at face value and believed a real invasion was under way. It is not clear, however, that they were any more common than the people who today mistake satires in The Onion for real newspaper reports.