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Monday, October 09, 2006

Paul Krugman: The Paranoid Style

Paul Krugman explains why the right is so paranoid:

The Paranoid Style, by Paul Krugman, Commentary, NY Times: Last week Dennis Hastert, the speaker of the House, explained the real cause of the Foley scandal. “The people who want to see this thing blow up,” he said, “are ABC News and a lot of Democratic operatives, people funded by George Soros.” ...

[I]t wasn’t his first outburst along these lines. Back in 2004, Mr. Hastert said: “You know, I don’t know where George Soros gets his money. I don’t know where — if it comes overseas or from drug groups or where it comes from.”

Does Mr. Hastert really believe that George Soros and his operatives, conspiring with the evil news media, are responsible for the Foley scandal? Yes, he probably does. For one thing, demonization of Mr. Soros is widespread in right-wing circles. ...

More generally, Mr. Hastert is a leading figure in a political movement ... historian Richard Hofstadter famously called “the paranoid style in American politics.” Hofstadter’s essay introducing the term was inspired by his observations of the radical right-wingers who seized control of the Republican Party in 1964. Today, the movement that nominated Barry Goldwater controls both Congress and the White House.

As a result, political paranoia — the “sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy” Hofstadter described — has gone mainstream. To read Hofstadter’s essay today is to be struck by the extent to which he seems to be describing the state of mind not of a lunatic fringe, but of key figures in our political and media establishment.

The “paranoid spokesman,” wrote Hofstadter, sees things “in apocalyptic terms. ... He is always manning the barricades of civilization.” Sure enough, Dick Cheney says that “the war on terror is a battle for the future of civilization.”

According to Hofstadter, for the paranoids, “what is at stake is always a conflict between absolute good and absolute evil,” and because “the enemy is thought of as being totally evil and totally unappeasable, he must be totally eliminated.” Three days after 9/11, President Bush promised to “rid the world of evil.”

The paranoid “demand for total triumph leads to the formulation of hopelessly unrealistic goals” — instead of focusing on Al Qaeda, we’ll try to remake the Middle East and eliminate a vast “axis of evil” — “and since these goals are not even remotely attainable, failure constantly heightens the paranoid’s sense of frustration.” Iraq, anyone?

The current right-wing explanation for what went wrong in Iraq closely echoes Joseph McCarthy’s explanation for the Communist victory in China, which he said was “the product of a great conspiracy” at home. According to the right, things didn’t go wrong because the invasion was a mistake, or because Donald Rumsfeld didn’t send enough troops, or because the occupation was riddled with cronyism and corruption. No, it’s all because the good guys were stabbed in the back. Democrats, who undermined morale with their negative talk, and the liberal media, which refused to report the good news from Iraq, are responsible for the quagmire. ...

Which brings us back to the Foley affair. The immediate response by nearly everyone in the Republican establishment — wild claims, without a shred of evidence behind them, that the whole thing is a Democratic conspiracy — may sound crazy. But that response is completely in character for a movement that from the beginning has been dominated by the paranoid style. And here’s the scary part: that movement runs our government.

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Previous (10/6) column: Paul Krugman: The War Against Wages
Next (10/13) Column: Paul Krugman: Will the Levee Break?

Here's the essay by Richard Hofstadter:

The Paranoid Style in American Politics, by Richard Hofstadter†, Harper’s Magazine, November 1964, pp. 77-86:

It had been around a long time before the Radical Right discovered it—and its targets have ranged from “the international bankers” to Masons, Jesuits, and munitions makers.

American politics has often been an arena for angry minds. In recent years we have seen angry minds at work mainly among extreme right-wingers, who have now demonstrated in the Goldwater movement how much political leverage can be got out of the animosities and passions of a small minority. But behind this I believe there is a style of mind that is far from new and that is not necessarily right-wind. I call it the paranoid style simply because no other word adequately evokes the sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy that I have in mind. In using the expression “paranoid style” I am not speaking in a clinical sense, but borrowing a clinical term for other purposes. I have neither the competence nor the desire to classify any figures of the past or present as certifiable lunatics. In fact, the idea of the paranoid style as a force in politics would have little contemporary relevance or historical value if it were applied only to men with profoundly disturbed minds. It is the use of paranoid modes of expression by more or less normal people that makes the phenomenon significant. [...continue reading...]

    Posted by on Monday, October 9, 2006 at 12:15 AM in Economics, Politics | Permalink  TrackBack (0)  Comments (45)

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