A friend recommended that I read Richard Hofstatder's 1964 essay, "The Paranoid Style in American Politics."
If the measure of a classic is its timeless salience, Hofstatder's piece clearly qualifies.
The very first sentence could have been written about this week' mid-term elections. "American politics has often been an arena for angry minds," he wrote more than 45 years ago.
That's Hofstatder above, between two exemplars of his theory.
He calls the politics of angry minds "paranoid," not in the clinical sense, but because it is characterized by "heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy." It's as if he was channeling Fox News decades before it went on the air.
Of course, Hofstadter -- who died in 1970 -- couldn't have been writing about the Tea Party. But he seemed to anticipate its members' underlying motivation, which he summed up just as neatly. "They feel dispossessed," he wrote. They believe that "America has been taken away from them and their kind."
"The old American virtues have already been eaten away by cosmopolitans and intellectuals," he wrote. "The old competitive capitalism has been gradually undermined by socialistic and communistic schemers."
And if all that wasn't enough prescient enough, Hofstatder went on to warn that "the mass media" would enable modern political paranoids to make their villains "much more vivid than those of their paranoid predecessors, much better known to the public." And this was before cable TV and the Internet.
To be fair, Hofstadter wasn't so much prescient as steeped in history. He could predict what would happen because he saw what had already occurred.
The political paranoid were suspicious of Catholics in the 19th century; in the 21st, Muslims have taken their place. Yesteryear's plot by international bankers to take control of the world's money supply has morphed into a scheme by UN scientists to undermine Western capitalism.
In the interests of fairness, I should add that Hofstedter didn't think the political right has a corner on paranoia. He saw signs of it among the Black Panthers as well as within the White Citizen Councils of his day.
Even paranoids have enemies, it's said. These days, it's become obvious that they have plenty of company too.