Understanding Paranoid Populism: how to misuse a theory and misunderstand history

At the weekend a very strange article appeared in The Mail on Sunday from one of the UK’s rising stars of political science, Professor Matthew Goodwin of the University of Kent.

One of his central claims – that 57% now backed Brexit – was shot down in flames and removed. Prof. Goodwin, somewhat unconvincingly, claimed it had been inserted by a sub-editor at the Mail. But by then leading Brexiteers like Steven Baker MP were already citing it as a “fact”.

But I want to focus on the opening of his article because it exposes a deeply worrying tendency to distort facts to suit an argument.

The article opens with this:

“Something strange happens to groups of people who lose power, particularly when that loss is sudden and unexpected. 

The response? To shut their eyes to the truth and resort to conspiracy theories, instead.

This was first spotted in the 1960s at the height of the Cold War by a political philosopher called Richard Hofstadter. He described how a paranoid American Establishment found it easier to blame secret Communists – ‘Reds under the beds’ – than face the truth: that their comfortable pre-war world had been swept away by social change.

So, believing that millions of ordinary Americans must have been manipulated or brainwashed, Establishment figures including Senator Joseph McCarthy started hunting for the secretive, shadowy conspirators behind it all.”

Prof. Matthew Goodwin, Mail of Sunday, 7 July 2019. (emphasis added)

Richard Hofstadter

This not only misrepresents Hofstadter, effectively reversing what he was actually talking about, but is complete nonsense about US politics after WWII.

First of all, and this is just a minor bit of careless, Hofstadter was not a “political philosopher”, he was a Professor of American History at Columbia University.

Secondly, and this is crucial, the seminal article to which Prof. Goodwin refers says none of the things he alleges it said.

The article in question is readily available online – it was published in Harpers magazine in November 1964 and was entitled “The Paranoid Style in American Politics”.

Goodwin asserts that Hofstadter “described how a paranoid American Establishment found it easier to blame secret Communists”.He did nothing of the sort. Nowhere does Hofstadter assert that the ‘paranoid style’ he is talking about pervaded the American establishment.

On the contrary he starts by describing how it was particularly prominent amongst populist political movements attacking the establishment like the Populist Party of the late 1800s or the McCarthyites of the 1950s. It was a long tradition, not some reaction to a mythical loss of power by the US ‘establishment’.

Far from it being ‘the establishment’ who adopted the paranoid style it was exactly the opposite – the sort of insurgent populists represented by forces like Nigel Farage’s “Brexit Party” that adopted the “paranoid style”.

Goodwin’s account is also historically flawed. He states that “Something strange happens to groups of people who lose power, particularly when that loss is sudden and unexpected.” 

Who had ‘lost power’ in 1950s America? The “establishment” had just won a war against Nazi Germany and a militarised Japan. They had atomic weapons. Their economy was booming and various progressive welfare reforms were being enacted. There was no “sudden” or “unexpected” loss of power by “the American Establishment”. There was, it was true, some social unrest – racial tensions and trade union upsurges – because of effects of the War. But the idea the US “establishment” had experienced a ‘sudden and unexpected” loss of power is risible.

The second point is that Hofstadter makes no reference anywhere in his article to ‘the establishment’ as a whole adopting a paranoid style. He instead simply tries to identify a minority trend in US politics that was mostly, but not exclusively associated with the far-right. He rightly points out that the style of thinking – essentially what could be called paranoid populism – could be attached to any political ideology, right, left or centre, and sometimes was.

Hofstadter says towards the end of his article that “This glimpse across a long span of time emboldens me to make the conjecture—it is no more than that—that a mentality disposed to see the world in this [paranoid] way may be a persistent psychic phenomenon, more or less constantly affecting a modest minority of the population.”

Rather than describing the pro-Remain “establishment” in the UK – as Goodwin asserts – Hofstadter was actually talking about the exact opposite – the sort of paranoid populists associated with UKIP, the Brexit Party and increasingly the Tory Party. Anyone who actually reads the Hofstadter article could not possibly conclude that he thought McCarthyism was the result of some mythical defeat of the US establishment or that they endorsed McCarthy’s paranoid crusade.

Instead, Hofstadter thought that “in American experience ethnic and religious conflict have plainly been a major focus for militant and suspicious minds of this sort, but class conflicts also can mobilize such [paranoid] energies.” Post WWII class and racial disruptions certainly fits this description. But it hardly represented a sudden loss of power by the establishment.

To turn an analysis of paranoid populist insurgents into a supposed description of a defeated establishment takes some imagination. A pity it has no relationship to the facts?



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