Conspiracy Theories

Baffled and Battered MSM Rallies Around…Richard Hofstadter

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Because if anything has changed since 1964, it's for the worse, thanks to all those yucky partisans having access to all that yucky media (also, the black president makes Those People crazy).

L.A. Times editorial board, "America's Maddening Paranoia":

Finger on the national pulse, 39 years after he had one

Though inspired by the healthcare debate, the fear-mongering also reflects what historian Richard Hofstadter called the "paranoid style in American politics," an ancient, exasperating form of discourse consisting of "heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy." Although he was writing during the ascendance of Goldwater Republicanism in the early '60s, Hofstadter argued that political paranoia was "not necessarily right-wing." […]

Why has the paranoid mentality become so prevalent and so insidious this summer? Some argue that Obama's exotic background engenders a special animosity. But George W. Bush also was outfitted with a metaphorical Hitler mustache. More likely, the rise in ideological "journalism" on cable TV and the Internet has exaggerated the natural skepticism with which Americans always have viewed their leaders.

The Economist, "Still Crazy After All These Years":

Not an Economist reader

Not long after the assassination of John Kennedy in 1963, the Senate contemplated a bill to tighten federal control over the sale of guns through the post. Three gun-lovers drove 2,500 miles from Arizona to Washington, DC, to protest. One argued that the bill was part of "a further attempt by a subversive power to make us part of one world socialistic government" and that it could "create chaos" and help "our enemies" to seize power. Not much has changed since Richard Hofstadter described this incident in a hugely influential book, "The Paranoid Style in American Politics". Gun-lovers still argue that the slightest curb on their right to bear arms will make America vulnerable to tyranny. And in other areas, too, the paranoid style is alive and frothing.

Scott Wilson, Washington Post White House correspondent, in a WashingtonPost.com chat.

Winnipeg, Canada: Why does your country get so easily distracted by the lunatic fringe? You have a President suggesting some long-needed reforms after winning a solid election victory, and you'd think he'd arrived with the space ship from "Mars Attacks." I can't believe there's another country in the world where the death panel controversy would be taken seriously, let alone the birthers and the 9/11 conspirators.

Scott Wilson: A reading recommendation: "The Paranoid Style in American Politics." Written by Richard Hofstadter and published in 1964, it's a still-timely examination of what you describe. The ease with which information/rumor is spread by the Internet has broadened the phenomenon.

Trudy Rubin, Philadelphia Inquirer, "A Conspiracy Culture, Here?":

Before the Internet, you'd only see this on Bugs Bunny cartoons

Of course, "the paranoid style" is not unknown to American politics, as Richard Hofstadter wrote in his famous 1964 essay. Rather, it is "an old and recurrent phenomenon" linked with discontented and suspicious groups at turbulent periods in our history. […]

In more recent decades one could dismiss American conspiracy theorists as isolated from the mainstream: think small groups operating in Montana or in Deep South enclaves. Or those, including a just-resigned minor White House official, who believed the Bush administration let 9/11 happen as a pretext for war.

In the age of the Internet, however, things have dramatically changed.

Large numbers of Americans now turn to ideological Web sites for their news, or to (mostly conservative) radio talk shows. Unverified opinions, rumors, and emotions are served up in lieu of facts, but are often accepted as gospel. Meantime, the mainstream media, which still lays out facts, including on health care, is vilified by left and right and economically battered.

Bob Reynolds, Al-Jazeera, "Fear, Racism at Town Hall Meetings":

Racism? Sure. Or as Palin would say: "You betcha!" That's part of it.

But racism simply compounds something that runs even deeper. This fear of the "other" is not a new phenomenon.

It didn't start with Obama's rise to the White House.
 
In 1964, the great Columbia University historian Richard Hofstadter unravelled what he called the "paranoid style in American politics".

Panics, conspiracy fears and militant campaigns against outsiders began almost as soon as the republic was founded, Hofstadter writes.

Geoffrey Dunn, San Francisco Chronicle, "Palin and America's Paranoid-Style Politics":

Because if you accuse someone of palling around with this guy, you're a racist!

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. […]

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. […]

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.

Some counter-programming: Damon W. Root details how Hofstadter slimed Herbert Spencer, and Jesse Walker pinpointed the return of the militia scare