The dispossessed (From Richard Hofstadter’s essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics”)

If, after our historically discontinuous examples of the paranoid style, we now take the long jump to the contemporary right wing, we find some rather important differences from the nineteenth-century movements. The spokesmen of those earlier movements felt that they stood for causes and personal types that were still in possession of their country—that they were fending off threats to a still established way of life. But the modern right wing…feels dispossessed: America has been largely taken away from them and their kind, though they are determined to try to repossess it and to prevent the final destructive act of subversion. The old American virtues have already been eaten away by cosmopolitans and intellectuals; the old competitive capitalism has been gradually undermined by socialistic and communistic schemers; the old national security and independence have been destroyed by treasonous plots, having as their most powerful agents not merely outsiders and foreigners as of old but major statesmen who are at the very centers of American power. Their predecessors had discovered conspiracies; the modern radical right finds conspiracy to be betrayal from on high.

From Richard Hofstadter’s 1964 essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.”

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4 thoughts on “The dispossessed (From Richard Hofstadter’s essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics”)”

  1. Such a strange coincidence…this week I’m reading The Disposessed by Le Guin in my spare time and listening to Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life on my commute. Thanks for this.

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    1. Yeah. Not exactly a great performance, but definitely worth a listen. I also think Richard Rorty’s Achieving our Country (also on Audible) would be right up your alley. It’s breezy and while it’s primarily concerned with workaday political action, he writes movingly on everyone from Whitman to Baldwin to Neal Stephenson. If, like me, you’ve felt for the past two years like America is doomed and deserves it, Rorty will remind you how to be hopeful through literature.

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  2. I’d disagree with what is written here by Hofstadter. There was always a sense of dispossession, at least as far back as conservatism proper has existed. I take it more in the light of Corey Robin’s reactionary mind, although one can sense that mindset emerging back in the Axial Age when nostalgic loss became a central theme in Western thought (Julian Jaynes describes this in great detail).

    Even limiting ourselves to recent history, the colonial era was showing strong signs of dispossession. That is why the revolutionary era spoke of the rights of Englishmen, which was nostalgia for the rights of commoners under feudalism. The new imperialism for many reasons (e.g., theft of the commons) created a sense of irreparable damage to the former social identity. The counter-revolutionary monarchist, Joseph de Maistre, noted that conservatism was inherently reactionary because it formed in reaction to the loss of the ancien regime. That is to say conservatism is defined not by traditionalism but its loss or destruction.

    Let me give an example. Benjamin Franklin, enlightened as he was, complained about all of the swarthy German-Americans in Pennsylvania, primarily Philadelphia. Because of mass immigration of the colonial era, German-Americans were the majority of the population (a couple of other colonies also had non-English majorities). Enough of them didn’t speak English that official notices had to be printed in both English and German.

    In speaking of the rights of Englishmen, it wasn’t only about the changes of feudalism, as corporatism and capitalism took over in the imperial age. It was also how imperialism inevitably creates multiculturalism. Colonists couldn’t pretend that they were merely Englishmen back in England, no matter how much they attempted to re-create English communities. The presence of so many non-English brought doubt to the very identity of being English, specifically as justification for rights and respect.

    That sense of loss fueled the revolutionary war. Many colonists wanted to regain what was loss. That was the original meaning of revolution, a term that came from astrology and meant a cyclical return. It was unintentional for many revolutionaries that their nostalgia led to radical ends. But without knowing where they were heading, as with later reactionaries, they blamed those in power as much as they blamed immigrants. The colonists felt the British government had betrayed them, the king most of all.

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