Manichaean paranoia

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Manichaean paranoia is a concept used by some political thinkers to describe the political-religious worldview of some political actors who view the world in stark terms of good or evil, enemy or friend. It combines correlations with the dualistic cosmology of the ancient Persian Gnostic religion Manichaeism, which viewed the world as a place of ongoing historical struggle between forces of an immaterial good realm of light and a material evil realm of darkness, with paranoia concerning actors supposedly aligned with evil who are actively seeking to harm actors aligned with good. Because of the intense dualism, intense moral polarization typically results, and political positions taken by one exhibiting Manichaean paranoia take on either a distinctly morally good or morally evil cast, with very little if any ground left for ambiguity.

Actors who function within Manichaean paranoia operate within an alarming dilemma in the belief that they must either proactively fight against evil actors or be destroyed by them; and since nothing is more key in Manichaeanism than defeating evil, actors who function under it can justify actions considered evil within Western worldviews, so long as they believe good will result, i.e., "the ends justify the means". It is noted as a feature among some of the American Right.
Richard Hofstadter has published a series of essays on the Radical Right entitled The Paranoid Style in American Politics (Knopf).[1] He might just as well have called his book The Manichaean Style in American Politics, since the metaphysical and moral presuppositions of the Radical Right are Manichaean to the core.[2]

Sam Tanenhaus argues that Manichaeanism in American politics has emerged from the bed of a long-standing debate about the role of government. On one side are Burkean ideals of using government to replenish civil society while adjusting to changing conditions, and on the other what he calls ideals of "revanchist counterrevolution" (also see Revanchism) intended to restore America's pre-welfare state, it's ancien regime. Tanenhaus argues that the counterrevolutionaries have repeatedly won this debate, which he says tabulates to the fact that "modern American conservatism has dedicated itself not to fortifying and replenishing civil society but rather to weakening it through a politics of civil warfare."

Tanenhaus asserts that this emerged most dominantly during post-WWII American conservatism, an the era when intellectually sophisticated converts to conservatism from Marxism dominated conservative discourse, while retaining their former absolutist fervor and certainty that they lived in a revolutionary time. Of these Tanenhaus argues,

In place of the Marxist dialectic they formulated a Manichaean politics of good and evil, still with us today, and their strategy was to build a movement based on organizing cultural antagonisms. Many have observed that movement politics most clearly defines itself not by what it yearns to conserve but by what it longs to destroy—"statist" social programs; "socialized medicine"; "big labor"; "activist" Supreme Court justices, the "media elite"; "tenured radicals" on university faculties; "experts" in and out of government.[3]

Although earlier political thinkers described Manichaeanism in American politics, it was probably the modern American political thinker Zbigniew Brzezinski who first coined the term Manichean paranoia in the early 1990s to describe the phenomena.[4] His goal was to describe the worldview undergirding U.S. President George W. Bush, including his construction of nations as either "with us or against us" in the "War on terror".[5] Manichaean paranoia has since passed into increasingly frequent parlance.

Probably no political actor who displays Manichaean paranoia does so out of conscious adherence to Manichaeanism, although similar worldviews have correlates, such as the Christian and Islamic doctrines indicating that all actions in the world are ultimately manifestations between a cosmological battle between God and Satan. Rather, even as the worldview of Manichaean paranoia is conveyed through political rhetoric, so is the phrase and its meanings rhetorical.

Brzezinski makes the point that the Chinese leadership is not guided by this view.[6]


  1. Hofstadter, Richard (2008), The Paranoid Style in American Politics, Vintage, ISBN 0307388441 (Book excerpt available.)
  2. William F. May (2 May 1966), "Manichaeism in American Politics", Christianity and Crisis
  3. Sam Tanenhaus, "Conservatism Is Dead: An Intellectual Autopsy of the Movement", The New Republic, 18 Feb 2009. Available online.]
  4. "'Manichaean paranoia Paranoia Will Destroy Ya", Jon Stewart interview with Brzezinski, 17 March 2007
  5. George W. Bush (November 6, 2001), "'You are either with us or against us'", CNN
  6. Zbigniew Brzezinski, Brent Scowcroft, David Ignatius (2008), America and the World: Conversations on the Future of American Foreign Policy, Basic Books, ISBN 0465015018, p. 114

This article is based upon the article "Manichaean Paranoia" by Stephen Ewen, available under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License. Attribution on face of article is required.