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?