Monday, June 02, 2008

Just Cause You're Paranoid Doesn't Mean That They Aren't Out to Get You

Over forty years ago, Richard Hofstadter wrote about The Paranoid Style in American Politics.

Daniel Walker Howe's discussion of the phenomenon is the most interesting I have seen. Among other things, Professor Howe argues that the "conspiracy paradigm" shared by both Democrats and Whigs can be seen as a positive phenomenon. It assumed that that "American institutions were fundamentally good," and that "the American people . . . were fundamentally virtuous." It was for these reasons that "the explanation for perceived dangers must be moral rather than structural," and that "the moral evils must be those of designing minority rather than endemic in the general population." "Analyzed in this way, the conspiracy paradigm seems less paranoid, for it reveals trust as well as fear."

Second, Professor Howe argues that a belief in conspiracies was understable due to "the relative accuracy with which it represented the facts":
The Democrats believed that Nicholas Biddle and Henry Clay were conspiring to turn their hero out of office by manipulating the nation's finances; the Whigs believed that Andrew Jackson was conspiring to enhance the power of the presidency. Both, as it happens, were right.

In this connection, Professor Howe points out that the word "conspiracy" "once had a broader definition than it has since acquired": "any 'union or combination (of persons or things) for one end or purpose.'" In antebellum terms, what we would term a "faction" or an "interest group" could be a conspiracy. So understood, the paradigm loses much of its paranoid quality.

I would add only that conspiracy theorists today make their Nineteenth Century forbears seem like pikers. Just talk to any 9/11 Truther.

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