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Sean Wilentz on The Paranoid Style in American Politics

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ProgressiveBookClub The following is excerpted from The Paranoid Style in American Politics by Richard Hofstadter

Preface to the 2008 Edition

By Sean Wilentz


The first essay in this collection, a study of political cranks and zealots, is probably the best-known work by one of the finest American historians of the twentieth century. It certainly remains the timeliest.

Richard Hofstadter delivered the first version of “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” as a Herbert Spencer Lecture at Oxford University in November 1963, the same month that President John F. Kennedy was murdered; an abridged version appeared in Harper’s magazine the following year. The lecture had gown out of Hofstadter’s longstanding apprehensions about the rise of American right-wing extremism after World War ii – most conspicuously the McCarthyite hysteria of the early 1950s but also the profusion of new right-wing organizations such as the John Birch Society. Hofstadter disagreed with those critics who suggested that these disturbances were extensions of European fascism: They could only have originate in American history, he argued. In tracking those origins, Hofstadter discovered a chronic, rancid syndrome in our political life that he called, loosely, “paranoid.” The paranoid style, he contended, had long afflicted radical movements on the left as well as the right, and had even touched some good causes, including the anti-slavery movement. Usually, however, it appeared in bad ones.

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Mark Still timely today.

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