A historian who saw the future
THERE IS a certain mystique to Richard Hofstadter. For nearly 30 years, the legend goes, he wrote the best books, for the best publisher, won the best prizes and taught in the best city, at the best school, at the best time. Among his fellow historians, the memory of his brilliant three-decade tenure at Columbia University beginning just after World War II evokes a hazy attachment to a lost world of scholarly giants confident in the curative powers of the enlightened mind.
This was a world raised in the collective memory of the Depression ‘30s, tormented by the anti-intellectualism of the McCarthy ‘50s and ultimately rejected in the student wars of the radical ‘60s. The preferences of Hofstadter’s generation for exploring the politics of ideas and elite personalities yielded before a broad canopy of studies focusing on race, class and gender that revolutionized the way historians presented the past.
Yet for those interested in the historical context from which our current conservative politics has emerged, Hofstadter’s work remains indispensable. More than three decades after his death from leukemia at 54, legions of journalists and bloggers still routinely adopt the social-psychological concepts -- “status anxiety,” “the paranoid style” and “anti-intellectualism” -- he popularized to explore and explain the radical right.
Among professional historians, only the distinguished “Progressive school” thinkers Frederick Jackson Turner and Charles Beard and postwar notables C. Van Woodward and Arthur Schlesinger Jr. made as lasting impressions on their culture as Hofstadter. A generation of liberal policymakers imbibed his books, taking from them historical lessons for why the nation’s social and civil rights goals could only be accomplished under the aegis of an activist government.
The most activist politician of all, President Lyndon Johnson, recognized Hofstadter’s influence publicly, inviting him in 1964 to serve as a domestic advisor.
Born in 1916 to a Jewish immigrant father from Krakow, Poland, and his German American bride, Hofstadter grew up in the ethnic tinctured city of Buffalo, N.Y. He arrived at Columbia University in 1936 to begin graduate studies in history. Like many intellectuals of his generation, he made the ideological pilgrimage in the 1940s from the Communist Party to a postwar liberalism that embraced the social and economic reforms used to combat the Depression.
In his most popular book, “The American Political Tradition and the Men Who Made It,” published in 1948, Hofstadter drew a memorable distinction between the old liberalism and the newly emergent tradition of liberal politics ushered in by the New Deal. The former reflected the values of a primarily agrarian, property-rights-based, Protestant nation -- Thomas Jefferson was its hero. The new liberalism, by contrast, embodied what the United States had become in the 20th century: an urban, community-rights-based, multiethnic nation -- Franklin D. Roosevelt was its hero.
Hofstadter is considered a founding father of the “consensus” school of historiography because of his belief that Americans generally agree on bedrock liberal, capitalist values. The consensus school replaced the older Progressive approach that presumed that historians should interpret the past as a series of conflicts. The great figures of the Progressive school -- including Beard and Turner -- came from the late 19th century Midwest, where they observed firsthand the bruising rise of industrial America. Sharp clashes between capital and labor defined the era and convinced men like Beard that history -- as Karl Marx had claimed -- was in some sense shaped by economic struggle.
By contrast, the consensus historians of Hofstadter’s generation believed that the end of the Depression and victory in World War II had prefaced an era of economic prosperity, and that liberalism appeared (in light of Herbert Hoover’s presidential failures) to be the only viable political path for the nation to take.
In the 1950s, the rise of a formidable opposition on the right challenged the postwar consensus and encouraged Hofstadter’s most spirited scholarship. Between 1955 and 1965, he developed quasi-clinical concepts -- “status anxiety,” “the paranoid style” -- to argue that an irrational and destructive politics had crept into American political life. Broadly, he asserted that when traditional groups experienced declines in status, they searched for internal enemies, naturally finding them in rising social groups. He applied these principles -- which he saw in Colonial times, the Federalist era and the 1840s, among other periods -- to his own day as well, surmising that those who seemed irreconcilable to liberalism’s stewardship of the state were in large measure dissatisfied with the advancing fortunes of ethnic minorities.
In a number of essays written in 1964, Hofstadter sharply criticized Barry Goldwater’s presidential bid as an embodiment of ultraconservative aspirations to end the liberal New Deal system.
Ironically, when the postwar political center finally did collapse in the late ‘60s, it was not the right but the radical children of the liberal class who made it happen. This new generation rejected the consensus view of its fathers, for in an age of violent civil rights confrontations, political assassinations and Vietnam, the bloody tide of social circumstances pulled historians back to the older conflict interpretation that the Progressive historians had championed.
In “The Progressive Historians,” written in 1968, just two years before he died, Hofstadter acknowledged the prevalence and importance of disagreement and upheaval in the American past, yet he still contended, obviously influenced by his own time, that pluralism, comity and consensus were virtues the nation could not afford to ignore.
Today, historians are no closer to returning to consensus history than they were in the 1960s. We live in a multicultural nation, and no scholar would think of writing as confidently about a single “American mind” or “American culture” as did the postwar historians.
Yet by reading Hofstadter against the backdrop of a new new right, we might gain valuable insight into our own age. His observations, about 40 years ago, that a conservatism composed of evangelicals, corporate privatizers and Sun Belt suburbanites might capture the political high ground, today seems eerily prescient. As usual, we are stuck in the middle of history.