I spent most of August more or less disconnected from TV, the Internet and print news outlets, so when I caught up with a friend on the phone, I asked him to brief me on which stories had captured the nation's attention. He tried to explain the controversy over the Park51 Islamic culture center, but it wasn't easy. “So, why is this anti-Muslim panic coming up now?” I asked. “What triggered it?” “I keep going back to Richard Hofstadter's 'The Paranoid Style in American Politics,'” he replied. “It's not necessarily about Islam. These people need an enemy.”
I took that as my cue to return to the Pulitzer-winning historian's seminal essay on American political crackpottery. Originating as a 1963 speech delivered in Oxford and first printed in Harper's magazine in 1964, it can currently be found in a collection, also called “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” reprinted by Vintage Books. Hofstadter, who died in 1970, made a minor specialty of analyzing right-wing fringe movements — what he called “pseudo-conservatives” — particularly the groups clustered around Barry Goldwater's 1964 political campaign. In-the-moment political analysis doesn't always hold up over time unless you really strain to find contemporary parallels, and not all of the book still rings true. Hofstadter himself felt moved to write a qualifying update to an earlier, influential 1954 essay, “The Pseudo-Conservative Revolt” (also included in this book), to encompass the Goldwater movement and its satellites.
That said, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” (along with most of the essays in the collection) never seems to get old.