I am an long-time fan of historian Richard Hofstadter. I recently picked up my old copy of his classic Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, and re-read it, along with the notes and underlinings I put there 35 years ago! More true now than ever. And then I just stumbled on this by historian John Moore, on the History News Network at http://hnn.us/roundup/archives/14/2009/11/

The re-emergence of historian Richard Hofstadter

Source: John Moore in the National Post (11-26-09)

Ideas are like viruses. They spread in waves, retreat, mutate and return. The latest proof is the recent re-emergence of academic historian Richard Hofstadter in the political consciousness.

Hofstadter, who died in 1970, was at one time amongst America’s pre-eminent historians. He documented the evolution of the country’s political culture and its populist underpinnings from the Revolution to the post-Kennedy-assassination era. It’s no surprise that his work is still generally relevant, but his landmark 1964 essay, The Paranoid Style in American Politics, is Cassandra-like in its prescience.

The Paranoid Style asserts that a pervasive angst about the United States being under siege from within is an integral mutant string in the DNA of American politics. In 30-to-40-year intervals, a cohort of the population (almost invariably found on the right of the political spectrum) is seized with the conviction that the Republic is on the brink of destruction. Sound familiar?

Which is why the essay reads as if it was written last month and not 40 years ago. When Hofstadter described the right wing’s “qualities of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness and conspiratorial fantasy” he wasn’t writing about Sarah Palin or the frothing tea bag brigade but of Senator Joe McCarthy and the John Birch Society.

He identified a sizable segment of the population that lives in permanent fear of outsiders, secret societies and covert plots to subvert the Constitution. This genus of political citizen styles himself the ultimate patriot. “His sense,” wrote Hofstadter, “that his political passions are unselfish and patriotic … goes far to intensify his feeling of righteousness and his moral indignation.”

This mindset is not to be confused with healthy dissent or alternative political perspectives. It’s a deep-seated, emotional and irrational conviction. There’s a difference between concern that your country is headed down the wrong track and insistence that the President is a non-citizen, that his health reforms are a Nazi-inspired eugenics project and that his foreign policy is a plot to bring about one world government…