Updated: Mar 3
“Crazy Is As Crazy Does”
(Paranoid Planet Podcast: Season 1, Episode 2.2, Introduction)
Barry Golderwater "Punchcard" Campaign Ad (1964):
In November 1964, during the election campaign that opposed Democrat Lyndon Johnson to Republican Barry Goldwater, the late American historian Richard Hofstatder published an article in Harper’s Magazine. It was titled “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” and it remains highly influential over the way many people think about conspiracy theories. The article sensitized its readers to the apocalyptic tone and exaggerated stories used by many politicians of the period to win elections--stories about frightening and imminent threats to the nation like communism, rich financiers and bankers, religious minorities, immigrants, and other presumed enemies of the common good; enemies their political opponents were said to be too weak or too compromised to oppose, threats which only they, the virtuous and patriotic candidate of the people, were equipped to push back. Any lack of vigilance on the part of the public, they claimed, would open the door to the enemies of democracy and bring about the end of the world as they knew it. The paranoid style, Hofstadter wrote, was nothing new in American politics, it had merely evolved over time to reflect the existential fears of the people who used paranoid speeches to whip up mistrust and hate against the groups they thought were dangerous. At its worst, the paranoid style popularized irrational, fearful, and often racist ideas. It sometimes also provoked violence and suspicion on a mass scale.
Three important figures who indulged in this “paranoid style” and who served as the principal targets of Hofstadter’s essay, were Senator Joseph McCarthy, who used his investigation powers to expose or shut down any person or business that remotely appeared socialistic; grape juice baron Robert Welch, founder of the hyper-conservative John Birch Society; and Presidential candidate Barry Goldwater, who in addition to claiming the Civil Rights Act would create a Big Brother police state, promoted the idea of using nuclear weapons against communist countries like China in a first-strike capacity—a talking point that cost him dearly at the polls.
Hofstadter’s article has been criticized on two counts. Many researchers have accused him of being unduly biased against conservatives. Many academics who study conspiracism today—including Joseph Uscinski, whom we interviewed in the previous program—argue that conspiracy claims can appeal to both sides of the political fence (Think Trump and Bernie Sanders for instance), and not just among older white men fearful of losing elections, but among all races and genders and social classes. A second critique leveled at Hofstadter has been that his article “pathologizes” those who engage in conspiracy talk. And that may be one of the reasons many people today use the phrase “conspiracy theorist” more or less as a synonym for “being crazy”.
In his defense, professor Hofstadter did make it clear that he did not think the paranoid style that he described is proof of some kind of mental illness. Rather, he saw it as “a way of seeing the world and of expressing oneself” through the filter of an irrational fear that some invisible enemy is lurking nearby, and that otherwise “normal” people could, if they let their emotions and ideology cloud their judgment, lose all sense of proportion and reason.
But that doesn’t mean that mental health issues have nothing to do with conspiracy chatter. Some people are clearly more susceptible than others to suffer delusions. Some of these may be caused by a neurological problem, like schizophrenia. Others may be caused by psychological trauma or emotional stress, perhaps by dissociative or other psychological ailments. Stress, or fear, or feelings of alienation might also sometimes be to blame. And while conspiracy believers are not necessarily delusional, a bit of research will show you that some of them clearly are.
So what is the relationship between mental health, paranoia, and conspiracy beliefs? This is the subject we’re looking into today. So take a deep breath, find a safe place, swallow the blue pill (or is it the red pill?), and stay with us…
Michel J. Gagné, 2020.
Readings related to Episode 1.2:
1. Richard Hofstadter: “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” Harper’s Magazine, November 1964.
2. Conspiracy Theory (Warner Bros., 1997). Directed by Richard Donner; Starring Mel Gibson, Julia Roberts, and Patrick Stewart.
3. Dr. Royce Lee, M.D.: “Mistrustful and Misunderstood: a Review of Paranoid Personality Disorder,” Current Behavioral Neuroscience Reports, 2017 Jun; 4(2): 151–165.
4. Dr. Royce Lee, M.D., et. al: “The Neuroendocrinology of Childhood Trauma in Personality Disorder,” Psychoneuroendocrinology, 2012 Jan; 37(1): 78–86.
5. Dr. Lee’s University of Chicago portal: https://psychiatry.uchicago.edu/faculty/royce-lee-md
6. Robert S. Robins and Jerrold M. Post, MD: Political Paranoia: The Psychopolitics of Hatred. Yale University Press, 1997.