Paranoia's Nothing New In American Politics

“American politics has often been an arena for angry minds. In recent years we have seen angry minds at work mainly among extreme right-wingers, who have now demonstrated…how much political leverage can be got out of the animosities and passions of a small minority. But behind this I believe there is a style of mind that is far from new and that is not necessarily right-wing. I call it the paranoid style simply because no other word adequately evokes the sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy that I have in mind.”

Those words were written in 1964 by historian Richard Hofstadter in a seminal piece for Harper’s magazine called, “The Paranoid Style of American Politics,” but they could just as well have been written last week. It seems that not much has changed in the last half century--many Americans continue to distrust their government and the elite among us, while writers at publications that few read are still wringing their hands and accusing the average American of being paranoid when he or she speaks out on the political issues of the day.

I don’t think the average American or even the average Tea Partier is paranoid, but rather deeply, distrustful of all authority, especially governmental authority. And to the extent that they are informed by the Christian religion and the Judeo-Christian tradition, it is merely a reflection of the fact that the Bible is full of admonitions to avoid being deceived; that evil often appears as an angelic being in order to trick us all and that what truly is, is often not what it appears to be. What Hofstadter and others call paranoid is really just Christians and Jews heeding the admonitions they learned at their mother’s knee.

A few excerpts from the Good Book:

*These people are false apostles. They are deceitful workers who disguise themselves as apostles of Christ. But I am not surprised! Even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light.

*Beware of false prophets who come disguised as harmless sheep but are really vicious wolves.

*Sin is lying in wait for you, ready to pounce; it's out to get you, you've got to master it.

*Take heed that no one leads you astray. For many shall come in my name saying, I am the Christ, and they will lead many astray.

*For false messiahs and false prophets will rise up and perform great signs and wonders so as to deceive, if possible, even God's chosen ones.

*But evil people and impostors will flourish. They will deceive others and will themselves be deceived.

*Don't let anyone deceive you in any way.

*For this reason, God sends them a powerful delusion so that they will believe the lie.

I could go on, but the point is that the Bible, both the Old and New Testaments, are full of these kinds of warnings. They have been so internalized by many Americans, both those who are religious and those who aren’t, that it comes through in our attitudes toward each other and especially in our attitudes toward those in positions of high leadership. And what historians call "paranoia" is more often than not just the average American responding to people and events in a way that reflects the Bible’s somewhat dim view of human nature and the reality of evil in our world.

The collective American inability to accept things at face value and a deep distrust of those who seek to lead us is what separates us from the rest of the world and makes life in America exciting and interesting. It’s also what caused our Founding Fathers to form three co-equal branches of government, always ready to rein in the power of each other if need be.

So to the modern day Hofstadters I say: Relax. Don’t take it personally. There’s nothing strange about the Tea Partiers, just as there was nothing strange about those fighting for suffrage, civil rights or to oppose the Iraq war. They’re actually a perfect reflection of who we are and who we have always been.

The people who are questioning the legitimacy of Barack Obama’s birth certificate are the offspring of those who alleged that Chester A. Arthur was actually born in Canada and would have taken Barry Goldwater and John McCain to court had they been elected President, arguing that they were not born on U.S. soil.

Those who are convinced that President Obama is the anti-Christ were preceded by those who thought the same thing about Henry Kissinger and Woodrow Wilson and those who thought JFK was "The One."

Those Americans who opposed Obamacare are the same ones who loathed Clintoncare.

And this rowdy, rebellious crowd angered at their taxes being raised are the offspring of equally rebellious ancestors who tired of paying taxes to a distant king and decided to launch a great rebellion and birth a nation.

Mark Joseph is a producer, author and editor of

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