Conspiracy Theories

The Hand-Me-Down Style in American Punditry


There is a liquor store on almost every corner in the black community. Why? They want us to kill ourselves.

Tom Frank has devoted his latest Wall Street Journal column to Richard Hofstadter's "The Paranoid Style in American Politics," which he rereads in an effort to illuminate the Birthers, Glenn Beck, and the other usual suspects. Not content to recycle an article already written by seemingly every other pundit in America, Frank quotes what may be Hofstadter's silliest statement about American political paranoia: that "it has been the preferred style only of minority movements." The columnist's only correction to the claim is that conspiracism "isn't just for fringe political groups anymore" because Fox News has decided to "act as its enabler."

I already wrote a long article arguing that the establishment's reaction to the right-wing fringe is itself marked by the paranoid style, so I won't repeat that argument here. But since everyone keeps bringing up Hofstadter, I thought I should mention that a similar dynamic was often at work with the older movements discussed in his essay, even though his article never acknowledges this. Thus it wasn't simply true, as he wrote, that the Populist Party was brimming over with fears of "a great conspiracy of international bankers" (rhetoric that Frank's old journal The Baffler deliberately evoked with its bromides against the "culture trust"). The elites of the era frequently perceived Populism itself as the product of a conspiracy, a paranoid position they sometimes salted with nativist fears. Henry Cabot Lodge, for instance, wrote that the Bryan campaign of 1896 was "a well-drawn and carefully thought out scheme based on socialistic and anarchistic theories imported from Europe." And Kansas Republicans attacked the publishers of a populist paper as "A Secret Band of Conspirators."

I borrowed both of those examples from Michael Paul Rogin's The Intellectuals and McCarthy: The Radical Specter, one of many retorts to the "pluralist" school of historians that Hofstadter represents. I have some substantial differences with Rogin as well, but that's beside the point—I just want to note that he published his study way back in 1967, and that the book was sufficiently well-received to win the Beveridge Award from the American Historical Association a year later. In other words, it's not as though Hofstadter's perspective has been lying there unchallenged since the '60s. There's nearly half a century of scholarship out there that builds on, refutes, or otherwise amends his work. And yet all these columnists are quoting an article he wrote for Harper's in 1964 as though historiography has been standing still since the Johnson administration. Would it kill you guys to take a peek at the rest of the literature?

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  1. Thomas Franks decides to complain about the paranoid style of his opponents by being an absolute paranoid lunatic himself. Thomas Franks, Maureen Dowd, Bob Herbert and Thomas Friedman, the major media Mount Rushmore of shut the hell up.

  2. I never read Frank’s column; the stuff he writes just makes me feel sorry for him. It’s painful.

    1. Every week, I come to that page in the WSJ, see his face, feel a little sick, and move on to the letters page.

  3. Aside from the character Mel Gibson played, the most paranoid conspiracy theorist I’ve ever seen I met when campaigning for Ron Paul. I’m surprised he wasn’t literally wearing a tinfoil hat.

    Have any of you heard about a site called enterprise corruption (tinfoil guy told me about it)? The guy that posts there says there is a conspriacy of elites to loot the money from big companies under the guise of “cooking the books,” etc. Then they make a pigramage to Rome where they give the money to the Pope to further the Catholic church’s quest for world domination.

    ANYWAY, this guy (on the site) claims to know when these market crashes are going to occur. He’s been wrong about the last two. Good stuff.

  4. ANYWAY, this guy (on the site) claims to know when these market crashes are going to occur. He’s been wrong about the last two. Good stuff.

    I’m not going down the conspiracy rabbit hole again. Last time I went there the shit just started showing up. Brochures on my doorstep. Weird questions about the Masons and Templars from coworkers. I can still freak my wife out by linking any random event to at least two or three conspiracy theories at the drop of a hat. If you try to follow the logic of crazy paranoids long enough, it starts to rub off.

  5. Every decision Obama confronts is the baffler. Thus he is the baffled or befuddled.

  6. Paranoia is a tool of the political minority? WTF?


    Was the fear that fueled TARP, the bailouts, the Stimulus, the PATRIOT act, etc somehow not paranoid?

    The State lives on fear.

  7. We need a new feature: Hofstadter Watch

  8. Harper’s is the final draft of history!

  9. From what I’ve seen, mainstream centrist culture is extremely prone to moral panics about stuff people barely understand. A few weeks after the Oklahoma City federal building was bombed, I heard some caller on a C-SPAN talking head show making a fairly vanilla-flavored argument to delegated vs. reserved powers based on the Tenth Amendment. It sounded about like Bob Dole reading from his little index card on the stump. The next caller was barely able to contain her hysteria–I mean, her voice was literally shaking: “Oh, my GOD! I’m so upset I can hardly even TALK! That man sounded like one of those, those (gasp) MILITIA people!!!”

    And remember the hysteria over “goths” after Columbine, with every kid in black eyeliner and a duster potentially some kind of homicidal racist?

    A couple weeks ago, Olbermann was ridiculing the “nutjob” belief that the Ninth and Tenth Amendments might impose objective limits of some kind on the subject matter of federal legislation. A constitutional lawyer friendly to his side had to gently remind him that it wasn’t really a “lunatic fringe” idea that there might be objective constraints on federal power.

    And BTW, none of that even touches on the question of whether the paranoids are right. Establishment liberalism tends to be closely allied, as you suggested, to interest group pluralism of the Bell and Hofstadter variety, and to be dismissive of the idea of elites or ruling classes. But it’s been soundly ridiculed for that on the Left, by people like C. Wright Mills and G. William Domhoff among others.

    And frankly, I think the populists had reason to be paranoid. If you look at Matthew Josephson’s account of how the railroads were built, or Parrington’s “Great Barbecue,” it looks very much like American society was reshaped from the top down–and not by a “consensus” of disparate interest groups in a pluralist political arena, but by a coalition of class forces that were almost entirely unaccountable to the American public. The state isn’t controlled by just whatever random assortment of interest groups fortuitously manages to latch onto it at any given time; the interest groups bear a coherent structural relationship to one another. I think Murray Rothbard made that point somewhere (in his schema, it was the central bankers and the industrial interests clustered around them).

    1. It is called projection. The easiest way to tell a paranoid is if he is telling you how paranoid all of his enemies are. Olberman and Franks are both paranoid nuts and have convinced themselves that everyone who doesn’t agree with them is just like they are.

  10. And BTW, none of that even touches on the question of whether the paranoids are right.

    Just because you’re paranoid, doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you.

  11. Also:

    If you aren’t paranoid, you aren’t paying attention.

    1. Now that is a bumber sticker. I love it.

  12. What’s the matter with Thomas Frank? Why isn’t he happy that his guys now have nearly total control over the federal government?

    Oh yeah, he’s just another liberal weenie playing his favorite role of the concern troll.

  13. Is it just me, or is the alt-text more interesting than the post?

  14. Would it kill you guys to take a peek at the rest of the literature?

    I think maybe you expect too much.

    Isnt the job of a pundit to vastly oversimplify complex issues and mollycoddle their audience’s existing misconceptions?

    Reading would just make it harder.

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