Nearly sixty years have passed since the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas on November 22, 1963. Nearly sixty years have passed, too, since Richard Hofstadter spoke at Oxford University on November 21, 1963, lecturing that “American political life . . . has served again and again as an arena for uncommonly angry minds.” Behind the emergent radical right, he continued,
there is a style of mind, not always right-wing in its affiliations, that has a long and varied history. I call it the paranoid style simply because no other word adequately evokes the qualities of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy that I have in mind.
The synchronicity of the two events is as appropriate as it is uncanny. Kennedy’s assassination came to represent, according to the historian Peter Knight, a “symbolic watershed” — a point after which notions of straightforward causality faltered and conspiratorial narratives flourished. And Hofstadter’s speech, which was adapted into a 1964 essay for Harper’s Magazine, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” (and later a book of the same title), has formed the bedrock for the mainstream understanding of conspiracy theories.
Hofstadter assembles a greatest hits of conspiracism throughout US history, touching upon eighteenth-century fears of the Illuminati’s stranglehold over world affairs, the anti-Masonic and anti-Catholic panics of the nineteenth century, and the virulent anti-communism of the early Cold War. There has been a longstanding predisposition among a substantial number of Americans, Hofstadter concludes, to identify hidden plots and invoke apocalyptic anxieties in their reckoning of “opposed interests which are (or are felt to be) totally irreconcilable.”
Since its publication, “The Paranoid Style” has enjoyed an elevated status as the go-to reference point on conspiracy theories — its easy applicability key to its staying power. Hillary Clinton did her best impression in a 2021 profile in the Atlantic, noting that “there’s always been a kind of paranoid streak in American politics”; a column in the Hill opines that “America [is] now embracing the ‘paranoid style’”; and practically every account of Robert F. Kennedy Jr’s 2024 presidential campaign reaches for the essay to add a dash of historical authenticity.
But it’s time to lay “The Paranoid Style” to rest or, at the very least, recast and revise it. While Hofstadter deserves credit for jump-starting the serious study of conspiracy theories and theorists, his scholarship linked the former to a pseudo-psychological diagnosis and positioned the latter as irrational, alienated individuals on the fringes of both society and politics. In doing so, he helped transform “conspiracy” into a convenient shorthand for delegitimizing the implicit critique of power relations often found in particular interpretive styles. As a result, “The Paranoid Style” has also been a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The Self-Assured Anxieties of the Liberal Establishment
Hofstadter wasn’t wrong to point to the persistence of conspiratorial thinking throughout American history. (That much is apparent given today’s new golden age of conspiracy.) However, as a historical interpretation of conspiracy theories and their believers, “The Paranoid Style” has surprisingly little to say.
The essay came from a bitter period of personal transformation, occasioned in equal parts by mounting Cold War hostilities and the march of McCarthyite reactionaries, who understandably provoked Hofstadter’s disdain. As a young scholar, he pulled few punches in provocative critiques of US political and business elites. In both Social Darwinism in American Thought, 1860–1915 and The American Political Tradition and the Men Who Made It, he identified ideological continuity and conformity across time and party lines, pointing to the shared imperatives of capital beneath superficial differences. But Hofstadter would eschew much of the sharp commentary and hopeful socialism of his earlier scholarship as disquiet about the sanctity of US liberalism crept into his work.
His next book, The Age of Reform: From Bryan to FDR, a 1955 Pulitzer Prize winner, emphasized illusion and illiberalism in the American populist and progressive movements of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Consequently, Hofstadter tacitly endorsed proceduralism and pragmatic engagement with existing structures of power, admitting in the introduction that he had hoped to “foreshadow some aspects of the cranky pseudo-conservatism of our time.” Although he may have intended to shed an “ambiguous character” upon subjects usually rendered in terms of clashing economic interests, The Age of Reform anticipated the glib pitfalls of “The Paranoid Style.”
Reviewing The Age of Reform for the Nation in 1956, the historian William Appleman Williams argued that Hofstadter “substituted a social psychological theory of progressivism for the history in question.” Evidence for his claims was cherry-picked and indicated his class position among a “predominant group of American intellectuals,” Williams wrote, and as a result, he was unable to engage “with the past, present or future save in terms of the present.” By working backward from ideal types (“models of reality, not molds for it”), Hofstadter had “transformed History into Ideology.”
Hofstadter’s Harper’s essay leans further into psychological abstractions, using simplistic terms as stand-ins for complex concepts. With his formulation of the so-called “paranoid style,” he insists not to be “speaking in a clinical sense” but “borrowing a clinical term for other purposes.” The association isn’t easy to shake, especially when an alternate definition isn’t made clear. And on the moral character of the so-called “paranoid style,” Hofstadter comes right out and says it: “Of course this term is pejorative, and it is meant to be. . . . [It] has a greater affinity for bad causes than good.” Taken at his word, Hofstadter seems to locate the root of the “paranoid style” in troubled individual minds and minority movements.
Though he contested it, Hofstadter was frequently associated with the “consensus” school of American historians. Recognized by John Higham in 1959, this scholarly bloc dished up palatable Cold War liberalism, aiming, in large part, to discredit threatening political movements and castigate dissent on both sides of the political spectrum. As a riposte directed at the New Right and the rising prominence of Barry Goldwater and the John Birch Society, “The Paranoid Style” was acerbic. It accordingly reflected the tense, self-assured anxieties of the mid-century liberal establishment — the unruly energies of the masses had to be reined in by evenhanded technocrats.
Ideological myopia prevented Hofstadter from writing about paranoia or conspiracy beyond a diagnosis. Insights into how the changing nature of US statecraft, along with the nation’s expanding global empire (itself possessing a newly heightened capacity for paranoid skullduggery), might have impacted broader belief in conspiracies were missed. So, too, were opportunities to discuss machinations originating from within the halls of power, like General Smedley Butler’s seditious Business Plot or Henry Ford’s mass dissemination of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. In his rearview hunt for preferred evidence, Hofstadter begins to sound a little, well, paranoid.
Still, there are moments in the essay where Hofstadter seems poised to make more perceptive arguments. There were, he concedes “certain elements of truth” expressed by the anti-Masonic movement. (Consider the Morgan Affair: the 1826 disappearance of a man who publicly criticized the Freemasons stirred up a public frenzy that embodied material tensions and dissatisfaction with the American political establishment, leading to the creation of the first US third party.) Moreover, he says that “nothing really prevents a sound program or demand from being advocated in the paranoid style” and that, often, “class conflicts . . . can mobilize such energies.” In their underdeveloped state, these assertions are neither as accurate nor as helpful as parsing out the real-world origins of his subjects’ actions and ideologies.
Hofstadter would have done well to place greater emphasis on the structural transformation of civil society than on individual pathology. Indeed, the rise of US conspiracy culture can’t be separated from the rise of its mass culture. Through eighteenth-century advances in newspaper pressing and distribution, conspiracy theories came to play a leading role in the theater where conflicts over slavery, westward expansion, industrial and financial capitalism, and, importantly, strains upon Americans’ lives and expectations were staged.
But the displacement of historical analysis for DSM-lite catchphrases and shortsighted political goals in “The Paranoid Style” ultimately obscures questions of why conspiracies take shape and multiply. As Greg Grandin reminds us, William Appleman Williams also lamented that “perhaps the major American casualty of the Cold War . . . has been the idea of history.”
Paranoia’s Symbolic Content
Hofstadter passed away in 1970, his life cut short by leukemia. It’s unlikely that he could have anticipated the conspiracy-dense world that would come to be. The stormy decades following the publication of “The Paranoid Style” — characterized by political assassinations, revelations of government secrecy and misconduct, as well as social and economic strife — provided ample fodder for conspiracy theorizing that defied mental maladies and pointed to real grievances.
For one, the bombshell disclosures of the Iran-Contra scandal and, later, of CIA complicity in the Central American drug trade weren’t irrational fictions but totalizing crimes that put the US security state’s zero-sum militarism and market fever on full display. These too would pass, registered as brief shocks to a system that made quick work of metabolizing them. As the Cold War sputtered to a halt and George H. W. Bush declared the coming of a “new world order,” an eternal present filled the void where cause and effect had once been. Conspiracy theories gelled with the slick consumerism of the 1990s, letting believers, often with a heavy dose of ironic detachment, transcend a disenchanted world.
“The Paranoid Style” is as much the product of a particular time and place as its author was. At this point, it’s perhaps better understood as a historical document than a prescriptive one. But Hofstadter’s influence remains palpable today: it’s become increasingly difficult to talk about the morbid symptoms of the present without sounding like a conspiracy theorist. (To recognize this is hardly an apologia for the undemocratic and loathsome qualities of some conspiracy theories.) The internet’s decentralization of seemingly all information has supercharged the dissemination of far-out notions, backgrounded by the fact that institutional faith has cratered. The US government retains a Manichean worldview that demands invasive domestic surveillance and endless foreign wars. Interconnected global elites act in concert to defend their shared interests through hegemonic networks.
While the confused paranoid component of Hofstadter’s equation has distorted the ability to reckon with conspiracy theories’ place in American life, what he got right, as Michael Butter and other scholars of conspiracy suggest, was his latter emphasis on style. “Style,” Hofstadter wrote, “has more to do with the way in which ideas are believed and advocated than the truth or falsity of their content.” That history is typically experienced through rupture, incommensurate with what we are conditioned to expect of it, can reasonably suggest the presence of a hidden motive force, bringing with it a veneer of coherence.
Jettisoning Hofstadter’s singular focus on their political affiliations, it’s worth dwelling on conspiracy theories’ symbolic content. They may frequently amount to a misconception of power, but this doesn’t preclude their ability to communicate important truths about the fragmentation of the public sphere; about the intensification of mechanisms of social control; and about the decline of opportunity. Recall Joseph Heller (or, if you prefer, Kurt Cobain’s) adage: just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you.
By examining the contexts from which conspiracy theories emerge as well as the functions they perform for believers, we can take more telling and politically fruitful lessons from them. A materially sensitive approach would draw attention to causality and contradiction, tracing the relationship between individuals and the structures that surround them. Hofstadter bemoans that while we are all “sufferers from history,” the “paranoid is a double sufferer, since he is afflicted not only by the real world with the rest of us, but by his fantasies as well.” As long as this is the case, though, we all lose.