Paranoia About Paranoia in American Politics

Does Fear of Government Equal Insanity?

Since the 1960s modern “liberals” have often sought to stigmatize those who distrust government as paranoid. This “diagnosis” was first popularized by Columbia University professor Richard Hofstadter (1916–1970). His widely read book The Paranoid Style in American Politics, first published in 1965, presented a thesis that is routinely invoked to delegitimize any criticism of government that goes beyond whining about the price the Pentagon pays for toilet seats.[1] It has been the perfect formula to dismiss and deride those who wish to limit government power and expand the sphere of individual liberty.

One of the twentieth century’s most respected American historians, Hofstadter is an unrecognized early advocate of politically correct thought. His writing on political paranoia—inspired in part by the 1964 presidential campaign of conservative Barry Goldwater (who had been “diagnosed” from afar as mentally ill by a group of psychiatrists)—has encouraged people ever since to equate aversion to government intervention with pathology. Hofstadter had no such aversion: he was a former member of the Communist Party. When he joined the party in 1938, he wrote to a friend: “My fundamental reason for joining is that I don’t like capitalism and want to get rid of it. I am tired of talking.”[2] (Hofstadter left the party in 1939, after the Soviet Union signed the Non-Aggression Pact with Nazi Germany.)

Hofstadter’s book quickly became sanctified by the academic and political establishment. He acknowledged that “the term ‘paranoid style’ is pejorative, and it is meant to be; the paranoid style has a greater affinity for bad causes than good.”[3] Hofstadter wrote, “What interests me here is the possibility of using political rhetoric to get at political pathology.” And in his view, distrust of government was among the worst political pathologies imaginable.

Hofstadter’s opinion of the opponents of big government—whom he called “pseudo-conservatives”—was unmistakable: “Pseudo-conservativism is among other things a disorder in relation to authority, characterized by an inability to find other modes for human relationship than those of more or less complete domination or submission.”[4] (Emphasis added.) He seems to be saying that wishing not to be oppressed by government proves that advocates of a limited state actually want to tyrannize their fellow citizens. The logic was Orwellian, but it played well in academia and in the media.

Hofstadter observed, “The pseudo-conservative is a man who, in the name of upholding traditional American values and institutions and defending them against more or less fictitious dangers, consciously or unconsciously aims at their abolition.”[5] (Emphasis added.) Hofstadter believed that since the threat of government power is “fictitious,” everyone who fears government is, by definition, mentally ill. But this diagnosis derived largely from Hofstadter’s presumption that people had nothing to fear from government.

Government Spying

The pseudo-conservative, according to Hofstadter, “believes himself to be living in a world in which he is spied upon, plotted against, betrayed, and very likely destined for total ruin. He feels that his liberties have been arbitrarily and outrageously invaded.”[6] At the time of Hofstadter’s first article on this thesis, in Harper’s magazine, the Federal Communications Commission was striving to torpedo “right-wing” radio.[7] A few years earlier, President John Kennedy’s assistant secretary of commerce, Bill Ruder, had declared: “Our massive strategy was to use the Fairness Doctrine to challenge and harass right-wing broadcasters and hope that the challenges would be so costly to them that they would be inhibited and decide it was too expensive to continue.”[8]

Also, the Internal Revenue Service had been carrying out the Ideological Organizations Audit Project to harass and destroy conservative organizations—both nonprofit and otherwise.[9] And it wasn’t only “right-wingers” who were the targets of government. J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI sought to subvert the civil rights movement by smearing and trying to blackmail Martin Luther King, Jr.[10] In 1962, the Kennedy administration sent FBI officials to do late-night “interviews” with steel company executives who raised steel prices higher than Kennedy approved.[11] The FBI also carried out an extensive surveillance operation at the 1964 Democratic National Convention of a civil rights challenge that President Lyndon Johnson feared would embarrass him.[12] And in 1965, the FBI did background checks on dozens of people who had sent Johnson telegrams opposing his Vietnam policy.[13]

Hofstadter even ridiculed the tendency of big-government critics to heavily document their charges. “The entire right-wing movement of our time is a parade of experts, study groups, monographs, footnotes and bibliographies,” he wrote.[14] If “paranoids” offered what appeared to be evidence for their beliefs, that was simply further proof of their mental illness. Once a professor officially attaches the “paranoid” label to a group, no amount of evidence can remove it. And any consideration of the evidence proffered is unnecessary, since the people offering the evidence are known to be crazy.

Some of Hofstadter’s criticisms of Goldwater as the archetype paranoid are amusing in hindsight. Hofstadter plinked at Goldwater for his call for the “prompt and final termination of the farm subsidy program.”[15] It is difficult to understand why opposition to farm subsidies would be evidence of mental illness, since even wheat farmers decisively rejected federal supply controls on their farms in a national referendum in 1963.[16] Perhaps Hofstadter assumed that the wheat growers who did not want Washington micromanaging their farms were also crazy.

Hofstadter believed that no one could reasonably suspect that government would continue to grow to dangerous proportions, regardless of how rapidly it was currently expanding. Deriding some of the Goldwaterites’ fears, Hofstadter remarked: “It reminds me of the people who, because they found several close parallels between the NRA [Franklin Roosevelt's National Recovery Administration] and Mussolini’s corporate state, were once deeply troubled at the thought that the NRA was the beginning of American fascism.”[17] Yet some of FDR’s own Brain Trusters openly admired Mussolini’s economic program.

Hofstadter’s doctrine rested on his near-boundless faith in the wisdom and benevolence of the ruling class: “American politics is run mainly by professionals who have developed over a long span of time an ethos of their own, a kind of professional code . . . [which] for all its limitations, is an American institution embodying the practical wisdom of generations of politicians.”[18] He offered no proof of the wisdom of politicians; instead, it was treated as self-evident. For Hofstadter, fear of losing one’s liberty was proof of mental illness—while blind trust in politicians was merely common sense.

Hofstadter also mocked the role of guns in American life. In one of his last published essays, he wrote, “Every Walter Mitty has had his moment when he is Gary Cooper, stalking the streets in ‘High Noon’ with his gun at the ready.”[19]

Ironically, Hofstadter’s article in Harper’s appeared just two months after the Gulf of Tonkin incident, which led to the congressional resolution authorizing President Lyndon Johnson to fight a war in Vietnam. But there has long been suspicion that the attack never occurred and that an earlier attack had been provoked, contrary to the government’s claim. (U.S. ships had been conducting espionage in the Gulf.) Hofstadter ridiculed those who distrusted government, but the Johnson administration’s lies and misrepresentations led directly to the deaths of over 58,000 Americans. If Americans of that era had not been so credulous, the Johnson administration could not have railroaded the nation into a futile war. As Army Major H. R. McMaster, author of the 1997 book Dereliction of Duty, argued, the failed Vietnam war strategy “was not due just to overconfidence, not due just to arrogance, this was due to deliberate deception of the American public and Congress based on the president’s short-term political goals.”[20]

Deadly Obsession

Although Hofstadter inspired intellectuals and political leaders to view fear of government as a dangerous pathology, it is the government’s obsession over alleged paranoia that can be deadly. This is no better illustrated than by the Ruby Ridge and Waco cases, where government agents provoked and later killed civilians who were seen as threats but who had not initially committed violence. These cases were custom-made to create greater fear of the federal government.[21] Yet political leaders, including President Clinton, use these incidents, as well as the inexcusable bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City, to smear and dismiss all principled critics of government intervention. For example, in a 1995 speech to a group of federal law enforcement officials after the Waco disaster involving the Branch Davidians, Clinton declared: “There is no moral equivalency between the disgusting acts which took place inside that compound in Waco and the efforts that law enforcement officers made to enforce the law and protect the lives of innocent people.”[22] Clinton sought to frame the issue so that no one could criticize what he and the FBI did at Waco—including the gassing of dozens of adults and children—without appearing to favor child abuse.

When Hofstadter’s essay was published, three-quarters of the public trusted the federal government to do the right thing most, if not all, of the time. Now only about a quarter of Americans have such trust in government.[23] According to Hofstadter’s analysis, distrust of government has grown from the illness of a radical fringe to a mass psychosis of modern Americans. It’s regrettable that some people believe things about the government that are not true (the existence of U.N. black helicopters in the United States, for example). But it’s almost understandable, considering the routine property violations and deception that have come to light.

Yet much of the academic establishment continues to be mystified by public distrust of government. In 1997 Harvard University Press published Why People Don’t Trust Government, in which political scientists struggled to discover why so many citizens significantly underestimated the benevolence and trustworthiness of government. The book contained no references to Waco or Ruby Ridge.

For statist academics, paranoia is everywhere. At a 1997 American Society of Criminology conference, one professor argued that among the signs of “hate group ideology” are “discussion of the Bill of Rights, especially the Second Amendment or the Federalist Papers,” “discussion of military oppression, in the U.S. or elsewhere,” and “discussion of the Framers of our Government.”[24]

The Hofstadterian disdain for opponents of big government leads to the Catch-22 of modern statism: anyone who fears government by definition becomes unfit to judge government. Thus, the more people who fear government, the more power government needs because the populace is manifestly unsuited for self-government. Hofstadter’s view of those who distrust government was shared by the KGB, which locked up Soviet dissidents in mental hospitals in the 1970s and 1980s.

This “fear of government-equals-insanity” doctrine is naturally popular among academics and others who prefer not to notice the screws, levers, threats, and pressure valves that government officials use to force compliance with their decrees. The notion that people’s attitudes toward government are more important than whatever government actually does is the triumph of the intellectualist perspective on history. According to this view, history consists merely of ideas—some elegant, some trashy—or rather, a series of intellectual poses—some respectable, some gauche.[25]

The Founding Fathers Paranoid?

The easy diagnosis that Hofstadter championed is now embraced by historians who wish to vindicate King George III. Michael Kazin declared in 1997, “In the 1760s, colonists along the Eastern seaboard were convinced that King George III and his ministers meant to abolish their liberties and yoke their economy to the venal desires of the imperial court. The Founding Fathers made a revolution to thwart the wicked plot, one contemporary historians agree never existed.”[26] Kazin’s statement illustrates how contemporary statist liberals are intent not only on whitewashing today’s Leviathans—but governments throughout history as well. That the British were seizing the colonists’ firearms, forcibly searching their homes, revoking the rights of local governments, dragooning Americans to England to stand trial, prohibiting them from expanding to the West were, in Kazin’s view, no evidence whatsoever of an attempt to destroy American liberties. Perhaps academics should also rewrite the history of the nineteenth-century clashes with Indian tribes, focusing myopically on how Indians distrusted the “Great White Father” in Washington and disregarding picayune details about the Cherokees’ Trail of Tears and the massacre at Wounded Knee.

For many statists, distrust of government is the worst conceivable political offense. They are far more skeptical of citizens who distrust government than of government itself. They are willing to forget government lies, but never willing to forget or forgive citizen incredulity. For statists, the highest civic virtue apparently is a bad memory.


  1. The book was republished recently. See Richard Hofstadter, The Paranoid Style in American Politics and Other Essays (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1996).
  2. Eric Foner, “The Education of Richard Hofstadter,” Nation, May 4, 1992, p. 597.
  3. Hofstadter, p. 5.
  4. Ibid., p. 58.
  5. Ibid., p. 44.
  6. Ibid., p. 45.
  7. Adrian Cronauer, “The Transformation of Television News; the Fairness Doctrine: A Solution in Search of a Problem,” Federal Communications Law Journal, October 1994, p. 54.
  8. Thomas W. Hazlett, “The Fairness Doctrine was Never Quite Fair,” Los Angeles Times, October 4, 1987.
  9. Tom Rhodes, “Kennedys Put Tax Squeeze on Foes,” London Times, January 29, 1997.
  10. Michael J. Sniffen, “Reno Awaits King Family Reaction to Limited Review of Assassination,” Associated Press, July 30, 1998.
  11. “FBI’s ‘Political Abuses’; Full Text of Official Report,” U.S. News & World Report, December 15, 1975, p. 61.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Ibid.
  14. Hofstadter, p. 37.
  15. Ibid., p. 98.
  16. John Strohm, “The Farmers Vote for Freedom,” Reader’s Digest, September 1963, p. 95.
  17. Hofstadter, p. 65.
  18. Ibid., p. 102.
  19. Quoted in Donald Baer, Ted Gest, and Lynn Anderson Carle, “Guns,” U.S. News & World Report, May 8, 1989, p. 20.
  20. Quoted in John Berlau, “War Planners Carried Out Strategy of Lies, Deception,” Insight, June 9, 1997, p. 14.
  21. See Alan Bock, Ambush at Ruby Ridge: How Government Agents Set Up Randy Weaver and Took His Family Down (New York: Berkley Books, 1996) and David Kopel and Paul Blackman, No More Wacos: What’s Wrong with Federal Law Enforcement and How to Change It (Buffalo: Prometheus Books, 1997).
  22. “Remarks to Federal Law Enforcement Officials,” Public Papers of the Presidents, July 20, 1995, p. 1278.
  23. Paul Weyrich, “Who Do Americans Trust?” Washington Times, May 21, 1997.
  24. Quoted by Joyce Lee Malcolm during an interview with the author, August 5, 1998.
  25. When I dedicated my 1995 book, Shakedown, “to the Victims of the State,” Entertainment Weekly (owned by Time Inc.), September 15, 1995, ridiculed the dedication as a “paranoid conclusion.”
  26. Michael Kazin, “America’s Paranoid Streak,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, June 8, 1997.