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Weekend Reader: The United States Of Paranoia: A Conspiracy Theory

Memo Pad Weekend Reader

Weekend Reader: The United States Of Paranoia: A Conspiracy Theory


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 Amazon.com 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.


  1. sigrid28 August 24, 2013

    I belong to the minority that believes you ought to read everything you can get your hands on and your head around–but that doesn’t mean you have to BELIEVE everything you read. It’s just my opinion, but I think big gulps of Jesse Walker should be taken with equal gulps of another Libertarian voice highlighted in today’s National Memo (See “Ron Paul To Keynote Anti-Semitic Conference” [August 22nd, 2013 2:01 pmHenry Decker] noting its “Tags: 2016 presidential race, Anti-Semitism, libertarians, neo-confederate, racism, Rand Paul, right wing,ron paul, ron paul newsletters.”)–just to understand which was Jesse Walker is facing–as well as drinking in more and better examples of Richard Hofstadter’s groundbreaking works in rich historical fields of social psychology, not to mention more contemporary works to which Walker himself refers, that have refined this branch of history over the last forty years. Contemporary historians have done yoemans’ work in taking the study of history beyond the orientation on principal figures and war records to political eras and cultural development. Jesse Walker is one of them, but he votes Libertarian in every election.

    1. idamag August 25, 2013

      I, too, believe in the power you get from being well informed both What you agree with and not what you agree with. I also check sources.

  2. idamag August 24, 2013

    Conspiracies are always so titillating. They are also useful tools to some that should not be trusted. Scare and anger enough people and they will follow for safety, not realizing the leader, in front of them, is the wolf.

    1. sigrid28 August 25, 2013

      Or the leader in front of them could be Ted Cruz, for example.

  3. charleo1 August 24, 2013

    Conspiracies are a bit like the relationship between running water, and that
    small hole that’s developed in the roof of your house. Wherever there’s a
    void, or dearth of information, it’s a pretty safe bet someone, somewhere is
    going to fill it with a conspiracy. Most often to feather their own nest, or pro-
    mote one special interest, or another. Conspiracies continue to spring up
    around President Obama, even in his second term, like weeds in a garden.
    It has been 21 years today since I had the never to be forgotten, and hopefully
    to never experience again, the unbelievable power of a cat 5 hurricane.
    In was in the aftermath of this storm, without electricity, or many working radios, conspiracies abounded. Roaming dogs, driven mad, by the terrible storm.
    Or roving gangs preying on those sleeping in unsecured houses. From AIDS
    infected monkeys, that had escaped from a research lab. To bodies stacked
    to the ceiling in a make shift morgue, “they,” the officials did not want us to
    know about. Because they were afraid to tell us, the living. For fear, we would
    do something. None of these things proved to have the least bit of truth to them.
    Well, except there were the monkeys. But they had escaped from the local zoo,
    and were not HIV positive. Conspiracies, rumors, things our government officials
    will never divulge. “The truth? You want the truth? You can’t handle the truth!”


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