Still 'paranoid' after all these years

Paranoia isn't on the fringe anymore. It's now closer to the beating heart of the mainstream.

Story highlights

  • A strain of mistrust has long run through American history
  • Historian traced the trend in 1964 essay, "The Paranoid Style in American Politics"
  • It's easy to think of such paranoia as fringe, but it's increasingly mainstream
  • Can we overcome our fears? Not in the current climate -- though maybe eventually
Ever have the feeling you're being lied to by the news media, the authorities, the corporate world? That somebody -- or something -- is out to get you?
You're not alone.
Welcome to 21st-century America.
Look around. Trust is hitting historic lows. Just a third of Americans have a favorable view of the federal government, a decline of 31% since 2002, according to the Pew Center for People and the Press. Gallup has Congress' approval rating is in the low 20s, after nearing single digits last summer. And the news media aren't much better off.
"Negative opinions about the performance of news organizations now equal or surpass all-time highs on nine of 12 core measures the Pew Research Center has been tracking since 1985," a Pew report said.
Add in our wired, social media-addicted world, and rumors reign. You've heard them all, whether they involve the presidential candidates, global climate change or illegal immigration.
They're our little open secrets. They give us the sense that we're on to Them.
"It's easier to be suspicious," says Geoffrey Vaughan, a political science professor at Assumption College in Worcester, Massachusetts. "There is something attractive in thinking that you know something, that you haven't bought into the mass public opinion."
That attitude is nothing new. In a famous 1964 essay, "The Paranoid Style in American Politics," historian Richard Hofstadter traced what he called "the paranoid style" through American history. What he found was that a fearful strain of mistrust flows through the blood of the republic, whether it was 18th-century religious leaders worried about the Illuminati, politicians suspicious of immigrants or McCarthyites convinced of Communist infiltration.
Hollywood has dined out on these feelings for years: "The Manchurian Candidate," "The Parallax View," "Wag the Dog," the TV series "The X-Files," even the James Coburn comedy "The President's Analyst" -- all are based on the idea that some kind of secret, malevolent operation is going on behind the curtain.
It's as American as apple pie -- filled with razor blades.
Sure, like the stories about those razor blade-tainted apples, there are sometimes bits of truth within. More often, however, the truth is overwhelmed by panic and hyperbole.
Which is a problem, because fear and mistrust have real-life implications, especially in an election year like this one, where it has seeped into the body politic like acid.
To 17% of Americans, President Obama is a Muslim -- and 65% of that group are "uncomfortable" with that. It's not enough for many opponents to disagree with the president on the issues; he has been characterized as a socialist and even the Antichrist.
Mitt Romney's had his own problems. During the Republican primaries, he struggled to attract evangelical voters who considered his Mormonism a "cult." (It wasn't until mid-October that the Rev. Billy Graham's organization decided to remove that designation from its website.)
This election year, in fact, has been one for the books. Facts, apparently, don't matter anymore. Both campaigns have earned "pants-on-fire" ratings from the fact-checking site Politifact; both sides have blithely ignored them and moved forward. After the Romney campaign was called out for some falsehoods, pollster Neil Newhouse responded, "We're not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact-checkers."
Worse are the actual laws on the books based on some kind of perceived threat. Oklahoma banned courts from considering Islam's Sharia law. (Oklahoma's law has been temporarily blocked.) The Texas state Republican Party even created a platform opposing "critical thinking" in state schools, though a spokesperson was quick to point out that the platform regards "critical thinking" as another name for "outcome-based education" (which the platform criticizes as having "the purpose of challenging the student's fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority").
Paranoia isn't on the fringe anymore, like it was in Hofstadter's day. It's now closer to the beating heart of the mainstream.
"The fringe has begun to blur with the base," says John Avlon, author of "Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe Is Hijacking America." As the title of Avlon's book indicates, he's concerned about this. "That's the key dynamic, and that's the key danger."
The bogeymen of a new generation
Avlon, a former speechwriter for New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and a contributor to the Daily Beast and CNN, observes that one reason Hofstadter's essay remains valuable is that it shows that in "every generation, there are enthusiastic dupes who are getting sold the same old snake oil."
In Hofstadter's time, the ultra-right John Birch Society received attention for its claims of communist conspiracies and elitist cabals. In our time, says Avlon, conservative talk show hosts give voice to these claims. "These are dog-whistle echoes of very old arguments -- arguments that have been thoroughly discredited by history."
It's not just right-wingers who engage in this talk, he adds. During the George W. Bush administration, some commentators on the left were afflicted with what Avlon, borrowing a term from columnist Charles Krauthammer, calls "Bush Derangement Syndrome." Left-wing opponents of the president called for his impeachment and compared him to Hitler.
Extreme left-wing opponents of President Bush called for his impeachment and compared him to Hitler.
Regardless of who sponsors them, these arguments keep following us. Almost 50 years ago, Hofstadter chronicled a handful of overlapping paranoid fears -- the belief in an elite conspiracy that wants to run the world, the concern that immigrants and members of other religions will displace "real" Americans, and the idea that a fifth column is working to bring down the United States from within.
Those fears continue to emerge today. It's no wonder there are calls to "take our country back," with the implication that "back" was a golden age before the world went to hell.
Yesterday's paranoid types feared elite groups such as the Illuminati and the Masons. Today's bogeymen include the members of the Rockefeller-founded Trilateral Commission and the politicians and financiers who attend the monied confab at Bohemian Grove and are suspected of mapping out the "new world order."
Or consider immigration. In the 1850s, the nativist American Party (also known as the Know-Nothings) formed over fear of the new immigrants -- Irish and German -- coming to the United States, allegedly stealing jobs. Today, there's Arizona SB 1070, nicknamed the "show me your papers" law. Though parts of the law were shot down by the U.S. Supreme Court, other states have used it as a model, and immigrant suspicion is routinely in play -- especially along the southern border. This despite studies that have shown that immigrants don't take jobs away from U.S. citizens.
Even suspicion of an internal coup remains. In the 1950s, we had the Red Scare; today there are people claiming the coming of Sharia law; rumors about Agenda 21, a United Nations development initiative that has inspired fears of world government; and the always reliable anti-Semitism, whether it concerns the "Zionist media," blame for 9/11 or a belief that Israel is pulling the strings of the U.S. government.
For Hofstadter, the "Paranoid Style" was an extension of two decades of work that promoted reason over emotion and critiqued America's fondness for an idealized, agrarian past, says his biographer, Elizabethtown College history professor David S. Brown. By the time he wrote the essay, the two-time Pulitzer Prize winner was convinced that all those pesky extremists were a thing of the past. But he was well aware that consensus was fragile.
As Derek Arnold, a Villanova communications professor, observes: "You can almost see him as pretty prescient."
'Leaving rationality behind'
It's certainly easy to fall under the spell of paranoia. Since the dawn of mankind, we have been clannish and tribal animals, wary of others, fused by emotional connections. In the modern world we create tribes beyond blood -- like sports fans or, well, political parties.
The danger is that many people don't develop the rationality to tamp down the emotion, says Dr. David Reiss, a San Diego-based psychiatrist who studies personality dynamics.
"It's not so much that they're paranoid in a clinical sense, but if they feel their needs are going to be met -- or they're connecting with someone powerful -- they're basically leaving rationality behind," he says.
Then there's another deeply human element: the attraction of the story.
"If it's something that's interesting and grabs your attention, regardless of your background, it's appealing," says Villanova's Arnold. He mentions the theories about the Mayan calendar predicting catastrophe. "Look at the end-of-the-world stories we've been getting this year."
Though much of the focus these days is on right-wing paranoia, both sides, as they get more extreme, look at their opposition as the enemy and hold on more tightly to their own beliefs, says Jonathan Haidt, a professor of moral psychology at NYU and the author of the recently published "The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion."
"Extremism on either side leads to very predictable patterns of thinking and usage of fact," he says. "Morality binds and blinds. As long as you're on a team, you'll have your own set of values and facts."
Extremists on both sides often take leaps beyond the logical. They indulge in hyperbole: for the left, the right is engaged in a "war on women"; the right has talked about the left waging a "war on religion." (After the massacre in Aurora, Colorado, Texas Republican Rep. Louie Gohmert attributed the tragedy to "ongoing attacks on Judeo-Christian beliefs.")