The Paranoid Style in American Politics by Richard Hofstadter

The historian Richard Hofstadter (1916-1970) is known outside academic circles for having written a particular book and a particular essay. The book was Anti-intellectualism in American Life from 1963. The essay was “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” from 1964.

This is a book of Hofstadter’s collected essays. His famous essay gives the book its title; there are three other essays on the same topic. “The Pseudo-Conservative Revolt” was written in response to McCarthyism. “Pseudo-Conservatism Revisited” and “Goldwater and Pseudo-Conservative Politics” were written in response to Senator Barry Goldwater’s successful effort to win the Republican nomination for President.

These essays may have been written more than 50 years ago, but they are highly relevant today, given America’s disastrous election two months ago. Our next President ran a classic pseudo-conservative campaign, claiming to be a “conservative” but appealing to the same right-wing extremism that characterized the likes of Sen. Joe McCarthy, the John Birch Society and Barry Goldwater. (The President-elect owes his greater success in 2016 to the fact that “normal” Republicans are much more extreme than they used to be.)

Hofstadter explores the history of right-wing extremism through the 20th century, but concentrates on developments since World War 2. He explains that as more people did well in economic terms, a reactionary minority grew angrier and angrier about changes in society. Conservatism became a form of radicalism, with seething hatred toward moderate politicians and deep resentment of the progress made by women and African-Americans. Anyone who wants to understand how we got to the current low point in American history will benefit from reading Richard Hofstadter.

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