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Tuesday, October 23, 2018

This weekend, The Weekend Reader brings you The United States of Paranoia: A Conspiracy Theory by Jesse Walker. Released this week, The United States of Paranoia is already ranked on by their editors as one of the top non-fiction books of the month. Walker, a senior editor for Reason who has written extensively on conspiracy theories, challenges the idea of historian Richard Hofstadter that conspiracies begin with and are sustained by marginal groups. Walker argues that many conspiracy theories have gained traction with the help of the politically elite — from the attempted assassination of Andrew Jackson, to JFK’s assassination, to 9/11 — these theories were never limited to groups on the periphery of the U.S., but instead were often sanctioned by the media and political leaders.  

Whether we call it a scandal or a conspiracy, we’ve seen no shortage of outrageous claims launched at the Obama administration. But neither side, be they liberal or conservative, is innocent — everyone has contributed to instilling conspiratorial fear at some point in time. In The United States of Paranoia Walker details a list of conspiracies throughout history; his aim is not to to unmask the truth behind any theories, but instead highlight their repercussions and explain why conspiracy theories will just never go away. 

You can purchase the book here.

Pundits tend to write off political paranoia as a feature of the fringe, a disorder that occasionally flares up until the sober center can put out the flames. They’re wrong. The fear of conspiracies has been a potent force across the political spectrum, from the colonial era to the present, in the establishment as well as at the extremes. Conspiracy theories played major roles in conflicts from the Indian wars of the seventeenth century to the labor battles of the Gilded Age, from the Civil War to the Cold War, from the American Revolution to the War on Terror. They have flourished not just in times of great division but in eras of relative comity. They have been popular not just with dissenters and nonconformists but with individuals and institutions at the center of power. They are not simply a colorful historical byway. They are at the country’s core.

Unfortunately, much of the public perception of political paranoia seems frozen in 1964, when the historian Richard Hofstadter published “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.” Hofstadter set out to describe a “style of mind” marked by “heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy,” detecting it in movements ranging from the anti-Masonic and anti-Catholic crusades of the nineteenth century to the “popular left-wing press” and “contemporary right wing” of his time. A flawed but fascinating essay, “The Paranoid Style” is still quoted frequently today. Half a century of scholarship has built on, rebutted, or otherwise amended Hofstadter’s ideas, but that work rarely gets the attention that “The Paranoid Style” does.

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That’s too bad. The essay does contain some real insights, and if nothing else it can remind readers that conspiracy theories are not a recent invention. But it also declares that political paranoia is “the preferred style only of minority movements”—and, just to marginalize that minority some more, that it has “a greater affinity for bad causes than good.” In an earlier version of his article, Hofstadter went further, claiming that the paranoid style usually affects only a “modest minority of the population,” even if, under certain circumstances, it “can more readily be built into mass movements or political parties.”

Hofstadter did not provide numbers to back up those conclusions. We do have some data on the popularity of well-known conspiracy theories, though, and the results do not support his sweeping claims. In 2006, a nationwide Scripps Howard survey indicated that 36 percent of the people polled—a minority but hardly a modest one—believed it “very” or “somewhat” likely that U.S. leaders had either allowed 9/11 to happen or actively plotted the attacks. Theories about JFK’s assassination aren’t a minority taste at all: Forty years after John F. Kennedy was shot, an ABC News poll showed 70 percent of the country believing a conspiracy was behind the president’s death. (In 1983, the number of believers was an even higher 80 percent.) A 1996 Gallup Poll had 71 percent of the country thinking that the government is hiding something about UFOs.

To be sure, there is more to Hofstadter’s paranoid style than a mere belief in a conspiracy theory. And there’s a risk of reading too much into those answers: You can believe the government has covered up information related to UFOs without believing it’s hiding alien bodies in New Mexico. (You might, for example, think that some UFO witnesses encountered weapons tests that the government would prefer not to acknowledge.) There is also a revised version of Hofstadter’s argument that you sometimes hear, one that accepts that conspiracies are more popular than the historian suggested but that still draws a line between the paranoia of the disreputable fringes and the sobriety of the educated establishment. It’s just that the “fringe,” in this telling, turns out to be larger than the word implies.