The paranoid style

Robert D. Novak tells us about the republication of a book from 1965 by Richard Hofstadter entitled The Paranoid Style in American Politics (Vintage).

He described the paranoid politician viewing his adversary as “sinister, ubiquitous, powerful, cruel, sensual, and luxury-loving.” As a liberal, Hofstadter was writing about Barry Goldwater’s 1964 takeover of the Republican Party, but he acknowledged that the syndrome “is not necessarily right-wing.”

As Novak shows in his column, this style of projecting your opponents as evil, all-controlling conspirators is being increasingly adopted today by the Left.

Now just because a person is paranoid doesn’t mean everybody is NOT out to get him, but the demonizing of people we disagree with is surely a problem in today’s discourse and not just in politics. Isn’t this a serious moral problem today, preventing us from loving and serving our neighbors, including the neighbor who is our enemy but whom we are still enjoined to love?

UPDATE: Let me add some more thoughts: Of course we Christians believe that evil is real and pervasive in sinful human beings. Also that demons are real and that behind earthly woes lie spiritual powers and principalities. But human beings, however depraved, are not demons, are they? They are enslaved to the great demon, but God so loved the denizens of this fallen world that He died for them to give them liberty. Doesn’t this imply that we should look at sinners with pity and not just with hostility, lamenting their doom and hoping for their salvation?

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • http://www.brandywinebooks.net Lars Walker

    Very true, but it seems to me this is particularly complicated today. Today is the first time in our history that American politicians have openly advocated immorality and antinomianism. To speak the truth, one must in fact accuse the opposition of advocating evil.

  • http://www.brandywinebooks.net Lars Walker

    Very true, but it seems to me this is particularly complicated today. Today is the first time in our history that American politicians have openly advocated immorality and antinomianism. To speak the truth, one must in fact accuse the opposition of advocating evil.

  • WebMonk

    “As Novak shows in his column, this style of projecting your opponents as evil, all-controlling conspirators is being increasingly adopted today by the Left.”

    Cough. Cough. *bullsh*** Cough.

    It’s used by both sides. Does he have his head in the sand? The rhetoric about Obama and Clinton is just as bad as what’s being said about McCain and Bush.

    And this isn’t anything new. Novak needs to go back 100 or 200 years and read some of the political fights that went on then. We are holding polite tea-parties in comparison!

    We accuse people of advocating evil now. Ha! Nothing but lightweight, namby-pamby statements!

    I’ve read dozens of old political editorials that very literally claimed the opponents were inhabited by Satan, were having direct dealings with him, or were personally murdering people. Not in exaggerated, obvious over-statements either – these were MSM articles that very seriously stated certain people were in league with Satan and practicing the darkest of dark magiks because of the positions they held, or were out killing babies and vagrants and hiding their actions with their influence.

  • WebMonk

    “As Novak shows in his column, this style of projecting your opponents as evil, all-controlling conspirators is being increasingly adopted today by the Left.”

    Cough. Cough. *bullsh*** Cough.

    It’s used by both sides. Does he have his head in the sand? The rhetoric about Obama and Clinton is just as bad as what’s being said about McCain and Bush.

    And this isn’t anything new. Novak needs to go back 100 or 200 years and read some of the political fights that went on then. We are holding polite tea-parties in comparison!

    We accuse people of advocating evil now. Ha! Nothing but lightweight, namby-pamby statements!

    I’ve read dozens of old political editorials that very literally claimed the opponents were inhabited by Satan, were having direct dealings with him, or were personally murdering people. Not in exaggerated, obvious over-statements either – these were MSM articles that very seriously stated certain people were in league with Satan and practicing the darkest of dark magiks because of the positions they held, or were out killing babies and vagrants and hiding their actions with their influence.

  • Susan aka organshoes

    One difference today, though, is that society presumes we’re more highly evolved, or at least more thoroughly informed, than ever before.
    This should give evidence to our depraved condition, that we still rally to the most ridiculous, and really irrelevant claims, in reaching political decisions.
    Ignorance truly is a willful act; a preferred state.

  • Susan aka organshoes

    One difference today, though, is that society presumes we’re more highly evolved, or at least more thoroughly informed, than ever before.
    This should give evidence to our depraved condition, that we still rally to the most ridiculous, and really irrelevant claims, in reaching political decisions.
    Ignorance truly is a willful act; a preferred state.

  • Gulliver

    Intellectually, it is much easier (for both the speaker and the listener) to demonize one’s opponent than to argue for (or against) some political or religious position. For a lie (or false teaching) usually has a small basis of truth in order for it to be believable, and it is very difficult to separate what is good/truthful from what is false in order to make a cogent argument. And while we have access to more information than in the past, the demonizing short sound-bite gets more attention.

  • Gulliver

    Intellectually, it is much easier (for both the speaker and the listener) to demonize one’s opponent than to argue for (or against) some political or religious position. For a lie (or false teaching) usually has a small basis of truth in order for it to be believable, and it is very difficult to separate what is good/truthful from what is false in order to make a cogent argument. And while we have access to more information than in the past, the demonizing short sound-bite gets more attention.

  • Susan aka organshoes

    It gets ALL the attention.
    Even something NOT demonizing gets twisted into demonization, so that a candidate is pretty much left with answering the question when did he stop beating his wife.
    God forbid we actually have to think. Because, you know, thinking is hard.

  • Susan aka organshoes

    It gets ALL the attention.
    Even something NOT demonizing gets twisted into demonization, so that a candidate is pretty much left with answering the question when did he stop beating his wife.
    God forbid we actually have to think. Because, you know, thinking is hard.

  • Carl Vehse

    In 1965 we did not have a major American political party with a platform and its political leaders with a 30-year old record of advocating, legislating, promoting, and funding the slaughter of 45 million unborn American babies.

    If this political party has any paranoia, it is well deserved, along with the condemnation as genocidal murderers and traitors to this nation.

  • Carl Vehse

    In 1965 we did not have a major American political party with a platform and its political leaders with a 30-year old record of advocating, legislating, promoting, and funding the slaughter of 45 million unborn American babies.

    If this political party has any paranoia, it is well deserved, along with the condemnation as genocidal murderers and traitors to this nation.

  • http://www.utah-lutheran.blogspot.com Bror Erickson

    Webmonk,
    I don’t think Novak was debating that it is used on both sides. I think the word increasingly was the opperative word there, meaning though both sides use it, the left seems to be using the tactic more than they used to.

  • http://www.utah-lutheran.blogspot.com Bror Erickson

    Webmonk,
    I don’t think Novak was debating that it is used on both sides. I think the word increasingly was the opperative word there, meaning though both sides use it, the left seems to be using the tactic more than they used to.

  • Bruce

    Webmonk, you are right, but the difference is we are more “sensitive” today than in eras past. Or, eras past were more used to this sort of discourse and were “desensitized” to it (A word never to be found in eras past, I warrant).

    Ow, ow. Lalalalalal, I’m not LISTENING when you talk MEAN to me! Call it more evolved, ha. Or call it more thin-skinned.

    Nevertheless, I take the point: add demonization of one’s opponents to the lengthening list of modern ills the Christian must navigate through, and try to be immune from. And if we are demonized, let us pray that it is for the sake of Christ.

  • Bruce

    Webmonk, you are right, but the difference is we are more “sensitive” today than in eras past. Or, eras past were more used to this sort of discourse and were “desensitized” to it (A word never to be found in eras past, I warrant).

    Ow, ow. Lalalalalal, I’m not LISTENING when you talk MEAN to me! Call it more evolved, ha. Or call it more thin-skinned.

    Nevertheless, I take the point: add demonization of one’s opponents to the lengthening list of modern ills the Christian must navigate through, and try to be immune from. And if we are demonized, let us pray that it is for the sake of Christ.

  • CRB

    Not that it should be encouraged, but Luther had a nasty
    way at times of excoriating the pope and others who refused to listen to the Word of God and instead preferred lady reason. It could not be said that Luther was kind to such ones, but I think it could be supported by his other writings that his motive was that the hearer be saved. True, it’s not easy to approach such folks in the kindest way, but I do believe only the Lord is capable of knowing what our motives are in such matters. We only hope and pray that our motives would be for the sake of those who are lost, to bring them back to Christ and His Word and sacraments.

  • CRB

    Not that it should be encouraged, but Luther had a nasty
    way at times of excoriating the pope and others who refused to listen to the Word of God and instead preferred lady reason. It could not be said that Luther was kind to such ones, but I think it could be supported by his other writings that his motive was that the hearer be saved. True, it’s not easy to approach such folks in the kindest way, but I do believe only the Lord is capable of knowing what our motives are in such matters. We only hope and pray that our motives would be for the sake of those who are lost, to bring them back to Christ and His Word and sacraments.

  • Gulliver

    There may be another reason why people are demonized—Christians feel helpless about all the bad things going on in our country and don’t really trust that God is in control. Perhaps they feel that they must help God out to make this nation godly again or else God will punish them and the nation. Christians must trust in the “still, small voice” of the gospel to work in society as well. Is not this what is happening in China? The Church’s task is to proclaim Christ crucified and beware of false teaching, confess the hope within us, and love our neighbor. God will take care of His children.

  • Gulliver

    There may be another reason why people are demonized—Christians feel helpless about all the bad things going on in our country and don’t really trust that God is in control. Perhaps they feel that they must help God out to make this nation godly again or else God will punish them and the nation. Christians must trust in the “still, small voice” of the gospel to work in society as well. Is not this what is happening in China? The Church’s task is to proclaim Christ crucified and beware of false teaching, confess the hope within us, and love our neighbor. God will take care of His children.

  • CRB

    Gulliver,
    Very good points! As far as teaching goes, the Church is not only to beware of false teaching and teachers but to expose them for the sake of the flock.

  • CRB

    Gulliver,
    Very good points! As far as teaching goes, the Church is not only to beware of false teaching and teachers but to expose them for the sake of the flock.

  • FWw

    i heard a commentator say something that I will never forget. she observed that when arguments become ad homen, it means that the one doing the ad homen attacks in fact has run out of arguments.

    as a gay man, when I hear people use terms like “the gay agenda” or the “gay lifestyle” or even the words “homosexual” or “gay” I am usually fairly certain that they could not, if challenged define their terms.

    We who pride ourselves in objectivity, fairness, and anti-postmodernism merely need to think…. “now how IS that person using that emotion-charged word? What would then be the definition of that word as the writer or commentator is using it in context?

    Is the commentator using words emptied of real content soley for emotional impact?

    There are certain words like “agenda” or “conservative” or “liberal” that should set off alarm bells in one´s head when they are used by someone…..

    Example, is president Bush conservative or liberal or something else altogeather?

    And after you have decided on a label, what criterion? financial policies? big/small government? civil liberties? abortion?

    Also when I see someone tarnished by guilt-by-association or something from the remote past of that person (we all have a past, especially we baby-boomers…) that also tends to send off alarm bells. Just because someone accepted a campaign contribution from a dubious character, I am not always sure that I need to draw any particular conclusion from that…..

  • FWw

    i heard a commentator say something that I will never forget. she observed that when arguments become ad homen, it means that the one doing the ad homen attacks in fact has run out of arguments.

    as a gay man, when I hear people use terms like “the gay agenda” or the “gay lifestyle” or even the words “homosexual” or “gay” I am usually fairly certain that they could not, if challenged define their terms.

    We who pride ourselves in objectivity, fairness, and anti-postmodernism merely need to think…. “now how IS that person using that emotion-charged word? What would then be the definition of that word as the writer or commentator is using it in context?

    Is the commentator using words emptied of real content soley for emotional impact?

    There are certain words like “agenda” or “conservative” or “liberal” that should set off alarm bells in one´s head when they are used by someone…..

    Example, is president Bush conservative or liberal or something else altogeather?

    And after you have decided on a label, what criterion? financial policies? big/small government? civil liberties? abortion?

    Also when I see someone tarnished by guilt-by-association or something from the remote past of that person (we all have a past, especially we baby-boomers…) that also tends to send off alarm bells. Just because someone accepted a campaign contribution from a dubious character, I am not always sure that I need to draw any particular conclusion from that…..

  • FWw

    crb

    I don´t think there is a good excuse for some of the language luther used, even if his opponents used nastier language….

    yet his basic point was valid… and that is when someone PUBLICLY teaches error, they need to be opposed publicly, and that then there is no violation of the 8th commandment, as long, of course, as the comments are not ad-homen.

    Example: Someone can call homosexual or extramarital sex immoral, but it would not be right from that to call people who engage in those practices immoral, no more than it would be right to call a calvinist immoral as to his person, for his false doctrines.

  • FWw

    crb

    I don´t think there is a good excuse for some of the language luther used, even if his opponents used nastier language….

    yet his basic point was valid… and that is when someone PUBLICLY teaches error, they need to be opposed publicly, and that then there is no violation of the 8th commandment, as long, of course, as the comments are not ad-homen.

    Example: Someone can call homosexual or extramarital sex immoral, but it would not be right from that to call people who engage in those practices immoral, no more than it would be right to call a calvinist immoral as to his person, for his false doctrines.

  • CRB

    I agree. I’m guilty of using ad hominems, if not always vocally, certainly in my thoughts. It’s sin, for sure that needs to be repented of. When speaking about morality, again, one must be certain of motives. If one’s
    motive is to win the person who is living in sin toward repentance and believing the gospel, then one cannot
    be accused of ad hominems.
    What the preacher, or layperson for that matter, is called to do is go to that person as a fellow sinner, knowing that he/she can also fall into “living in sin.” Also, we are called to expose false teaching. So, since it is clear from (to use your example) the Calvinist’s public confession that false teaching continues to hurt
    the souls of those who listen to his teaching, we are called to expose such false teaching, but not make a moral judgment about the teacher. It’s the false teaching that should concern us, not the moral condition of the teacher, for many souls are damaged by such teaching.

  • CRB

    I agree. I’m guilty of using ad hominems, if not always vocally, certainly in my thoughts. It’s sin, for sure that needs to be repented of. When speaking about morality, again, one must be certain of motives. If one’s
    motive is to win the person who is living in sin toward repentance and believing the gospel, then one cannot
    be accused of ad hominems.
    What the preacher, or layperson for that matter, is called to do is go to that person as a fellow sinner, knowing that he/she can also fall into “living in sin.” Also, we are called to expose false teaching. So, since it is clear from (to use your example) the Calvinist’s public confession that false teaching continues to hurt
    the souls of those who listen to his teaching, we are called to expose such false teaching, but not make a moral judgment about the teacher. It’s the false teaching that should concern us, not the moral condition of the teacher, for many souls are damaged by such teaching.

  • FWw

    crb

    indeed, one of the reasons that the conservative lutheran reformation succeeded is that prior attempts at reform focused on the morals of individuals. the lutheran reformation focused on the teachings and so the root of the problem.

  • FWw

    crb

    indeed, one of the reasons that the conservative lutheran reformation succeeded is that prior attempts at reform focused on the morals of individuals. the lutheran reformation focused on the teachings and so the root of the problem.

  • Anon

    We cannot let a call to not ‘demonize’ force us to not call things by their rightful names, or whitewash genuine evil. We can and should point out the demonic nature of certain ideas.

    A person who sins -is- a sinner, not merely a good person who happens to wilfully do something evil with no causality from that person’s character and choices.

    Yet, we need to love those and be kind to those who are led astray by false teaching, unlike, for example, the commentaries in the Reader’s version of the BoC, which are horrific.

  • Anon

    We cannot let a call to not ‘demonize’ force us to not call things by their rightful names, or whitewash genuine evil. We can and should point out the demonic nature of certain ideas.

    A person who sins -is- a sinner, not merely a good person who happens to wilfully do something evil with no causality from that person’s character and choices.

    Yet, we need to love those and be kind to those who are led astray by false teaching, unlike, for example, the commentaries in the Reader’s version of the BoC, which are horrific.

  • CRB

    Anon,
    What’s the “Reader’s version of the BoC,” I didn’t know there was one. I have the initial Concordia. Can you give an example of what is, “horrific”? Thanks

  • CRB

    Anon,
    What’s the “Reader’s version of the BoC,” I didn’t know there was one. I have the initial Concordia. Can you give an example of what is, “horrific”? Thanks


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