The Trouble with Richard Hofstadter

Prostitution panics and the paranoid style


This weekend an essay adapted from my book The United States of Paranoia appeared in The National Memo. This piece features some of my criticisms of Richard Hofstadter's "The Paranoid Style in American Politics," particularly his claim that political paranoia is "the preferred style only of minority movements." Here's an excerpt from my article:

World's Purity Federation

[T]he antiprostitution panic of the early twentieth century…featured lurid tales of a vast international white-slavery syndicate conscripting thousands of innocent girls each year into sexual service. An influential book by a former Chicago prosecutor claimed, in the space of three paragraphs, that the 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."

Coerced prostitution really did exit, but 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 major 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 boost in power in the process.

Such stories are missing from Hofstadter's account….The result was a distorted picture in which the country's outsiders are possessed by fear and its establishment usually is not.

In related news:

The Chicago Tribune reviews my book, reporting that "Walker repeatedly uses his impressive skills to offer fascinating, lengthy accounts of some of the most thrilling moments in American history."

The New York Post likes it too.

The Boston Globe says the book is "immensely entertaining" but could do without some of my "iconoclastic political points."

The Pittburgh Tribune-Review calls the book "a distinctive, valuable perspective on an intriguing topic."

The Baltimore Sun interviews me. Note: Some of the answers were mistranscribed. I did not, for example, suggest that a totalitarian society is less likely to embrace Enemy Outside stories.

• C-Span recorded me giving a talk about the book.