Broadly Speaking: A Companion Interview

Richard Hofstadter’s Paranoid Style: An Interview with Andrew McKenzie-McHarg

Andrew McKenzie-McHarg in conversation with Grant Wong about McKenzie-McHarg’s article in JHI volume 83, issue 3.

By Grant Wong

Andrew McKenzie-McHarg is a research fellow affiliated with the Medieval and Early Modern Studies research team at Australian Catholic University (ACU) and based at the university’s Rome campus. His research focuses upon themes of conspiracy, secrecy, and anonymity as they were instantiated in early modern history and subsequently conceptualized in modern history under the influence of social science. Some of the results of this research recently appeared in the Routledge Handbook of Conspiracy Theories, in which he served as a co-editor and contributor.

McKenzie-McHarg spoke with Grant Wong about his recent JHI article, “From Status Politics to the Paranoid Style: Richard Hofstadter and the Pitfalls of Psychologizing History.”


Grant Wong: In your article, you trace American historian Richard Hofstadter’s intellectual development of the “paranoid style.” Hofstadter defined his psychological concept as a mode of individualistic and collective political thought characterized by “heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy.” Your study stresses that the idea did not emerge fully formed in 1963, but instead was an ongoing project refined by Hofstadter in response to the political events of his day, namely McCarthyism and the presidential nomination of Barry Goldwater. How does your approach encourage us to think differently about the paranoid style?

Andrew McKenzie-McHarg: What made me realize that there was a story to tell here was the discovery of Hofstadter’s first presentation of the paranoid style. Some years ago, I attended a conference at the University of Manchester. After I presented a paper that simply elaborated upon the known facts, namely that Hofstadter had first outlined his understanding of the paranoid style at a lecture in Oxford University in 1963, I received a tip-off from another attendee that Hofstadter had in fact lectured on the paranoid style four years earlier in 1959. With the help of the archivists at the BBC Written Archives Centre, I located a transcript of this lecture, which has since been published in the Library of America volume of Hofstadter’s writings edited by Sean Wilentz.

Hofstadter is well-known for being somewhat dismissive of historians who bury themselves in archives—“archive rats,” he called them—and so on one level, I approached my article with a slightly ironic goal: what better way to vindicate the value of archival research than with a study devoted to Hofstadter himself? Admittedly, the discovery of the BBC lecture does not completely upturn our understanding of the paranoid style, but it definitely enriches our understanding of how Hofstadter formulated this concept and then presented it to the general public in his famous essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” first published in Harper’s Magazine in November 1964.

It also provides us with a revealing example of how Hofstadter engaged with the past. One of the most striking aspects of the BBC lecture is how it limited itself to the American Far Right in its McCarthyist and post-McCarthyist incarnations—in other words, to the recent past and the present, as seen from the vantage point of 1959. When Hofstadter returned to England four years later for the Oxford lecture, he did so with a lecture manuscript brimming with examples of this phenomenon drawn from far more distant episodes of American history. Clearly, this practice of discovering in the past earlier iterations of something originally observed in the present entails risks for the historian. As much as Hofstadter might have been aware of these risks, his interpretations were by no means fully immune to them. This also applies to his characterization of the paranoid style. Yet staging this conversation between past and present can also be very fruitful, and its potential is the source of much of the freshness and liveliness that Hofstadter’s work still retains—even if his present and the liberalism that dominated it have receded into the past faster than many might have expected. And even if the validity of historians taking their cue from the present remains contentious.

As for Goldwater, by the time the Republican Party nominated the senator from Arizona as their candidate for the 1964 presidential election, the essential elements of the paranoid style were already locked in place. The significance of Goldwater to the story seems to me that his candidacy helped Hofstadter overcome his reservations about exposing an American audience to the diagnosis of a paranoid style recurring throughout their history. We must remember that the first two occasions on which he presented the paranoid style were in lectures (for the BBC and Oxford, respectively) addressed to British audiences.

If I might indulge here in some counterfactual speculation, if the Goldwater movement had not taken liberals such as Hofstadter by surprise in 1964 by seizing control of the Republican party and elevating their leader to the party’s candidate in the contest for the presidency, it is not out of the question that the paranoid style might have remained an intriguing but largely forgotten conceptual experiment. The only evidence of the concept would survive in a lecture manuscript in the BBC Written Archives Center and another in the Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Columbia University. From other documents, we can infer an initial reluctance on Hofstadter’s part to deploy the concept of the paranoid style, as he correctly foresaw the controversy it invited. The prospect of a Goldwater presidency spurred him into action. It is only necessary to read some of Hofstadter’s characterizations of Goldwater and the Goldwater movement, now easily accessed in Wilentz’s edited volume, to acquaint oneself with a less familiar Hofstadter, namely Hofstadter the deeply committed—and extremely panicked—intellectuel engagé.

GW: You note that historians and journalists who employ the paranoid style “tend to name Hofstadter as its source, perhaps out of a respect for ‘intellectual property’ or a desire to distance themselves from the concept’s implications.” I was struck by this fact, especially because the concept is still alive and well today, adapted by scholars to “numerous revisions and qualifications.” Could you speak more to this? Why is the paranoid style, a concept now older than half a century, still affiliated so closely with Hofstadter?

AM: One of the pre-publication readers of the essay objected to this point on the grounds that it is impossible to prove a negative—the negative being the statement that there are no occasions on which the paranoid style is invoked without also acknowledging Hofstadter as its originator. As valid as the objection might be, and as much as I am asking the reader to take this statement on trust, I have genuinely yet to find an appeal to the paranoid style that does not explicitly acknowledge Hofstadter as the concept’s originator. Since this article emerged from a larger inquiry into the language of conspiracy theory, it seems apposite to make the comparison to this somewhat synonymous or at least overlapping concept. “Conspiracy theory” is not a concept whose use imposes upon the user any obligation to reference the concept’s originator for the simple reason that no one person can lay claim to that honor. Instead, “conspiracy theory” entered our conceptual vocabulary in a process stretching approximately from the late nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century. There was no singular moment of creation. As for the paranoid style, the situation appears—at least at first glance—markedly different.

Part of why Hofstadter is always cited as the “inventor” of the concept of the paranoid style has to do, I suspect, with its polemical edge. It is certainly not a neutral concept, and Hofstadter was, in fact, quite candid about its pejorative connotations. Even if a subsequent commentator endorses the concept, pointing to Hofstadter as its originator provides a cover from some of the controversy that arises when one psychologizes and pathologizes participants in the sphere of democratic debate. As a fêted historian occupying a chair at a top Ivy-League university, his name obviously retains a cache of credibility which commentators gratefully avail themselves of when deploying his concept.  

A final observation is in order. If above I contrasted the “paranoid style” with “conspiracy theory” on the grounds that the former is firmly linked to its creator, I must qualify this comparison by pointing out that Hofstadter was, in fact, not entirely alone in alighting upon the “paranoid style” as a useful term. In 2017, cultural historian Alexander Dunst, in his highly stimulating book Madness in Cold War America, drew attention to the fact that Adorno had used the same combination of words in The Authoritarian Personality. To my mind, this does not justify a claim that Adorno, and not Hofstadter, was the originator of the concept, though it would be interesting to locate Hofstadter’s own copy of this seminal work; did he underline the term?

Yet just as significant was my discovery that in 1965, the same year that the Paranoid Style in American Politics and Other Essays appeared as a book, the psychologist David Shapiro published Neurotic Styles, a work drawing upon his clinical work at the famous Austen Riggs Center in Massachusetts. In addition to the “obsessive-compulsive style,” the “hysterical style,” and the “impulsive style,” Shapiro devoted a chapter of his study to delineating the “paranoid style.” Upon noticing this convergence, I took advantage of one of the affordances of modern history not available to students of early modern history (where much of my research is otherwise focused), namely that it is on occasions possible to reach out to still living witnesses of events and participants of debates. I spoke with David Shapiro, and he admitted to me that he had often pondered the convergence, not least because he had originally felt a certain proprietary pride in having coined the term “paranoid style.” But the discovery reminded me that what we consider to be instances of individual originality are often predicated upon diffuse cultural currents and semantic trends. In other words, society invented the phrase as much as any individual did.

GW: American politics are in a particularly contentious state today, given the Democratic Party’s tenuous majorities in Congress, the aftereffects of Donald Trump’s presidency, and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Do you think that the paranoid style remains an effective means to analyze American politics? Just as scholars have amended it over the years to fit the conditions of their times, how do you think they might continue to adapt it for future use?

AM: On the eve of the last presidential election, I grappled in a JHI blog post with the efforts of commentators to characterize Trump’s form of populist politics in terms of the “paranoid style.” Of course, one reason for skepticism might lie in the impression that Trump tends more to narcissism than paranoia. But the whole point of the paranoid style as a concept was that whoever might deploy it as a mode of political communication did not need to be personally paranoid. Hofstadter’s motivation for recruiting the notion of a style was to posit an analogy linking a neurosis familiar to us from psychology with cultural and communicative rhetorical patterns.

Another impression drawn from my research reinforced a point that other scholars had already emphasized in identifying the political agenda that informed Hofstadter’s writings. Although the description of Hofstadter as a “consensus historian” might sit uneasily because he was averse to celebrating this consensus, he showed himself to be one of its most stalwart defenders whenever he encountered political forces that seemed to threaten it. In this regard, his hope was that his denunciation of the paranoid style would help ward off incursions into the political center undertaken by those not committed to democratic civility and liberal rationality. But in 2022, is there still a consensus or political center to defend? In a period of entrenched division, in which the commitment of one of America’s two political parties to the democratic process is open to question and a large portion of the American population have no problems imagining a new civil war, one might be forgiven for entertaining doubts on this score. In light of this situation, when commentators reach for the notion of the “paranoid style” in today’s climate, it’s like using a prophylactic when what the body politic requires is a cure, or at least a very different treatment. Of course, what exact “treatment” the United States needs to overcome its hyperpartisanship and mend its political divisions is another matter entirely.

Perhaps I can conclude with two points directed more at the academic debate about conspiracy theories and the paranoid style: I am more than willing to agree with some of the criticisms recently formulated by Michael Butter and directed at the shortcomings of Hofstadter’s essay; undoubtedly, Hofstadter got a few things wrong, particularly his characterization of the paranoid style as a marginal phenomenon that was the “preferred style only of minority movements.” In this respect, his presentism genuinely proved misleading. But Butter also revisits the misgivings about Hofstadter’s appeal to paranoia that many others have expressed since Hofstadter published his essay. This raises the question of how appropriate this psychiatric concept is for the study of conspiracy theories. Does the concept of paranoia have the potential to be useful or helpful in this regard, or should we abandon it because it only creates confusion? I’ve come around to believing that it does have value. This is because subjects diagnosed with paranoia do indeed often manifest grandiose suspicions of conspiracy and manipulation. It is only necessary to read Shapiro’s description of the “paranoid style” in a clinical context to appreciate the parallel to Hofstadter’s rhetorical and cultural paranoid style.

One can bemoan the defects in Hofstadter’s account and link them to the blind spots of the cold-war liberalism that he so archetypally embodied. Nevertheless, it remains necessary to honor his achievement of recognizing the existence of a recurring pattern of political action and expression. Undoubtedly, Hofstadter’s investment in post-war social science instilled in him a confidence in making such generalizations. Even if today we often pay lip service to the interdisciplinarity that came to Hofstadter so naturally, there aren’t many contemporary historians willing to posit the kinds of general historical patterns that Hofstadter felt equipped to tease out from the historical record. Whatever issues one might have with the nomenclature, we—and “we” might even include the occasional “archive rat”—can recognize the discovery of such a pattern as an achievement in its own right.

Grant Wong is a Ph.D. student of twentieth-century American popular culture at the University of South Carolina. He is particularly interested in how popular culture in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s manifested itself in all aspects of American life, especially within music, capitalism, thought, and youth culture. Grant’s writing can be found in Slate and PopMatters.

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