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Paranoid Politics: Say Hello, Wave Goodbye

A few weeks ago we had Joe Stack, crashing his plane into an IRS building in the name of tax freedom. Next up: last week's assault on the Pentagon at the hands of John Patrick Bedell in which two Pentagon police officers were wounded before the well-dressed gunman was shot and killed.

FBI investigators are looking at a number of Web posts believed to have been written by Bedell. One post, The New York Times reports, speaks of the author's interest in "establishing the truth of events such as the September 11 demolitions and institutions such as the coup regime of 1963 that maintains itself in power through the global drug trade, financial corruption, and murder."

Another post reads: "I have an intense personal desire for desire for freedom is inevitably centered on the role of government in society."

As cliché as Richard Hofstadter's celebrated 1964 essay "The Paranoid Style in American Politics" may have become, it's impossible to ignore its lasting relevance.

"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-wing."

The essay is worth revisiting, if only to remind ourselves that the Joe Stack's and John Bedell's of the world are not necessarily certifiably nuts, which is often how they are characterized by those invoking the "paranoid style" theory.

But Hofstadter was careful to note that "in using the expression ‘paranoid style' I am not speaking in a clinical sense, but borrowing a clinical term for other purposes."

In fact, the late historian wrote, "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."

So even if you're not into history, you gotta give it up to Hofstadter for offering insights that are still useful today in identifying the politics of paranoia - from the near evil omnipotence ascribed to political enemies ("a kind of amoral superman") to the obsession with pedantry ("McCarthy's 96-page pamphlet McCarthyism contains no less than 313 footnote references").


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Not a happy diagnosis, for sure, but useful in a world full of birthers, "death-panel" demagogues, and tea party patriots.

And though neither Stack nor Bedell have been tied to any particular hate group, it would be naïve to think they weren't animated by the same re-surging spirit discussed in a new report by the well-known hate-group tracking organization, the Southern Poverty Law Center. It's no coincidence conservatives have called Stack a hero.

The SPLC report, "Rage on the Right," documents a 244 percent increase in the number of active Patriot groups in 2009, up from 149 groups in 2008 to 512 groups in 2009.

Militias - "the paramilitary arm of the Patriot movement" - were a big reason for the growth, with the number of militias increasing from 42 in 2008 to 127 in 2009.

According to the report, these groups have been stoked over the nation's shifting demographics, rising debt, economic stagnation, and a laundry-list of Obama administration initiatives labeled as "socialist" and/or "fascist."

Mark Potok, editor of SPLC's Intelligence Report, sees it as cause for "grave concern," considering that "the people associated with the Patriot movement during its 1990s heyday produced an enormous amount of violence, most dramatically the Oklahoma City bombing that left 168 people dead."

Keep in mind, Potok says, the Patriot movement has embedded itself deep into the conservative political scene. "The ‘tea parties' and similar groups that have sprung up in recent months cannot fairly be considered extremist groups, but they are shot through with rich veins of radical ideas, conspiracy theories and racism," the report says.

The most sobering aspect about paranoid politics - to resurrect Hofstadter again - is that "it comes in waves of different intensity" and "appears to be all but ineradicable."

But that shouldn't be a cause for despair because Stefan Zweig is right: "every wave, regardless of how high and forceful it crests, must eventually collapse within itself."

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Sean Gonsalves

Sean Gonsalves is a columnist and editor with the Cape Cod Times. He can be reached at

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